BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – After attempting to break completely with his predecessor Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s policies on the Malvinas/Falkland Islands and take a softer stance, Argentine President Mauricio Macri has earned criticism not only from political opposition but even from within his own government.
In recent years, tensions had been rising over the question of the islands in the South Atlantic between Argentina and the United Kingdom.
Last year, Argentina labeled the nature of the British government as one of “warmongering and armamentism” after London said that it would modernize and reinforce its military power in the islands against “any possible future threat.” Sir Michael Fallon, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Defence, said that a bolstering of the British garrison on the islands was due to a “lively threat” from Buenos Aires.
That supposed threat stemmed from the UK’s allegations that Argentina was increasing military expenditure, and that was engaged in close negotiations with the Russian Federation over the delivery of new weaponry, including fighter jets. “The threat of an invasion remains, and it is a very live threat. We have to respond to it,” said Fallon.
“We need to modernize our defenses in the region to ensure that we have a sufficient troop presence there and that the islands are properly defended in terms of air defense and maritime defense. The threat remains but so does our commitment to the islanders, and to the idea that the islanders have the right to remain British and the right to proper protection by our forces,” he said.
In 2015, British media reported that Russia had reached an agreement with Argentina wherein the Eurasian power would lease to Argentina at least 12 Sukhoi Su-24 long-range supersonic bomber jets. The sensationalist London-based tabloid The Sun even reported that Argentina was planning to invade the islands once again, this time with Russian aid.
Fallon said reports of that type are “unconfirmed” but insisted that the United Kingdom should “take into account any possible threat.” As such, the air defense system would still be bolstered and the aerial presence of the British military strengthened in the region while Mount Pleasant Airport (and military base) would be modernized, along with the naval port of Mare. The cost of this, according to Fallon, is approximately 280 million GBP ($370 million USD) that will be spent over the course of the next 10 years
Agustín Rossi, the Argentine Defense Minister, qualified the British reports of increased militarization and another Argentine invasion of the islands as “pure madness” with no truth. “Essentially, if Britain decides to increase their presence in what is already one of the world’s most militarized zones, they wil be doing so due to so-called news reports found in trashy tabloids, something that is not based in any factual events,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Argentine Ambassador in London, Alicia Castro, said that her nation “represents no threat to peace in the region.”
“There will never be another war over the Malvinas. The only reason the first invasion ever occurred was because the military dictatorship (1976-1983) that brutally ruled over our nation wanted to stay in power, and even though Argentines want sovereignty for the islands, they certainly did not and do not want them through force,” she explained. “The constant upgrading of arms and facilities by the British now over unfounded fears is simply an excuse used by the military lobby to keep spending noney.”
That sort of strain on relations between the two nations was just the latest in a long line of bust-ups.
London alleged that the Argentine government was using the islands for nationalistic purposes to stir the populace and distract from other problems while Buenos Aires said that Britain was wanting to economically exploit the region for oil and that it was “warmongering in a zone of peace” through militarization and repeated military exercises on or near the islands; this included launching Rapier missiles, the same types that were used (and are still being used) by British forces in different theaters of war.
The center-right Mauricio Macri assumed power in December of 2015 after a narrow election victory and set about reversing much of the center-left Fernández de Kirchner’s economic, social, labor and foreign policies, which inevitably includes the issue of the islands.
In January, Macri met with then-British Prime Minister David Cameron in Davos for the World Economic Forum and the two conservatives showed signs of rapprochement. Just days later, however, Fallon visited the islands in a first for a Defense Minister in nearly 15 years and this occurred just weeks after Macri was inaugurated, meaning that his government and Argentine citizens alike classified this move as a clear act of symbolic provocation.
When Theresa May replaced Cameron as Prime Minister in July after the latter stepped down, the new British head of state reached out to Macri through a letter and called for more communication between the two nations. She urged for an increase in flights to the islands to and from Argentina (and other South American nations) as well as the lifting of restrictions on oil and gas exploration in the region.
