Can Argentina find a constructive way to engage with the Falkland Islanders?

There must be another way. Reuters/Enrique Marcarian

The Falkland Islands have attracted international media attention once again, with British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon paying a visit. Under the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, this would have been highly provocative, but with a new government in place, Argentina made little fuss over it – and Fallon made headlines for suggesting that the greatest threat to the Falklands’ future was Jeremy Corbyn, the UK’s opposition leader.

Perhaps the new Argentine government’s relative calm during Fallon’s visit indicates a chance for real engagement between the Falkland Islands and Argentina. Since Mauricio Macri was elected president of Argentina in December 2015, there has been some stock-taking over the country’s policy towards the Falklands (known in Argentina as Islas Malvinas), which became extravagantly hawkish during the reign of Nestor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

From the perspective of the Islanders and some British commentators, Argentina’s abrasive approach to the resolution of the sovereignty question has been wholly counter-productive. The aggressive rhetoric from Buenos Aires in recent years has been matched by the British prime minister’s robust defence of the Islanders’ right to self-determination.

Clearly, the three sides (the governments of Argentina, the Falkland Islands and the UK) are no closer to meaningful dialogue. Indeed, life on the islands over the last 12 years has been constantly inconvenienced as Argentina has disrupted trading links and plans for oil exploration.

Paradoxically, the approach has guaranteed the people who live on the Falklands a certain amount of security. The UK government has committed to retaining its military presence there, which was woefully inadequate when Argentina invaded in 1982. Far from “strangling” the Falklands, the measures have emboldened the Islanders, who now exhibit an unprecedented level of confidence.

That confidence was on full display in 2013 when they organised a referendum on the islands’ future, in which they voted overwhelmingly to remain as a British Overseas Territory.

Getting the vote out in Port Stanley, 2013. Reuters/Marcos Brindicci

This was a global media coup for the Islanders, and David Cameron continues to reference it in almost any statement related to the islands.

Meanwhile, some in Argentina, particularly vehement supporters of the last administration, insist on emphasising the successes of their diplomatic campaign, citing the verbal support the nation received for its sovereignty claim at bilateral, regional and international forums. Despite the bluster, these diplomatic overtures have yielded no tangible results – aside from pushing the Islanders further away from Argentina and strengthening the UK’s resolve to protect them.

So near, and yet so far

With such a wide diplomatic gulf between the respective governments, attempts to bring Argentines and Falkland Islanders closer together have largely stalled. Citizen-led initiatives launched from Argentina have been viewed with considerable suspicion on the islands, given the Argentine government has looked to frame the connections and parallels between various aspects of the islands and the south of Argentina as part of their case for sovereignty.

For instance, the Malvinas museum inaugurated in Buenos Aires in 2014 includes a section mapping the migratory patterns of various fauna native to the South Atlantic to illustrate how they move between coastal areas of the islands and Argentina – a bizarre way to underscore Argentina’s “natural” sovereignty over the islands.

Argentina even deployed some creative mapping during an event staged at the UN, to draw imagined bridges between the Falklands, Antarctica and the South American continent.

The Argentine government has also called on a handful of citizens to illustrate the historical familial links between the islands and Argentina, once again with the ulterior motive of underlining its sovereignty claim.

These connections, which started with farming and trading links in the early 19th century and endured in one form or another up until hostilities in 1982, have been curtailed in recent years. That said, there are a number of Argentines still living on the islands, while a handful of Islanders choose to travel to and study in Argentina.

Exploiting these human and environmental interactions for geopolitical gain does nothing to build trust and cross-community understanding. And, as with so many of Argentina’s recent strategies in relation to the Falklands, it will continue to have the reverse effect. Far from encouraging citizens to entertain peaceful and productive relationships with each other, this approach to history only instils reticence and mistrust – especially among the Islanders.

Reaching out

If there’s ever going to be citizen-to-citizen dialogue in the South Atlantic, a different approach is needed. Argentina’s new government might offer the political climate for a gradual sea-change, despite Macri committing to uphold the constitutional requirement to reclaim the Falklands and other south Atlantic territories.

Might Argentina now be able to acknowledge the distinctive social, political and cultural elements of the Falkland Islands, alongside the shared regional histories, in a way that is not driven by its territorial aspirations? It would be especially productive to move away from the Kirchner-era obsession with highlighting similarities and connection between the communities.

In order to improve the chances of dialogue, Argentina must be willing to understand and embrace the Falklands community. The government would do well to heed the example of Argentine journalist Natasha Niebieskikwiat, whose book Kelpers looks to provide an understanding of the Falklands from the perspective of the people who live there.

The damage done to bilateral relations between the Falkland Islands and Argentina in recent years, alongside the way Argentina has looked to construct its geopolitical case for sovereignty, have made Islanders reluctant to participate in any sort of dialogue. Now is the time for Argentina to show them it’s ready to learn about its neighbours – without geopolitical strings attached.

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