Defending the Empire


FOR 74 DAYS LAST YEAR, the Falkland Islands provided most of the world with an unanticipated and unwelcome diversion. If would be optimistic to believe that the intervening period has brought the solution closer to a real resolution, but time has simply hardened both adversaries positions. While Britain and Argentina remain even more adamant than before about their respective rights to the islands, the ripples circling away from the South Atlantic have caused internal and external policy shifts within each country, and further disturbed the Reagan Administration's already troubled efforts in Latin America. There eventually will be a solution to the Falklands Crisis, but the most recent culmination of a century and a half of dispute has clearly pushed that off to somewhere in the distant future.

It's been slightly over a year since General Leopoldo Galtieri, in an attempt to reassert a long-standing claim of Argentine sovereignty and to revive his flagging political fortunes, ordered an invasion of the Falkland Islands. Galtieri managed to turn angry demonstrations over a disintegrating economy and the unexplained disappearance of some 6000 Argentine citizens into adulatory displays of patriotism in a matter of days. It was a clever sleight-of-hand that succeeded, temporarily at least, in diverting the country's attention from the economic and political horror that had engulfed it since the military seized power from Isabel Peron in 1976.

Eight thousand miles away, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher herself standing on shifting political soil, drew Britannia's rustling sword from its scabbard and let a righteous charge in the name of self-determination that lifted her national prestige to a level from which it has yet to substantially descend.

General Galtieri's deservedly abyssmal reputation and the clearly aggressive nature of the Argentine action made the casting of the villain in the Falklands war a fairly easy task for the casual Western observer; the sight of the British fleet steaming away from Portsmouth Harbor to the defense of this last vestige of the Empire made choosing the hero similarly uncomplicated. Behind this simplistic facade, however, lay a hundred years of British foot-dragging and neglect, and a tangled web of alliances and implications that involved North America as well as Europe and which will continue to reverberate through the hemisphere for quite some time to come.

Dispute over the archipelago is not a new issue. The British claim to have sighted the Falklands in the late 1500s and the islands alternated between English and Spanish control until they were colonized by Argentina in 1830 after the Spanish left the area. Shortly thereafter in 1833 the British army drove off the members of the colony and hoisted the Union Jack. Argentina has never ceased to believe that it is the rightful owner of the islands and for 150 years there has been no dispute within the country concerning the legitimacy of its claim.

In Britain, however prior to the war the subject of the Falklands had provoked little if any interest, and other than a small but vociferous group of supporters in Parliament the majority of the population remained ignorant of the existence of the islands. The British, facing austerity at home, were unprepared to invest the necessary money to develop the islands, yet apparently unable to make a serious effort to divest themselves of the territory. In the meantime they stalled negotiations with the Argentinians.

After the British announced they were withdrawing their only naval vessel in the area, General Galtieri, increasingly aware of the tenuous position he held within his own country, decided it would be a propitious time to invade.

FOR APPROXIMATELY a year before the war, the Reagan Administration, primarily in the person of United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, had been vigorously courting Argentina. Kirkpatrick, hoping to gain practical support for the United States positions concerning Nicaragua and El Salvador, was laying the groundwork for lifting the arms embargo imposed by Jimmy Carter, and according to Argentine sources, had indicated that the U.S. would give any military excursion to the Falklands a sympathetic hearing. But the magnitude of the British response put the United States in the difficult position of deciding where its loyalties lay in the conflict--realizing that in supporting Britain it would seriously jeopardize its relationship with most of Latin America and set back its improving relations with Argentina. The struggle that developed within the Reagan Administration between British backer Alexander Haig and Kirkpatrick embarrassed the United States in the United Nations and contributed indirectly to Haig's eventual resignation.

A year later, as contradictory signals emanate from Argentina, the long term effects of the United States decision to back the British are still unclear. Ronald Reagan made an attempt to mend some fences on his trip to Latin America last year, and Argentinian-trained insurgents supplied with U.S. arms were responsible for the destruction of port installations at Puerto Cabeza in Nicaragua in 1983. Funding for training Argentinian soldiers is included in the current Reagan budget, some economic limitations have been lifted, and the President would clearly like to loosen arms restrictions Argentina, however, has been making friendly overtures to Cuba and has refused to participate in hemispheric naval exercises as a protest against past and present United States support for Great Britain.

General Galtieri faded from the political landscape shortly after Argentinian troops began to disappear from the Falkland Islands. The military still retain control of the country, but Galtieri's successor, General Reynaldo Bignone, has been operating from a very different position from that of his predecessor. The defeat in the Falklands reinforced the hostile civilian attitude toward the military government that was prevalent before the war and Bignone has been feeling very serious pressure, both politically and economically. During the past year, inflation in Argentina hovered at 210 percent while the country suffered a severe recession.

The question of the fate of those who disappeared during the 1970s has also lost none of its urgency, and the discovery of a thousand of the missing buried in mass graves has begun to confirm the awful suspicions of many Argentinians. Bignone initially promised elections and a return to civilian rule in March of 1984, but the date has been steadily advanced, and voting is now scheduled for October of this year. Most restrictions on the press have been lifted, and with some exceptions, political parties have regained the right to public association and expression. The country is some distance from democracy, but it appears to be moving in that direction, and ironically enough the reduction in the domination of the military can be directly attributed to the loss in the Falklands.

THROUGHOUT the past year, Thatcher has been pushing the Parliamentary advantage the British victory gave her with her usual political acuity. Making an unannounced trip to the Falklands in early January, she reaffirmed her image as a leader and a liberator in the eyes of the islanders and the British population who supported her position during the war: she then returned home to have her conduct further justified by the report of the Franl's Commission on the Falklands Crisis. The Commission exonerated her Government and her Foreign Minister Lord Carrington and essentially avoided pointing the finger at anyone other than Leopoldo Galtieri. Britain's economic problems still dog the Prime Minister's heels, but she retains a 10-percent edge in recent polls over both the Labour Party and the Social Democrats, and the glory she gained during the war shows no real signs of diminution.

On the windswept pastures of the Falkland Islands themselves. British troops are searching for and defusing the approximately 12,000 land mines that the Argentinians indiscriminately scattered along the expected path of the British attack. Large numbers of the mines will never be found, remaining as silent and deadly reminders of the irrevocable change that the war has brought to the islands. There are 4300 soldiers garrisoned on what has come to be known as "Fortress Falklands," and the troops, the Harrier jets, and Rapier anti-aircraft missiles are eloquent witness to the British determination to hold on to what they won at such terrible cost.

There will be no negotiations over the Falklands in the near future--for the British, that would be a travesty of the lives lost in conquest--but England will eventually relinquish the islands as surely as it now controls them. The conviction that the Falklands are Argentinian is not just the province of a fascist dictatorship, but the heartfelt belief of all of Argentina's citizens and the concern of past and future democratic governments. When the economic burden of holding the islands becomes too great for the British, the process of negotiation that should have been taking place a year ago will finally resume. In the interim, Argentina stumbles back toward the democratic process, Margaret Thatcher rises above the opposition on the backs of British soldiers. Ronald Reagan pursues the option of war by proxy in Central America, and the Falklands remain a sad testament to intransigence, ambition, and stupidity.