On 24 March, the day that a debate was held in Parliament over the increase in defence expenditure for the Malvinas Islands, Argentina was commemorating the anniversary of the 1976 military coup.
We Argentines staunchly defend democracy. On that day we reaffirm that there will never again be a military dictatorship in our country: “Never Again” is the title of the 1985 Commission Report that investigated the many thousands that were killed and disappeared during that regime (1976-1983).
On 2 April, the anniversary of the outbreak of the Malvinas war, we commemorate the veterans and those fallen in that conflict, reiterating that Argentina will never ever again go to war over the Malvinas Islands. For it was the same brutal dictatorship, in an attempt to cling on to its eroding power, that led us into the conflict.
I went to Parliament on 24 March, along with other Embassy officials, to attend the session on “urgent questions” to the Secretary of State for Defence. The Sun newspaper warned on its front page of the threat of an “invasion”, announcing in hyperbolically dramatic headlines the imminent dispatch of troops to the Malvinas and illustrating the alleged risks with a collage of photos of Putin, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Sukhoi bombers.
This was a perfect demonstration of how the media can construct a fiction. Even though Secretary of State Fallon did not confirm these press speculations, he insisted on the need to defend the inhabitants of the Islands from the “threat” posed by Argentina’s claim.
He announced that the base would maintain its 1,200 soldiers, which, compared to a civilian population numbering nearly 2,000 makes the Malvinas Islands one of the most militarised areas in the world. Yet Fallon stated that the military presence is “proportionate to the threats and risks we face” and reported that he will reinforce and modernise the military infrastructure, which will require an investment of £180m pounds to be spent over the next 10 years, in addition to the regular annual budget.
Yet Argentina poses no military threat to the inhabitants of Malvinas Islands.
One could infer that the Conservative government, in the run-up to the election, is trying to raise the spectre of 1982 in order to reawaken the figure of Margaret Thatcher, who gained a tremendous electoral boost from that war. It also seems clear that the government is seeking to safeguard the defence budget. In the first televised election debate, David Cameron was unable to justify the fact that the number of food banks had risen dramatically from 66 to 421 during his term in office, with almost a million people depending on this aid in a rich country. In the context of drastic cuts to health, education and social benefits, many people do not want to see their taxes invested in defence spending, especially if it is to maintain a costly military base on some remote islands, to prevent an invasion that will never occur.
Of the 28 MPs who took part in the debate of 24 March, five made critical interventions, among them Vernon Coaker, Labour’s shadow Secretary of State for Defence, who said: “The deterrent of enhanced military capabilities is to be welcomed, but surely we can all agree that the best way forward is diplomacy,” and asked what diplomatic initiatives are currently being undertaken.
The Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn complained that the Secretary of State failed to mention any diplomatic initiatives: “Will he be more specific: what political, diplomatic and defence discussions has he had with Brazil, Uruguay or Argentina to reduce tensions and stress in the area, rather than proposing to spend £180m?,” he asked.
MP Barry Sheerman complained that rather than evoking the whiff of gunpowder and the sound of sabre-rattling, a mature parliamentary democracy “should be talking to the Government of Argentina at the most senior diplomatic level...” The Welsh Conservative MP David Davies, who has strong links with the Welsh community in our country, joined in, demanding that efforts continue to be made to improve diplomatic relations with all countries in our region. The interventions of these MPs are a clear reflection of the fact that there currently exist different views on the Malvinas Question in the UK.
I would like to highlight another closely related issue. The Labour Party has just welcomed John Prescott, former deputy PM to Tony Blair, into its electoral campaign. We note that John Prescott, writing in an article recently published in The Mirror, agrees with us in condemning the British government’s double standards in foreign policy. “40 years ago, in one of the most shameful acts committed by a British government,” he recalls, the UK leased the island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago to the United States to build an airbase, evicting all of its inhabitants, who were forced to live in the Republic of Mauritius.
It has been confirmed that this US base was used by the CIA for torture and illegal renditions. Discussions are now being held to look into the possibility of repatriating the native inhabitants to their island and the British government is considering the high costs of this operation. “And if anyone complains about the cost - Prescott states – “might I remind them that we spend £65mn a year helping another group of British islanders. Except they live on the Falklands, were granted a referendum and they’re white. In total, since 1982 we’ll have spent more than £1bn maintaining those 2,000 islanders, £500,000 each.”
We know that during election time politicians identify areas that are sensitive to public opinion. It is possible, then, that there is a growing number of British people who reject double standards, hypocrisy and colonialism. If this is this case, then we are a step closer to reaching a mature dialogue on the Malvinas Question between two sovereign nations.
Alicia Castro is the Argentine Ambassador to the United Kingdom