Coffee House

A new Argy-bargy

2 April 2012

Another article to mark the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War
— this one from the current issue of the magazine. It’s by John Simpson and analyses the current tensions between Britain and Argentina.

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is as exhilarating, as unpredictable, as stylish as ever. But the economic boom is over. Times are hard once again, more shops in Calle Florida are boarded up, the sales are pretty
frantic. And so, as Jorge Luis Borges, the blind sage of Calle Maipu, just off the superb Plaza San Martin, once remarked: ‘When Argentina’s economy goes bad, you can be sure that
nationalism will soon be beating its wings.’

Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, beautiful, combative and ruthless, was already pretty nationalistic when the economy was doing well. In 2007, when her late husband was
still president, she and he unilaterally cancelled the agreement with Britain that the two countries should co-operate on oil exploration around the Falkland Islands. That decision, taken precisely
in order to provoke a nationalistic row over the islands, led directly to today’s deadlock. And of course it’s in good time for Monday: the 30th anniversary of the invasion.

If Argentina wants a row, there’s not much that anyone can do to stop it. No one is seriously suggesting that President Fernandez will launch another military invasion of the Falklands. For a
start, her air force still largely consists of the same planes that it had back in 1982. Anyway, one of her genuine successes has been to keep the armed forces out of Argentine politics. Nowadays,
you scarcely ever see a military uniform on the streets.

Instead, la divina Cristina’s success has been diplomatic, not military. Countries in Latin America which were supportive of Britain in 1982 now make public statements backing Argentina. They
don’t necessarily mean them. Argentina is a difficult country to get on with, and President Fernandez is much too friendly with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and edging disturbingly close to him
politically, for most Latin American countries to be happy about it.

Claim your gift

But Latin America is changing. It’s starting to get a better sense of itself, and countries like China and India are becoming more important to them. China, indeed, is hoovering up the raw
materials of many South American countries at an enormous rate, and their governments, grateful for the cash, regard this as a good thing. ‘Why should we be interested in old, declining
countries like Britain?’ a radio journalist in Buenos Aires asked recently. ‘We are the future.’

It used to be that, in dealing with Argentina, Britain could always rely on the support of three South American nations — Chile, Peru and Colombia — and the benign neutrality of two
others, Brazil and Uruguay. In 1982, during the Falklands conflict, Chile even did some serious sabre-rattling in Britain’s support, so that Argentina had to station its best troops along the
Andes to make sure that the Chileans didn’t invade. Colombia used its influence at the UN. Brazil and Uruguay allowed all sorts of dodgy British flights to land in their territory until
Argentine intelligence found out and made a fuss.

And now? A majority of the entire continent supports Argentina’s claim to the islands. A week ago, Peru refused to allow a Royal Navy ship to use its ports. Chile is considering an Argentine
request to cut the Falklands’ civilian lifeline, the weekly flight from Santiago. In private, Brazil, Chile, Peru and other countries shuffle their feet when the British ambassador comes
round. ‘You know how it is — Argentina is a nuisance, but we’re expected to show a bit of solidarity. Anyway, it doesn’t mean anything: the Argies will never invade

They’re right — but the big danger for British policy now isn’t military, it’s diplomatic. Although we’re supposed to be so good at diplomacy, we’ve let this one
slip badly. Our attention has been on all sorts of other things over the past few years: Iraq, Afghanistan, Europe. Anything except Latin America. And if we aren’t careful, the islands will
become a serious embarrassment in our relations with countries in the region that are starting to count for a good deal. Being forced to choose between better links with an entire continent and the
entirely legitimate rights of the 3,140 islanders could prove difficult.

There’s another threat, which worries some people at the Foreign Office. With the anniversary of the invasion imminent, there is at least the possibility that Argentine nationalists will
carry out a major stunt. There are no signs that it is about to happen, and it never may. But it could; and it would cause Britain a good deal of awkwardness if it did.

