A seismic shift 30 years after the Empire struck back

A seismic shift 30 years after the Empire struck back

Keeble McFarlane

Saturday, March 31, 2012

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The first moves in a most unlikely war in a most unlikely place began 30 years ago last week. The two combatants had enjoyed decades of normal, even cordial, relations and resumed relations eight years after the conflict ended. But recently, the party which started that war picked at the old scab and started aggravating it all over again.

On March 19, 1982, an Argentine scrap-metal dealer, Constantino Davidoff, led a team of iron workers to an old whaling station on the frigid, windswept island of South Georgia in the shadow of Antarctica, the coldest place on earth. The abandoned station was located at Gritviken, which was founded in 1904 to process whales and other marine mammals for their oil, meat and hides. It was closed in the mid-1960s when decades of whaling had taken a tremendous toll on the herds of animals in the cold southern waters.

Davidoff's men were there ostensibly to salvage metal from the old buildings and machinery, but their presence was a cover for an operation by the Argentine navy to secure their country's claim to South Georgia and the South Sandwich islands, as well as the Falkland Islands, to which those territories were attached for administrative purposes.

Argentina had long claimed the Falklands as its own territory, which it calls Las Islas Malvinas. During the 1970s, Britian had given off signals - perhaps inadvertently - that it was losing its centuries-old taste for Empire. It had declined to engage Argentina militarily after that country occupied Southern Thule - three islands in the South Sandwich chain, in 1976. It also planned to withdraw its last remaining navy vessel in the region, HMS Endurance, in 1982.

A new military junta under General Leopoldo Galtieri had taken over in Buenos Aires at the end of 1981. The previous junta had tortured and killed thousands of dissidents during the so-called "dirty war", and Galtieri wanted to spruce up the military's image. Argentina was also going through a serious economic crisis, with inflation running into the thousands of percentage points.

While covering the war, I would routinely obtain 12,000 Argentine pesos for one US dollar. And in the same way that someone today can tell you what a litre of gasoline or a pair of shoes costs, the average person in Buenos Aires could rattle off the exchange rates for half-a-dozen foreign currencies, and there was a cambio on almost every street corner, people preferring to patronise them rather than the banks.

The naval member of the junta, Admiral Jorge Anaya, was keen to undertake the "recuperation of the Malvinas" and ordered an invasion of the islands. The officer he put in charge, a Vice-Admiral Lombardo, insisted that they abandon the South Georgia operation and focus on the Falklands and the chief agreed. But according to an account published in The Guardian last week, Lombardo was dismayed to discover that a detachment of marines led by Lieutenant Alfredo Astiz had accompanied Davidoff's crew. In a display of bravado, Astiz raised the Argentine flag in Gritviken and gave the whole game away. He later got a life sentence for atrocities he committed during the dirty war.

Lombardo had to throw together an invasion without proper planning and preparation. It was doomed from the start. There was little time for diplomats to arrange a cover story; the air force didn't have sufficient helicopters and had not taken possession of all the Super Étandard fighter planes and Exocet missiles it had purchased from France and the army had not organised and trained an invasion force. In the end, The Guardian reports, the invasion took place on April 2 with a flotilla detached from exercises and loaded with conscripts under a junior commander.

The only holdout in the junta was the air force commander, Brigadier Basilio Lami Dozo. He understood the extent of Britain's military strength and its historic experience as a warrior nation, and didn't believe either that the timing was right or that the armed forces were ready for such an operation. As it turned out, it was only the professionalism of the air force which gave the British something to really worry about.

The British nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano (a World War Two vessel bought from the US) at a cost of 323 lives. The Argentine navy lost its stomach for war and ordered all its ships, including an aircraft carrier, to remain in port for the rest of the war. Two days later, an Argentine pilot retaliated by sending an Exocet missile into HMS Sheffield. Twenty British sailors died.

The Argentine invasion force consisted largely of poorly trained conscripts. The islands are cold and windswept, and the inadequately equipped soldiers were constantly cold and wet in their foxholes. The well trained and better armed British forces prevailed after 74 days of conflict.

General Galtieri was removed three days after the fall of the Falklands capital, Port Stanley, paving the way for the end of military rule in Argentina and the return of democracy with an election in 1983. It was the country's first free election in 10 years, and was part of a wave of change in which the military lost its image as the country's moral reserve.

The results for Britain were enormous. Planned cuts to the navy were reversed and never repeated. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose popularity had trailed the opposition for months, saw her ratings soar to the point where she won the election the next year by a landslide. London restored full British citizenship to the islanders and they enjoyed improvements in the economy as a result of British investments and economic liberalisation. In 1985 they got a new constitution which has been devolving power to them.

By 1990, London and Buenos Aires resumed diplomatic relations but the Falklands/Malvinas issue remained the chief irritant. Four years later, Argentina adopted a new constitution, which affirmed its claim to the islands, and the country treated the issue as a priority in subsequent years. In 2003 President Nestor Kirchner waged a spirited campaign on the issue and after his death, his widow, Cristina, took up the cause with renewed vigour. In 2008 she insisted that Argentina's claim to the islands was an "inalienable right" and denounced "the shameful presence of a colonial enclave in the 21st century".

She has had meetings with Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his successor, David Cameron, both of whom made it quite clear that there would be no talks over the sovereignty of the islands. She was visibly annoyed by Cameron's statement recently that "as long as the Falkland Islands want to be sovereign British territory, they should remain sovereign British territory - full stop, end of story." Her response was that he was "arrogant" and his remarks demonstrated "mediocrity and almost stupidity".

So the issue refuses to die - in fact, it has been given a jolt by the prospect of oil and gas in the seabed surrounding the islands. Argentina is now demanding that ships traversing its waters on their way to the Falklands, South Georgia and South Sandwich islands require permits. As the war of words heats up, with nearly all the heat coming from Buenos Aires, there is one almost sure thing - it will remain a war of words, since neither country wants a repeat of that sad, sorry episode in an out-of-the-way corner of the world.


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