May 23, 2013
Hate mail and hot air
The exchange of Malvinas hate mail, initiated by the Argentine president and then answered in kind through the offices of The Sun, Britain's largest tabloid newspaper, did not so much commemorate the war of 30 years ago as replay its emotions in the spirit of a viral tweet. Immolating the Union Jack and the pages of this newspaper on a radiant day in Buenos Aires provided an accompanying postcard, unedifying, unreal and mostly irrelevant.
There seems little purpose in dwelling on the contents of the communiqués. The two histories of the islands bifurcated long ago, and each side, Argentine and British, touts its preferred landmark dates with the fanaticism of an ancient Balkan feud. At which precise moment the islands ceased to be earth and rock, and fell into the embrace of a nation, is possibly a subject for serious scholastic dispute. At the same time, it does not bear inquiring too far back into the issue of rightful ownership or sovereignty in a hemisphere that was seized by thugs from Castile proclaiming their “requirements” to natives, who understood not a word of Spanish.
What is certain, however, is that this shadow dance of 18th and 19th century sailors and settlers provides a proxy for each side's incontestable truth. For Britain, there is no higher ground than the right to self-determination, and little doubt what the islanders will prefer in a referendum on the political status of the Malvinas that is due to take place in March. As for Argentina, whatever verbal contempt it receives from the “implanted” population counts little against the visual eloquence of an atlas. The country looms over the islands like Britain did, and does, over Ireland.
One does not choose between these two alienated facts so much as swallow one of them whole, depending on place of birth and the memory of 1982. This is a great pity, as I have observed before in this column. How extraordinary it would be for Britain to enjoy an organic tie to Latin America, or for Argentina to see itself pluralized through the inclusion of an English-speaking community. But since this level of accommodation currently seems less imminent than the Second Coming, we are left pondering a dirtier and more material matter. What is in it for the two sides? Why, exactly, should they expose their populations to this ritual of misunderstanding?
Tracing the British or Argentine intransigence to anything meaty and geo-strategic, like oil resources or South Atlantic hegemony, appears faintly ludicrous. It cannot have escaped notice in Buenos Aires that one of the oil firms exploring the seas around the islands saw its share prices chopped in half in November after poor results, nor that the British budget squeeze or both the Kirchners' indifference to military prowess makes neither fit for naval dominion over these seas.
Instead, the manner in which the dispute resurfaces, and the way in which it criss-crosses the ocean on hot gusts of mediatized rage, owes everything to the islands' use as a nationalistic neurotransmitter for a disgruntled public.
Having exercised its glories over a year marked by the Queen's Jubilee and the Olympics, Britain is flush with excitable patriotism. The fact that this coincides with a long economic slump and worries over the country's influence over world affairs only makes it more pronounced. The Falklands/Malvinas, for its part, offers a secure home for memory of doggedness and victory, which appeals to The Sun; and to the resurrection of Conservative Party fortunes, for which Prime Minister David Cameron longs.
As was the case for the ill-fated General Galtieri, the Argentine government's rationale is also steeped in domestic political calculation. To her credit, President Fernández de Kirchner offers no bellicose plan to back it up. More to the point, she does not seem to offer any plan at all. There is no sign of a military offensive, but neither is there much evidence of an attempt to open a channel of dialogue with the islanders, or the British in general. There is no sustained campaign to increase Argentina's international leverage — witness current diplomacy with Spain and the United States, or the way the Summit of the Americas last year simply shrugged off the issue —, nor, on the evidence of her Harvard grilling, does the Argentine president seem overly keen to make new friends abroad. In fact, the curiosity of these recurrent spats is the way in which Britain seems able to brush them away, and invoke the status quo with an extra helping of indignation: “Burn Us Aires,” as The Sun proclaimed on its front-page on Saturday.
Were that it, we might all just go home and wait for the next bout of miscommunication. But it also hard to erase the inkling that these spats might not just disappear into the digital afterlife, but combine over time, and in exceptional circumstances, into a populist riposte. Is a seaborne flotilla of unarmed Peronists aiming for the islands that unthinkable? Similarly, it is not too difficult to conceive a scenario in which Conservative Britain, dangling from the EU, ignored by Obama and with the Scots severing off, finds itself profoundly weakened — just as Spain was when the YPF nationalization broke last April.
Government papers, released at the end of last year, show that even at the height of war, Margaret Thatcher regarded a negotiated deal on the islands as “an acceptable price to pay.” It may be that the Argentine government is recklessly gambling on the same British pragmatism, and using the only threat it knows: the threat of itself.