Falklanders first. British second

Sat, Mar 24, 2012, 00:00

30 years after the Falklands war, people still think of the islands as a bleak land inhabited by Anglophile colonialists. In truth,
it’s a pleasant, beautiful place, and relations with Argentina and Britain are anything but simple, writes TOM HENNIGANin Stanley

IT IS THE FIRST Saturday in March, and down on Stanley’s seafront shirtless British squaddies are enjoying a day off by turning pink in the afternoon sunshine.

The Falkland Islands are seeing the end of a southern summer that has defied the perception of the archipelago as a desolate wasteland at the end of the world. As the war that briefly catapulted the islands into the spotlight in 1982 was fought during the harsh South Atlantic winter, it left an impression of soldiers slogging across bleak moors and craggy hills swept by wind and sleet.

Since then the islands have suffered from an image problem. Few people had heard of them before Argentina invaded on April 2nd, 1982, and most have paid them little attention since a British task force recaptured the territory 74 days and 907 deaths later.

Islanders joke that the war did their tourism industry no favours, its lingering images obscuring the reality that Stanley lies about as far south of the equator as London lies north of it and that the islands, sheltering in the lee of the Andes, receive less rain and more sunshine than the British “mainland”, 12,000km away.

The first purchase for many visitors, having packed for winter conditions, is sunblock. As every Irish person knows, sunshine makes the world of difference to a place, and with barely a cloud in sky the islands quickly reveal a second surprise: their beauty.

From the air the Falklands look as if they were formed when a slab of land fell from the sky to shatter across the south Atlantic. The result is a scatter of more than 700 islands whose bays, sounds and inlets produce a constant interplay of land and water with a ruggedness that reminds you of the west coast of Ireland.

It would not appeal to everyone. The nearest neighbour is Patagonia, 500km to the west, itself a sparsely populated region at the tip of South America. Though spread out over an area almost the size of Wales, the Falklands are home to barely 3,000 people. Most live in Stanley, a tidy village that doubles as a capital. Just a few hundred are out in small farming settlements – they do not even qualify as villages – in “camp”, the Spanish-derived word for the countryside.

Here there are no paved roads, just all-weather tracks that are vulnerable to the harsh winters, when the sense of isolation increases. Drier and sunnier than Britain the Falklands may be, but they are buffeted by winds from the angry Southern Ocean.

Islanders breezily describe a brewing gale that makes it hard to open or close a car door as being “a bit blowy”. These winds are too strong for trees to grow in and are the cause of abrupt changes in the weather. Even a glorious summer’s day can be subjected to a blast of winter. It is a hardy soul that makes its home in this land.

Most settlers came from Britain – sailors and administrators from England, crofters from Scotland and shepherds from Wales.

One of the oldest families on the islands is the Pitalugas, descendants of early settlers from, of all places, Italy. Falklanders are a more varied bunch than their British-colonial image would suggest. Some count Germans, Danes and Norwegians among their ancestors – often shipwrecked sailors.

“These were people who washed up, almost literally,” says Jan Cheek, whose great-great-great grandfather arrived in 1842 as gardener to the first British governor.

Many who came were subsequently defeated by the hardships and abandoned the colony. Today’s population is descended from those who overcame the loneliness and huge logistical difficulties to carve out a life on the islands, and they retain a strong frontier spirit.

The islanders are often wary of journalists, all too aware that they have been satirised in the world’s media as delusional British colonials trying to re-create the Home Counties somewhere off the coast of Antarctica. And, yes, there are red telephone boxes, fish and chips, Manchester United on TV and Marmite and Bovril in the supermarket.

But the Falklands are far from being a Victorian time capsule. Alongside the Marmite, shoppers can find fair-trade coffee from Nicaragua and jerk barbecue sauce. Divorce seems as common here as back on the “mainland”, and in recent years there has been a new multicultural infusion of workers from Chile and the tropical island of St Helena.

The people’s frontier spirit has produced a deeply ingrained self-reliant streak, and many islanders grow vegetables in the acidic soil and know how to carve up and store half a cow for the winter. Farmers out in camp still cut turf to heat their homes. With spare parts potentially several weeks’ boat journey away, they are also experts at keeping all sorts of machinery running.

Many people have more than one job so that the small population can provide itself with all the services it needs. The bank clerk giving you Falkland Island pounds on Tuesday will be checking your boarding pass at the airport on Saturday.

Their self-reliance also explains the intense social organisation. “There is not much in the way of entertainment on the islands, and so we make our own. We have lots of clubs and associations, which are really just a means of coming together,” says Tim Miller, who helps run the local horticultural society.