The Foreign Office’s anxiety is that a bunch of Argentine volunteers will charter a plane to the Falklands and demand to land there. Will the British forces on the islands shoot the plane
down? Of course not. Will they refuse it permission to land? Difficult, if it doesn’t have enough fuel to get back to Argentina. If it is allowed to land, how will they deal with the
more-or-less peaceful invaders? You can see how it could all turn into a big embarrassment. And we wouldn’t have any support from a single country in the region.

Carlos Menem, Argentina’s president from 1989 to 1999, was a mildly absurd figure, but he knew how to put the country back on track after the disasters of military rule. In particular, he set
out to resolve the problem of the Falkland Islands in partnership with Britain. The two countries agreed to set to one side the issue of sovereignty, and create better relations between the islands
and the mainland, and between themselves. It worked well; until 2007, that is, when Argentina dumped the whole policy.

Even before that, Britain had taken its eye off the ball in Latin America. Now it really has to start hard diplomatic work again. The drink-sodden military junta which invaded the Falklands in 1982
for want of anything better to do believed that Britain didn’t really care about the islands. It took a thousand deaths to demonstrate that this wasn’t true. Letting things slip again
could have dangerous consequences.

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. 

Give the perfect gift this Christmas. Buy a subscription for a friend for just £75 and you’ll receive a free gift too. Buy now.

Show comments
  • DavidDP

    “I think we should compromise on sovereignty.”

    Argentina doesn’t want to share sovereignty though (see, for example, their withdrawal from the shared resource agreement). So where does that leave your proposal?

  • rosie


    Most interesting to see you say this:

    “Unclear how true all this is.
    No Latin diplomat went to hear the Presidential speech yesterday.
    As with Reagan in ’82 so with Obama now.
    We are all charmed by your Queen Elizabeth and that shy Samantha.”

    I remember it being just the same in 1982. We were all told again and again about the Latin American solidarity against us, but every time we met Latin Americans they urged us on to give the hated Argies hell. They seemed to feel more passionate about it than we did.

  • REPay

    Does no one recognize the concept of self-determination? This is the key issue and no one is mentioning it!

    Kirschner is a thief – she stole from (nationaliized) private pensions and no one knows where all the money is but some is with her entourage. Luckily for her she is left wing so will never get a hard time from the media.

  • Andy Carpark

    Stupid woman rattles sabre.

    daniel maris: ‘I think we should compromise on sovereignty.’

    Hoodies burn down suburb.

    daniel maris: ‘I think we should compromise with the hoodies.’

    Purple blob gets out of flying saucer, leers, and says, ‘We mean no harm to your people’.

    daniel maris: ‘I think we should compromise with the purple blob.’

    daniel maris is strapped to a waterboard and threatened with an enema of cold Guinness.

    daniel maris: ‘I think we should compromise with the enema of cold Guinness.’

    etc etc etc

  • Noa.

    Daniel Maris

    “I think we should compromise on sovereignty. Offer some sort of co-dominium as in New Britain…”.


    Six foot by six foot by three foot is the appropriate per head allocation in normal circumstances, Daniel.

  • Hugh

    It is worth noting that HMS Dragon, the fourth Type 45 is due to be commissioned at the end of this month.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    Hmm, BBC man analyses situation. Decides that everyone hates us (hoorah!) and we’ve fckd the situation up. Gives space to the FCO surrender monkeys without actually advocating surrender himself.

    Desperate limp stuff from Another Voicenick.

  • John Jefferson Burns

    Unclear how true all this is.
    No Latin diplomat went to hear the Presidential speech yesterday.
    As with Reagan in ’82 so with Obama now.
    We are all charmed by your Queen Elizabeth and that shy Samantha.

  • Lance-Corporal Jones

    They don’t like it up-em

  • Richard Manns

    Where the hell are a few hundred nationalist Argentinians supposed to get a disposable passenger jet from? And since the only real answer is ‘the government’, it will look like a Bay of Pigs-style joke.

    I can’t imagine something more embarrassing for de Kirschner’s government, really.

    As for the diplomatics, Andrew ‘blogoir’ Crawford knows that our Foreign Office collectively dissolved their brains in PC boll*cks for 13 years, so Hague’s got his job cut out just reminding them what their job is, let alone how to do it.

  • Dimoto

    toco –
    spot on. Seems his eyesight has gone too.

