Obituary: Nicanor Costa Mendez

Andrew Graham-Yooll
Monday 03 August 1992 23:02 BST

Nicanor Costa Mendez, politician, born Buenos Aires 30 October 1922, Ambassador to Chile 1962-64, Minister of External Affairs and Religion 1966-69, 1981-82, married 1948 Mercedes Robirosa (two daughters, and one son deceased), died Buenos Aires 2 August 1992.

THE FALKLANDS conflict in 1982 was Nicanor Costa Mendez's 15-minute role in history. For those few weeks, between April and June 1982, he was Latin America's star diplomat and in that capacity delivered a Third World blow to Europe. The tragedy was that he did not feel comfortable treating Europe that way.

'Canoro' Costa Mendez was a bundle of contradictions. He was an Anglophile who had to fight Britain; an astute diplomat who was only able to display his talent in the service of the military and in war; an able politician who only served under military despots, and a sportsman cruelly crippled.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1922 to an aristocratic family, Costa Mendez graduated as a lawyer in 1943, and later did his Ph D at Columbia University, New York. His early life was marked by a passion for sports and women. He enjoyed rugby, mainly, and also polo. His society wedding was part of that charmed existence, until he contracted polio during an epidemic in the late 1950s. Illness, and the death of his teenage son in a boating accident, marked him for life.

Politically, Costa Mendez was closely identified with the fierce anti-Communism and strong Catholic nationalism of a substantial sector of Argentina's aristocracy. All his life he was a staunch believer in the concept of 'ideological frontiers' to stop Soviet expansion, and Cuban subversion in Latin America.

He was a corporate lawyer, with a practice representing numerous foreign-owned companies operating in Argentina, and was known in academic circles for two studies on the history of law, and one critical analysis of Arnold Toynbee's study of history. In 1962, supported by nationalists in the shambles that was the military regime that ousted Dr Arturo Frondizi, Costa Mendez was appointed ambassador to Chile.

It was as a lawyer and nationalist that he joined the government of General Juan Carlos Ongania after the military coup in June 1966, and from then on the Falkland Islands went from being a concerned interest to a passion. The ousted government of Dr Arturo Illia had established, in 1964, a sound base at the United Nations for negotiations with Britain. As Argentina's delegate to the Organisation of American States, Costa Mendez proposed the creation of an Inter-American Defence Force, a right-wing military fraternity to protect Latin America against Communism.

His first term as a delegate under a de facto government ended in July 1969. But his interest in the history and future of the Falklands grew. On a train journey once, from Buenos Aires to La Pampa province to inaugurate a monument to John Kennedy, I remember how ably he demonstrated and expressed his admiration for Britain and for most things English, yet vehemently pursued the argument that Britain had no right to be in Port Stanley. Speaking in English liberated him.

Costa Mendez returned to government under another despot, General Leopoldo Galtieri, to produce a report on international reaction to the Falklands. Costa Mendez was confident that his contacts in and acquaintance with Washington would assure support for Argentina. And that was his greatest moment, through to the time of defeat by the British task force on 14 June 1982. From the start he assumed that a peaceful settlement was possible, then watched in horror as positions became entrenched and inevitable.

Virginia Gamba-Stonehouse, who co-authored the diplomatic history of the conflict, Signals of War (1990), and who assisted Costa Mendez in the preparation of his archives for nearly two years after the war, remembered him saying that he had held the job he felt most comfortable in, that of a world-class diplomat handling a crisis. To be an interlocutor with Europe and the world outside Latin America was exhilarating. Ironically, Latin American support for Argentina's cause, he had to go to Havana, there to be warmly embraced by the great Communist himself, Fidel Castro.

After Galtieri's fall, Costa Mendez was offered the post of president of the transitional government that was to take Argentina back to democratic rule in 1983. He refused the military offer, arguing that it would have meant profiting on the popularity acquired during the crisis.

As the military tore themselves apart, blaming one another for their failure, Costa Mendez suffered from a campaign of vilification. The superficiality of Argentine public opinion hurt. But what hurt far more was to lose most of his 'English' friends, socially and in business. And then he felt even greater humiliation when the foreign ministry under Dante Caputo, during Raul Alfonsin's government, seeking better relations with Britain, forbade Costa Mendez to publish his memoirs of the war.

He had been in a wheelchair for months, steadily deteriorating. His memoirs, a valuable document, remain unpublished, somewhere in his word-processor in Buenos Aires.

(Photograph omitted)

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