Malvinas-Falklands: Just More Demagoguery

Photo credit: blmurch / / CC BY

Photo credit: blmurch / / CC BY

The UK’s recent referendum in the Malvinas-Falklands suggests that neither side in the dispute is serious about finding a lasting solution.  Few observers were surprised that the overwhelming majority of the islands’ residents – all but three of the 1,517 persons casting ballots – would vote to “retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom.”  Since the war in 1982, London’s decision to station 8,000 troops (more than four times the local population) and decentralization of control over fisheries have enabled islanders to enjoy one of the hemisphere’s highest standards of living.  The UK government has encouraged a blossoming of British identity on the islands.

British and Argentine political leaders couldn’t resist the opportunity to demagogue the results of the referendum.  Prime Minister David Cameron said the islanders are “British through and through and that is how they want to stay,” and he warned that Argentina should take “careful note” because “we will always be there to defend them.”  In a series of 27 tweets in two hours, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner ridiculed the referendum.  “An English territory more than 12,000 kilometers away?” she asked.  “The question is not even worthy of a kindergarten of three-year-olds.”  She called the residents of the islands a “transplanted population.”  Foreign Minister Hector Timmerman threatened legal action against firms helping explore for oil around the islands, and both houses of the Argentine Congress voted unanimously to condemn the referendum.  Washington has stayed on the sidelines despite its strategic alliance with London and tensions with Buenos Aires.

Both countries have changed greatly since 1982, and the chance that the rhetoric will escalate into greater tensions seems remote.  But nationalism, symbolism and opportunism continue to dominate the Malvinas-Falklands issue 30 years after a war and in the second decade of a new century.  With their economies in bad shape, the current governments in both London and Buenos Aires may welcome the international distraction.  The prospect of rich offshore oil deposits around the islands has raised the stakes, with both countries accusing the other of wanting the islands merely for their natural resources.  Argentina, moreover, seems intent on pushing its neighbors into supporting its stance on the islands, exposing them to the contradiction between the two important principles at play – a historical claim of sovereignty versus a current referendum of clear popular will rejecting it.  Of the two corners that the UK and Argentina have painted themselves into, Argentina’s is more complex and will require a more patient, long-term approach involving, perhaps, United Nations mediation.  Kirchner has expressed hope that the new Pope could act as a mediator in the Falklands-Malvinas dispute, yet his Argentine nationality and past comments that the islands belong to Argentina make that implausible.  It is clear that putting the issue on the front burner and trying to drag the rest of the continent into the debate has not served Buenos Aires’ interests well.  The UK’s referendum is unhelpful, but President Kirchner still has room to tone down the rhetoric and threats, and avoid letting a tactical setback lead to a strategic blunder.  Chances of that happening are better under her successor, and the next election isn’t until 2015.


Argentina Foreign Policy – National Pride or Domestic Consumption?

Photo by Jonathan Huston

The stridency of Argentina’s foreign policy over the past two years suggests an effort by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to capitalize on elements of authentic nationalism and harness them into a durable political tool at home.  Buenos Aires has dialed up the pressure on the Falklands-Malvinas dispute with the United Kingdom by seeking regional support and calling for a boycott.  The nationalization of the holdings of Spain-based oil giant Repsol has also soured relations with several European states.  Recently, the Argentine government has assailed the impounding of an historical frigate, the Libertad, in Ghana by agents of an investment fund that owns defaulted Argentine sovereign debt, labeling them “vultures.”  Argentina has ramped up criticism of U.S. restrictions on its agricultural exports, as the two countries trade accusations in the World Trade Organization.

The conventional wisdom in Washington has been that President Fernández de Kirchner is picking fights abroad to distract attention from economic and political problems at home.  Following its record $100 billion default in 2001, Argentina remains locked out of most international financial markets despite deals to discount and reschedule much of that debt.  Inflation is high and capital flight is so serious that the government has imposed strict controls on sending dollars out of the country – a measure unpopular with the middle and upper classes.  These problems have taken a toll on the president’s popularity, as have intimations that she might change the Constitution to permit her to run for a third term.

The view from Washington misses a couple key points.  Many of these nationalist moves have been wildly popular – above all the Repsol decision.  To attribute them to President Fernández de Kirchner alone ignores deep feelings in Argentina that the country deserves greater respect than it gets, as well as the fact that since the peso crisis, rejection of the sort of “carnal relations” that President Carlos Menem had with Washington (in his own words) in the 1990s has grown strong.  The current foreign policy orientation harkens to a much longer tradition, from Peronism and beyond.  There is little chance that issues such as the Malvinas or the Libertad are going to make Argentines forget about everyday economic challenges.  Rather, they are a manifestation of an Argentine narrative in which the country is denied its rightful place in international politics and trade – and in which it is being held unfairly in the penalty box for the peso crisis.  The United States support for the billionaire investors and hedge fund managers who bought deeply discounted bonds but are demanding full payment, and Washington’s subsequent vote against loans Buenos Aires needs from international financial institutions, are playing into nationalist themes.  Fernández de Kirchner’s foreign policy rhetoric taps into resentment; she is hardly responsible for creating it.