At the moment, a Chilean airline company operates a weekly flight from Santiago to Stanley via the southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas. Once a month, the flight makes a scheduled technical stopover in the southern Argentine city of Río Gallegos, some 775 kilometers (480 miles) west of Stanley.
Last week, delegations from both nations met in New York after attending the United Nations General Assembly and Macri shared a chat with British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Shortly after, the Foreign Minister of Argentina Susana Malcorra welcomed the UK’s Minister of State for Europe and the Americas Alan Duncan to Buenos Aires where the two diplomats signed a letter of understanding that aims to improve bilateral relations.
Outlined in the document were, as asked, the provisions for more flights and a promise to “remove all the obstacles that limit the sustainable economic development and growth of the islands in the areas of trade, fishing, navigation and hydrocarbon exploration and extraction.” According to Malcorra, a “wider and more mature relationship with the United Kingdom” was the goal.
It was not made clear, however, what Argentina stands to gain in exchange for its concessions and the biggest topic at hand, the issue of the islands’ sovereignty, was not mentioned in the letter but Buenos Aires confirmed that the “question of the sovereignty of the Malvinas remains completely unchanged.”
This week, however, Malcorra was forced to go before Congress to explain the signing of the document and what the changes will mean.
Given how sensitive the issue of the Malvinas/Falklands War remains in Argentina, many organizations and political parties, including two in Macri’s coalition (ARI and UCR), voiced their concern and opposition to any deal made with the United Kingdom until London engages in bilateral dialogue with Buenos Aires over the sovereignty of the islands, something that the UK vehemently opposes.
Fearing parliamentary action as Macri’s coalition is a minority in both houses of Congress, Malcorra took a step back and said that the agreement signed between the two nations is “simply a joint statement that does not have any legal consequences.” This statement was echoed by Macri’s party colleague and interim Senate head, Federico Pinedo, and Macri himself later said that the “issue of sovereignty is permanent and non-negotiable.”
As pressure in Argentina built, Macri said that he asked May to “start an open dialogue that includes, of course, the theme of the islands, and May responded that the conversation must first begin.” Macri said that “these are things that take years to resolve” but “the important thing is that we have begun to speak.”
Once London rebuked all suggestions that any discussion took place concerning the sovereignty issue, more anger was felt in Buenos Aires and elsewhere in the country and several petitions to negate any agreement with the UK began to circulate. Macri’s government has been on the defense since and will certainly face more backlash if it eventually decides to legally ratify the agreement reached with the UK.
On April 2, 1982, Argentina, then controlled by a repressive right-wing military regime, invaded the British-held archipelago along with the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands. After 74 days of war, the British emerged victorious after Argentine forces surrendered. In the political sense, the defeat was one of the main reasons the military dictatorship fell the following year while Conservative rule in the UK was solidified.
In total, 649 Argentines lost their lives while the count was 255 on the British side, along with three residents of the islands. Of the fallen Argentines, 323 of them lost their lives in a single incident when the General Belgrano ship was controversially sunk on May 2.
The Malvinas/Falklands have been under British control since 1833, save for the two-and-a-half-month period when Argentina invaded and subsequently lost the 1982 war.
Argentina, on the other hand, maintains that the islands were taken illegally as they were a part of Colonial Spain’s Viceroyalty of the River Plate to which it belonged, meaning that upon the loss of Spain’s South American colonies in the early 1800s, the islands in question were transferred to the newly independent Argentina.
Argentina has repeatedly attempted to bring up the issue at the United Nations and has received support from a majority of countries. In June of 2014, the UN Decolonization Committee passed another resolution that called for the nations to engage in dialogue once again but Britain responded disregarded the notion and claimed that this kind of approach is “outdated” and “no longer relevant.”
The UK says there is no need for discussion as the inhabitants of the islands clearly want to remain under British rule. A referendum held in 2013 on the islands resulted in over 99% of the population voting to stay a part of the UK. Argentina, however, claims that in 1833, British forces displaced an Argentine settlement and have since occupied the islands colonially and implanted a British population there with no legal or historic rights.