Though the Union flag still flies, Argentina nurses Falkland hopes

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Directly opposite a square once known as the Plaza de los Ingleses (the English) and a clock tower modelled after Big Ben, Argentines commemorated the start of the Falklands war 15 years ago this week. Many expressed hope that, with a potential Labour government in Britain, Argentina's war goal might eventually be met, this time through diplomacy.

On Wednesday, the anniversary of the Argentine invasion of the islands, soldiers in Napoleonic uniforms marched in front of an eternal flame and a stone monument listing the names of more than 600 Argentine war dead. Relatives and war veterans laid wreaths and sang old folk songs.

The overall sentiment was clear: that most Argentines regret the 2 April 1982 invasion - led by the then leader of the military junta, General Leopoldo Galtieri - but do not forget the victims and still firmly believe Las Malvinas (The Falklands) are theirs.

The commemorative ceremony went on long into the night despite a major rival event - a televised World Cup football qualifying match in which Argentina lost to Bolivia.

On the disputed islands themselves, at an Argentine cemetery near the site of major battles at Goose Green, there was no one to remember the 234 Argentine war dead buried there. The graves, mostly marked only with the words "Soldado" or "an Argentine soldier known only unto God," are well tended by the Falkland Islanders but no kelper (islander) was ever going to show up on the anniversary of the invasion.

In an open letter to the nation, Argentina's current army commander, General Martin Balza, a veteran of the war, recalled "the cold, permanent drizzle, the bombings and grey skies". He wrote of a comrade who died beside him in the trenches and his feelings when Argentina surrendered on 14 June 1982. "A lot of our comrades-in-arms embraced each other. We cried with pain, shame, anger and sadness. Then came the silence of our return to the mainland, of which I would rather not speak."

Altogether, 652 Argentines perished in the conflict, with 255 dead on the British side. General Galtieri was ousted in disgrace three days after the surrender. Argentine veterans feel they were treated much like American GIs who returned from the Vietnam War. Many are still jobless, some do not receive full pensions. Others walk the platforms of Buenos Aires railway stations in tattered fatigues, selling stickers or calendars saying: "Las Malvinas son Argentinas" (The Falklands are Argentine).

In a radio speech, Richard Ralph, the Governor of the Falkland Islands, called it "that day of infamy 15 years ago. Fences are slowly being mended but can only be fully mended when the (Argentine) claim to sovereignty is dropped."

Argentine newspapers were full of remarks by a Labour spokesman saying that his party's policy on the Falklands was identical to that of the Conservatives: that Britain has sovereignty and only the islanders themselves can change that.

But some commentators said the government of Carlos Menem hoped for more flexibility from Labour, such as in direct transport between Argentina and the islands and visiting permits for Argentine passport holders. At present, only Argentines with passports from third countries can visit the islands and all flights leave from Chile.

After a meeting with British officials at Chevening in January, the Argentine Foreign Minister, Guido di Tella, told an interviewer: "I have said to [the shadow foreign secretary] Robin Cook, with whom I have had various meetings in the past, that I was not going to trouble them during the election campaign because we are going to be careful.

"But I said he could rest assured that within 60 to 90 days of a Labour government taking office, I would be knocking on the door, asking for a meeting."