    The Kirchners are unreconstructed Peronist crypto-fascists – the party of the corrupt Argentine mob.
    To play their silly games or pander to them, would devalue the sane voices in Argentina.

    Notice that bit about Argentina being the “future” ? Pure Juan Domingo, vintage 1950.
    Like you-know-who, the Peronists have a long tradition of bringing their country’s economy to it’s knees – it won’t be long now.

    Then watch the other Latin American republics peel away.

  • daniel maris

    I think we should compromise on sovereignty. Offer some sort of co-dominium as in New Britain. Argentina could be allowed to develop West Falklands, where there are few British islanders. The wealth of the seas could be shared 50-50.

    Of course, it would require some guarantees – about the right of the islanders to decide their future, disposition of military forces and so on. But with good will it could be made to work.

  • Noa.

    Irascible Old Git

    “ a referendum on the Islands for the Falklanders to determine their own future…”.

    Dave is not noted for his support of referendums. Perhaps appointing Alex Salmond as the next governor there would change that…

  • toco

    John Simpson always thought he was more important than the news and this aged hack has just surpassed himself in terms of plumbing the depths of crass opportunistic journalism.A drowning man realising he is never to bounce back above the surface but he will be seen as being a traitor to his country.A terrible end to a very ordinary job as a sometime correspondent.

  • toco

    20 years ago the BBC spent say 7% of our licence fees on news related programmes- now it is say 70% given its fair allocation of burgeoning overheads.We shall never see great sports commentators,drama programmes,childrens’ programmes and documentaries on the BBC again.It is time to protect licence payers against the creeping propaganda of the grotesquely paid leftist news hacks.

  • Irascible Old Git

    Good, informative piece from Mr Simpson.

    Diplomatically, we’ve been left at the races recently, but all we have to do is resubmit our claim to the International Court of Justice – as Britain did in three times during the late 1940s and early 1950s – and see if Argentina finally does the same.

    Oh, and call a referendum on the Islands for the Falklanders to determine their own future.

  • Dennis Churchill

    The Argentine claim should be referred to as a colonial claim and their their policy an imperialist policy.
    The subject of independence for the Falklands,with military guarantees, could also wrong foot them.
    Last time it was their Italian sounding president this time their German sounding president; neither is likely to have family ties with Argentina as long as many Falklanders have with their Island.
    Maybe Chile is next on Argentina’s list of claims.

  • Dennis Churchill

    The emphases needs to be on the lack of legitimacy of Argentina’s claim.Argentina, in its present form, did not exist when Britain claimed the Falklands and the indigenous population do not want to be part of Argentina.

  • Dennis Churchill

    Why are comments not being accepted?

  • Yow Min Lye

    The Argentines could learn a few valuable lessons from the Palestinians.

    In particular, stunts designed to highlight the ‘issues’ and drum up warm words from the ‘international community’ may sound impressive, but they will do naff all to improve the lives of ordinary Argentinians.

    So how about ditching all this breast-beating ‘Las Islas Malvinas son Argentinas’ crap and start working together with the Falkland Islanders instead.

  • Noa.

    What is the position of the Labour party is to the current situation in the Falklands? As in other sensitive matters that might reveal either their patriotism or backbone, they seem to have been curiously quiet about the current Argentine agitprop.

    Curiously their website does not seem to have an enquiry facility for the casual visitor. Perhaps we should just put suchdifficult questions directly to Mr McCluskey for ease of communications?

  • Andrew Shakespeare

    “If it is allowed to land, how will they deal with the more-or-less peaceful invaders?”

    Grant them all asylum?

  • Heartless Curmudgeon

    No need to worry whatever! Rest easy those of true heart and English Spirit!

    We have the H2B and the Baroness Private Plane on our side. Who could resist such an onslaught!

    One spouts inane piffle, the other works, with a staff of thousands, from some ridiculously appointed floor in Brussels.

  • Swiss Bob

    Having been on 48hr standby to go memories of that war still send shivers up my spine.

    The FI have a bright future, I’m tempted to ship off there myself.

Can't find your Web ID? Click here