At the time of the Falklands war a brilliant cartoon by Peter Brookes transformed the outline of the islands into the tattered remnants of a war-torn Union Jack. The image sprang vividly to mind when I saw the president of Argentina, Cristina de Kirchner, brandishing a metal plaque depicting the disputed archipelago and demanding its "return" to South American rule.
The power of Brookes's masterful drawing lay in its ambiguity. His bullet-riddled flag could be an image of plucky defiance but also of imperial collapse. Thirty years on, those islands are still a blank canvas on which any image of bellicose nationalism or high-minded sovereignty may be superimposed.
History repeats itself, Marx said, the first time as tragedy and the second as farce. This time the fighting, which took 900 lives in 1982, is confined to the advertising columns of British and Argentinian newspapers. Kirchner, current occupant of the Casa Rosada, once home to a military junta responsible for the torture and murder of more than 9,000 political dissidents as well as the invasion of the Falklands, took ads in The Independent and Guardian on the anniversary of what she described as 180 years of illegal rule. Britain's response, outsourced to that bastion of diplomacy, The Sun, was an ad in the English-language Buenos Aires Herald demanding the Argies get their "HANDS OFF" our islands.
While it is good to see the Argentinian government supporting the UK newspaper industry, and far preferable for The Sun to want to fight them on the advertising pitches rather than on the South Atlantic beaches, there was something self-serving about the selection of facts by both sides.
Kirchner was wrong to say Argentina was "forcibly stripped of the Malvinas... in a blatant exercise of 19th-century colonialism". Colonisation involves the repression or exploitation of indigenous peoples, as the Argentine military did in clearing their plains and pampas. But the Falklands which Britain annexed were, as Dr Johnson noted in 1771, "thrown aside from human use" a place "not even southern savages have dignified with habitation". Kirchner's ad was a catalogue of half-facts which even got wrong the distance between the Falklands and the UK.
The Sun was right to point out that British sovereignty of the islands stretches back before the Republic of Argentina existed. But, overstating as is its forte, it relied on arguments about self-determination that successive British prime ministers have studiously ignored elsewhere – as with the people of the Chagos Islands whom Britain evicted four decades ago to allow the US to build a military base on Diego Garcia. Still, it gives the lie to the old gag that The Sun doesn't care who runs the country so long as she's got big tits.
Had Kirchner been serious she would have acted entirely differently ahead of the referendum in March in which the islanders will be asked if they want the territory to remain British. She could have opened up communications and transport. She might have improved trade and offered free university education to the Falklanders. Or she could have invested in business in the islands – with joint ventures to explore the 200 billion barrels of oil which optimists believe is buried beneath the surrounding seas. All this might have lessened Falklanders' suspicion of their nearest neighbour.
Of course, had Mrs Kirchner possessed any political sophistication she would not be making such a mess of her own country. For all her quasi-mystical presentation of herself as a second Evita her mix of nationalism, paranoia, and regional ambition is toxic. She is refusing to pay interest on her huge international debts. She has annoyed neighbouring countries with her trade barriers. She is deterring foreign investors by nationalising part of a major Spanish energy company. Inflation, corruption, crime and a black market in currency are rife. She intimidates opposition media and cracks down on political opponents from left-wing activists to ecologists and indigenous groups opposed to her mining policies.
No Falklander in their right mind would want to be associated with such an undeveloping country. So Mrs Kirchner is left with only bellicose rhetoric and the desire that the rattling of her sabre drowns the grumbling of her people. She hopes that the Malvinas can save her, much as the Falklands saved Margaret Thatcher from domestic unpopularity. Papers released under the 30-year-rule reveal Mrs Thatcher "never, never expected the Argentines to invade the Falklands head-on. It was such a stupid thing to do". But stupid things are so much a part of the Kirchner political lexicon that it is entirely possible a plane full of troops or flag-waving stuntmen might yet be dispatched by Buenos Aires.
Even so, the British prime minister would do well to look ahead three decades, rather than back. By then the balance of economic power between the UK and Latin America may have shifted. A Spanish-speaking president may be in the White House. An independent Falklands, as a member of Nato, might be better placed to survive Argentine clutches. Whitehall should be thinking ahead, from a position of comparative strength. It can leave a populist president and press to do the huffing and puffing in public.
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