Two months before the thirtieth anniversary of the brief naval conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands, the issue of conflicting territorial claims has arisen again. The catalyst for the latest chapter in the Falklandic saga is Britain’s decision to station Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, second in line to the throne, in the South Atlantic archipelago colony as part of his military service. Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, pointed to the fact that William has been photographed in uniform on his deployment, referred to his arrival as a deliberately provocative “militarization” of the Falklands by the British, and compared him to a conquistador. Coming amidst growing British exploration of oil reserves in the South Atlantic, William’s deployment has become the occasion for a reassertion of Argentina’s claim to the islands they call the Islas Malvinas.
Prince William dressed like a search-and-rescue pilot or,
as Argentina sees it, as a conquistador
However, it is not clear that it was a deliberate provocation. More likely, no one in the U.K.’s Foreign Office or at Buckingham Palace considers Argentina’s claims anything except a nuisance that can be safely ignored. For the most part, they are right (and certainly they probably never predicted that William’s antipodean stint would be more controversial than his younger brother Prince Harry’s combat deployment to Afghanistan). Argentina is nonetheless now planning to bring the Falklands dispute before the United Nations, though Fernández has ruled out her country seeking a military solution.
Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner
What is at the root of the dispute? The Falklands, a remote windswept territory not far from the Antarctic Circle, were uninhabited until the modern period. The French established the first settlement, Port Louis, in 1764, and two years later the British claimed the islands, unaware that the French were already in there. In 1767, France sold the Falklands to the Spain, which placed it under their colonial administration based in Buenos Aires, in what later became Argentina. In 1770, Spanish forces expelled the British settlers from their Falklands settlement at Port Egmont, nearly bringing the two kingdoms to war—this near the end of a long century during which the Spanish and British empires battled each other on various fronts for global naval supremacy. The settlers were allowed back, but the British pulled out militarily in 1774 as they concentrated their naval strength in preparing for a looming American Revolution. However, Britain still asserted a claim on the islands—as did the Spanish, when they departed the Falklands in 1811. In 1820, four years after Argentina’s declaration of independence, a Connecticut-born naval mercenary named David Jewett was swept off course to land on the once-again-uninhabited archipelago and raised the Argentine flag, claiming the Falklands for his employers, the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata, as the young fledgling nation governed from Buenos Aires was then known. After a United States warship destroyed a new Argentine settlement in 1831 and declared the Falklands to be a no-man’s-land, Argentine and British merchants and other settlers gradually moved back and lived side by side in the Falklands until the Argentine settlement was wiped out in an attack by “creole” and Indian underlings who had been armed by American seal-hunters. By the time the British established the archipelago’s first permanent colony in 1840, which grew and throve, there were no Argentinians left.
Incidentally, the Falklands aren’t the only example of Argentina’s overextended borders. In 1985, Pope John Paul II had to intervene to settle a territorial dispute between Argentina and Chile over three minuscule Tierra del Fuego islets, Picton, Nueva, and Lennox (Chile got them), and Argentina’s claims to the south do not stop at the Falklands but include also the even more remotely southern South Georgia and South Sandwich archipelagoes (parts of the Falkland Island Dependencies that were eventually made a separate overseas U.K. territory) and even all the way to the South Pole via a sizable triangular slice of the Antarctic pie—in confict with other claims and also in defiance of international agreements that the Antarctic mainland belongs to no nation.
The official Argentine version of its own land and marine territories
The issue of sovereignty over the Falklands lay dormant until Argentina initiated ultimately fruitless U.N.-moderated talks in the 1960s. In 1982, the neo-Perónist fascist-style military junta that had taken over Argentina whipped up nationalist feeling by invading and claiming not only the Falklands but the even South Georgia and South Sandwich islands as well. The whole affair ended as anyone could have predicted: the U.K. easily recaptured the islands after a brief war. There were about 900 casualties, most of them Argentinian.
Interestingly, during and after the war there was some sympathy for Argentina among students and leftists in the U.S. and Europe. There are probably two reasons for this. First, the deeply unpopular right-wing Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of the U.K. at the time, and it was easy to assume that she must be on the wrong side of any issue—especially in South America, where she was cosy with Chile’s blood-soaked dictator, Augusto Pinochet. Second, the U.S. was at this time escalating a series of brutal and messy anti-Communist proxy wars in Central America as part of Ronald Reagan’s Cold War version of the Monroe Doctrine. Doubtless this contributed to the climate in which Argentina challenged the British, and for many American leftists a pro-Argentinian position fit their existing political narrative. This despite the fact that the Argentine junta was in some ways more right-wing even than Thatcher or Reagan, and despite the fact that the vast majority, if not every man jack, of the Falklands population preferred being part of the U.K. In the 1980s, Latin Americans had many legitimate grievances against U.S. and western European foreign policy. But the Falklands issue was not one of them.
