The buffers in the train station in Buenos Aires tell a story of friendship between nations. “Ransomes & Rapier Ltd. Ipswich 1913 England”, reads a stamp in the blackened iron. The terminus itself was built largely in Liverpool and shipped here for assembly. Just outside, meanwhile, stands the “Tower of the English” in brick and Portland stone.
But to visit the 250ft monument today, built in 1916 by British residents of Buenos Aires as a gift to the country they loved, is to be reminded of the fraying of those bonds.
It was after the Falklands War that the name was changed to the “Torre Monumental” – all reference to the English was erased. The war was over 30 years ago yet this weekend’s referendum on the islands’ sovereignty means that tensions between the two governments have been reignited.
The Government here is under no illusions about what the result will be. A memo was dispatched last week to all the country’s overseas embassies instructing them to dismiss the vote as “illegitimate” and downplay the outcome. Its wording included an acknowledgement that an overwhelming vote by the islanders to retain their ties to Britain would be a setback to this country’s attempts to get Britain to the table to discuss the future status of the islands.
The cable, seen by La Nacion newspaper, warns that the result could divide members of the “decolonisation committee” at the United Nations and that Britain will use it to “resolve the sovereignty once and for all”. A source told the paper: “We are very worried about the political impact of the referendum. But we will take measures to act”.
For now, at least, that sense of anxiety does not seem to have reached down to the streets. Most porteños, as they call people who live in Buenos Aires, shrug when asked about the referendum.
“It’ll be the same as always, the British will stay there and we will keep protesting,” retorts Jorge Revello, one of the city’s harried taxi-drivers.
The suspicion persists that President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, re-elected in 2011, has turned to the Falklands – known here as Las Malvinas – to stir nationalist fervour and distract popular attention from her country’s snowballing economic problems, which include inflation that some estimate to be running at 25 per cent (the official government rate is lower) and the threat of a new, possibly catastrophic, default on its overseas debt.
That the country’s economy is again flirting with dysfunction was underlined by the decision of the International Monetary Fund last month to formally reprimand the government for failing to present honest economic indicators, including on inflation. It opens a procedure that could end in the country’s expulsion from the organisation.
“Argentina is spiralling into chaos,” writes Hal Singer, managing director at Navigant Economics, in Forbes this week. “The culprit here is the short-sighted, politically charged, irresponsible economic policy of the government, forcing up inflation, drying up investment, and triggering capital flight with each successive bad idea.”
One such notion was a recent order by Ms Fernandez to all supermarkets to fix prices for two months. They complied, but – according to residents polled here – only after jacking them up in advance to make up any ground they would lose.
Today, Ms Fernandez was returning to Argentina from Venezuela where she attended the lying in state of President Hugo Chavez, an ideological ally. She did not wait for the funeral. How she will respond to the result of the referendum may depend on how much pressure she is feeling at home, including on the country’s economy.
Not everyone here is impatient with her or with her stance on the islands. “Cristina is only trying to close old wounds,” says Daniel Martinez, 46, crossing the square in front of the Casa Rosada, the official presidential residence, on his way home from work in the federal tax office. “She is trying to repair the mistakes of old governments. It is hard to disagree with what she is saying – that the islands are Argentinian. But it is not worth spilling blood over.”
Luis Gernnini, 52, was a reservist during the war guarding the Patagonia shoreline in case the British thought to head towards the mainland, and today is part of a protest encampment outside the Casa Rosada demanding he be paid a pension for his service. Even for him the squabble is almost semantic. “In the end I don’t care what nationality they want to be so long as they know they are living on Argentinian soil. It is as if they are intruders in my house.”
As for the loss of kinship with Britain, Mr Martinez says it saddens him. “You know, until the Malvinas we had a good image of the British,” he says, before pointing down a long avenue towards the railway station and the thousands of miles of rail lines beyond that Britain built. “So many towns in this country happened because of the railway.”