They arrived in the cold hours before dawn last Friday, 4,500 Argentine marines determined to seize and occupy Britain’s Falkland Islands. Initially, world reaction to the invasion of the 200-island South Atlantic archipelago, populated mainly by penguins and 60,000 sheep, ranged from incredulity to hilarity. But the arrival of the Argentines was a deadly serious matter to the islands’ 1,800 British subjects whose ranks included 84 guards of the Royal Marines. The inhabitants responded with a three-hour gun battle which left at least one Argentine officer dead and at least two others wounded. Some residents had already buried arms caches. Others set off to block the airport’s runways. As well, a group of marines went into hiding in the hills. But before the day was over, the resistance was quelled and the Argentines claimed the Falklands’ 4,618 square miles.
By week’s end, the quarrel had escalated into a full-scale showdown between two of the world’s nuclear powers. As international leaders condemned the invasion, jubilant Argentines danced in the streets. Buenos Aires continued to off-load occupying troops from the fleet it had sent to the islands, a clear sign that it intends to stay. In Britain, where the Commons sat on a weekend for the first time since the 1956 Suez crisis, the mood was decidedly sombre. At 10 Downing Street, angry crowds gathered as the government severed diplomatic relations with
the invader. At least 35 British ships— the bulk of the navy—were dispatched to the South Atlantic, to be followed this week by the HMS Invincible on which Prince Andrew serves. Conceded a gloomy Defence Minister John Nott: “War is not inconceivable.”
The British also froze all Argentine assets in the United Kingdom and suspended export credits. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her government were pinning their real hopes for a solution on diplomatic pressures. But early attempts were not promising. U.S. President Ronald Reagan made a half-hour telephone call to Argentine President Leopoldo Galtieri the night before the attack, but he was unable to prevent the crisis. American diplomacy is also hampered by that country’s reliance on Argentine support in Central America. The American public also shares the widespread difficulty of taking the whole business seriously.
Ownership of the tiny islands has been disputed for centuries—well before Britain regained control over them from the newly independent Argentina in 1833. Since then, Britain’s claim to the islands has been backed by the islanders themselves. Before the invasion, their pro-British sentiments took such harmless forms as the UK OK wall slogans sprayed on the Argentine airline office in the capital, Port Stanley.
A similarly innocuous occurrence three weeks ago gave rise to the invasion. A group of Argentine scrap merchants arrived on one of the most re-
mote islands to disassemble an abandoned whaling station and, in the process, raised their national flag. When the British protested that the group had also bypassed British immigration, Argentina retorted that such observance was “unnecessary.” The incident might have blown over had Britain not diverted the patrol boat HMS Endurance to the area, sparking Argentina to send its fleet a week later.
Argentina’s motives for securing the prize are difficult to fathom. The Falklands are far from being a lost Atlantis. Even though geological studies indicate potential oil reserves around the islands, the never-ending jurisdictional dispute has prevented extensive exploratory drilling. In any case, Argentina ranks third in South America in oil production and it has large reserves of natural gas.
The main motive is probably national pride. All the country’s political parties, banned or not, agree with leftist leader Luis Leon, who called for an invasion the day the Argentine fleet left. Enthused Leon: “This is necessary for the preservation of our sovereignty.”
The invasion certainly succeeded in diverting the attention of Argentines from problems at home. Argentina is, in fact, in its worst recession in 50 years. Unemployment is at 15 per cent and inflation rose 2,300 per cent from 1978 to 1981. Last Tuesday the streets of Buenos Aires were clogged by the largest public protest against the ruling military junta since it took power in 1976. But after the invasion and a massive 48hour anti-British propaganda campaign, Argentines responded to the oc-
cupation with smug satisfaction, if not ecstatic glee. And at least one of the junta’s aims was accomplished—a general strike planned for next month was postponed.
Although Argentina’s military action was almost universally condemned, the ties binding the islanders to the mainland are stronger than the British have led the world to believe. Negotiations over sovereignty have been maintained for the past 15 years partially because the Argentine position does have UN support. The Falklands depend on Argentina for supplies and communications.
Far more complex is the role of the islands’ maj or corporation, the F alkland Islands Company (FIC), which runs the country like a feudal fiefdom. Owned by the British energy giant Coalite, FIC has been reluctant to enter into land-sharing programs, and reinvestment in the local economy is negligible. Islanders hint darkly that Coalite would accept limited Argentine sovereignty and a stable political climate in return for access to offshore oil reserves.
Despite Argentina’s role as the aggressor, Britain seemed to be the country that appeared in the worst light. Thatcher, her defence minister, and Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington were criticized for their lack of foresight in not protecting the islands. Questions were raised over why Britain treated the whaling station incident as a provocation in the first place. Britain also ignored the anti-British sentiment that flared up a week later in an attack on an English school in Buenos Aires. Even the embarkation of virtually the entire Argentine fleet on March 28 was not challenged.
For Britain, with only a dozen dependent territories left, the Argentine incident could not go unchallenged. The aging Imperial Lion has suffered too many recent goads—Guatemala’s claim on Belize, and Spain’s on Gibraltar—to let things blow over quietly. Stormed Nott: “The British never give orders to surrender.”
Meanwhile in Argentina, there was alarm at the rapid escalation of events. Though Britain’s navy is 6,000 nautical miles or up to two weeks sailing away, it is clearly the superior force. Britain’s troops outnumber the well-equipped U.S.-trained Argentines two to one. And, as one surprised officer who took part in the invasion told the Buenos Aires daily, Clarín: “What we believed would be a joyride turned into real armed combat. We did not want to kill anybody.” But it was clear that the clash of national egos will continue unless the hurt pride of both countries can be assuaged. That seems certain to involve some dexterous diplomacy at
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