Flag of the Falkland Islands
An interesting parallel situation is Gibraltar, a two-and-a-half-square-mile peninsular rock attached to the Spanish mainland, with a town built atop it. It was captured by the British in 1704 during the War of Spanish Succession and formally ceded to Britain by Spain at the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. British sovereignty over this mostly self-governing territory has over the centuries been a thorn in the Spanish side, resulting in several failed military attempts to retake it and, more recently, frequent diplomatic fusses over it as an anachronistic remnant of European internal colonialism. Its 29,000 residents are a mix of different Mediterranean ethnicities and cultures, speaking a Spanish creole called Llanito alongside the official English. In 2002, the Spanish and U.K. governments agreed, after long negotiations, to share sovereignty over the territory, pending a local vote on the question. But in the ensuing referendum, with a voter turnout of 87.9%, more than 98% of Gibraltarians rejected the plan in favor of the status quo. (Usually, one never sees such election results unless there’s some dictatorship cooking the numbers, but there wasn’t.) So there the matter stands. The British government also opposes integrating it more closely into the U.K. (for example, making it an English county like the Isle of Wight, as some Gibraltarians would like), since of course that would only needlessly antagonize Spain, and has also said that independence, should Gibraltarians ever desire it, would require Spain’s consent. In any case, there is no independence movement to speak of in the colony.
Spain’s (very Argentina-like) noise-making over Gibraltar puts it on pretty thin ice given its own position on Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish municipalities located on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, which are the last European territorial possessions on the African mainland. Along with scattered islands off the coast, they are collectively known as the Plazas de Soberanía (literally, Sovereign Territories) and used to be effectively submerged by the surrounding colony of Spanish Morocco, which included the northern tip of what is now Morocco, including Tangier. In 1956, Spanish Morocco and French Morocco were decolonized simultaneously and merged as today’s Kingdom of Morocco. But Morocco claims that the deal should have included Ceuta and Melilla and possibly the other islands as well. Spain points out that the territories were never part of Spanish Morocco per se and—unlike, say, Tangier—have always been Spanish settlements, with even today no significant indigenous Arab populations (though there are small minorities of Berbers and Jews). Polls consistently show residents of the territories overwhelmingly in favor of remaining part of Spain, and the Spanish government and public on the mainland tends to agree. Morocco never fails to point out Spain’s hypocrisy in claiming Ceuta and Melilla while also disputing British rule in Gibraltar.
In 2002, Moroccan forces occupied Isla de Perejil, an uninhabited rocky islet between Gibraltar and Morocco which was claimed by both Spain and Morocco. Within a week, the Spanish military had retaken the island without resistance and held some Moroccan forces prisoner. Colin Powell, the U.S. Secretary of State, successfully mediated the dispute, and today the Isla de Perejil remains one of the few examples of an internationally recognized no-man’s-land. After that, Morocco has had not much appetite to press the issue of the other islands or Ceuta and Melilla.
The flag of Ceuta
But back to the South Atlantic: the Falklands, like Gibraltar, have no interest in independence, since they already feel more than a little vulnerable. The 3,000 or so Falkland Islanders are overwhelming British in descent. (There are some Latin American immigrants, mostly Chilean, but no descendants of the original Argentine settlements.) Falklanders were granted full U.K. citizenship just after the war, and they even enjoy membership in the European Union (though they use their own currency, the Falkland Islands pound). The latest claims from President Fernández that the British are practicing old-style colonialism in the Falklands is a bit far-fetched. The British have already said that they would entertain the idea of independence or return to Argentine rule if Falklanders wished it (though, honestly, why in God’s name would they?). The British government’s generous position on Gibraltar, its relinquishment of Hong Kong to the world’s most brutal dictatorship twelve years ago, and now its grudgingly permitting Scotland—Scotland!—to hold a binding referendum on independence (see my recent post on this) indicate that, almost more than any other country in the world, the U.K., despite its often bloody colonial past, is now deeply unwilling to rule any territory against the will of its people. The jingoists in Argentina have never come up with an answer to that one, and I doubt they ever will.