This year the society’s annual show had a record 850 entries, with locals jammed into the hall of the Catholic church to see who would carry off trophies for gardening, cookery and flower arranging.

“It is the kind of place that will only appeal to those who can look after themselves,” says one adopted islander. “Here people feel you have to pay your way, that you shouldn’t get something for nothing. But after a while you realise it is also a small community and everyone is looking out for everyone else. There is always someone dropping by to lend you a tool they think you might need for a job you are doing. If someone is struggling during a hard winter people will pop in to check up on them.”

TO THE ENDLESS bafflement of the islanders, Argentina insists this remote world is not the Falklands but the Malvinas and rightfully belongs to it. The attempt in 1982 to enforce possession by force ended in humiliating defeat but did not dent belief in the righteousness of the claim.

This is rooted in foreign treaties signed by Spain as far back as 1494, more than a century before the first confirmed sighting of the islands. This rather scholastic argument is bolstered by the fledgling Argentinian republic’s haphazard occupation of the archipelago between 1820 and 1833, when its small garrison was expelled by the British.

Following its disastrous military misadventure in 1982, Argentina has abjured the use of force to retake the islands. But, as the 30th anniversary of the invasion approaches, President Cristina Kirchner has stepped up her government’s rhetoric against British “colonialism”, which she recently criticised as an affront to humanity. She has said she will raise the matter at the next session of the UN’s decolonisation committee, on June 14th, the 30th anniversary of Argentina’s surrender.

Argentina has also intensified efforts to economically isolate the islands, harassing its shipping and leaning on its neighbours to turn Falklands-flagged vessels away from their ports. “Although they have undertaken not to try and take the islands by force again, they are definitely waging an economic war against us,” says Jan Cheek, who sits on the Falklands’ legislative assembly, its eight-member parliament.

Most Argentinians support their government’s approach. The declaration Las Malvinas son Argentinas – the Malvinas are Argentinian – is an article of faith for the great majority who are taught it at primary school.

But there are dissenters. “The Malvinas is not like other cases of colonialism,” says Beatriz Sarlo, an Argentinian intellectual. “It is not like the cases of British, Belgian or French colonies in Africa. There was no indigenous population on the islands, as in Africa, which were the basis for anti-colonial movements. It might be a British colony, but it does not belong to the ideological anti-colonial movement.”

Sarlo was one of 19 leading Argentinian intellectuals who recently published a document in which they argued that respect for Argentina’s constitutional guarantee of self-determination “implies abdicating the intention to impose [on the Falklanders] a sovereignty, a citizenship and a government they do not desire”.

“It is the 21st century, and the rights of people should be over those of states,” says Fernando Iglesias, one of the prime movers behind the document.

“The basic question is which are more important: national interests or human rights? Argentina has a long experience of governments that claimed to defend national interests but in fact were against human rights. So we have posed the question: now we say we are for human rights, but only for ourselves or also for the islanders?”

The document’s publication was greeted with nationalist rage, and its authors were dismissed as unpatriotic “sepoys”. But its authors have highlighted their government’s failure to engage with the reality of a community that has lived on the islands for more than 170 years and has no desire to become Argentinian.

“The government is saying it wants discussions on sovereignty, but the sovereignty of the islands cannot be negotiated. It is a clear contradiction,” says Iglesias. (The government in Buenos Aires did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.)

The Falklanders themselves long ago embraced the language of self-determination. “What counts is the generations that have lived and worked here and made the islands what they are,” says Cheek. “Self-determination is choosing whichever countries you may or may not be linked with and what form that link may take, and we are happy with our current status as a British overseas territory.”

Opinion polls show a large majority in the UK support the Falklanders in their desire to maintain the link. But with Britain so far away, and Argentina so close and unrelenting in its claim, the islanders know that in the long term their small community remains vulnerable to any shifts in the Atlantic’s geopolitical plates. They have not forgotten that before Argentina’s military junta overplayed its hand by invading, London’s policy was to bully the Falklanders into an unwanted accommodation with Buenos Aires. This had led some to think beyond the status quo.

“Independence is the only sensible and intellectually satisfying solution,” says John Fowler, deputy editor of the Falkland Islands weekly Penguin News. “The argument over sovereignty comes down to one of possession between two powers when we need to use the language of the postcolonial world. Bleating on about being British means the rest of the world will just call us a colony. We need to change the language of the debate, and working towards independence is therefore a legitimate aim. An independent nation is far harder to take over than a colony.”

But despite the majority on the archipelago identifying themselves as Falkland Islanders first and British second, such views are held by a minority.

Most view the link with Britain as the best guarantee of keeping Argentina’s territorial ambitions in check. “Should we ever have the total security of feeling there is no danger of Argentina trying to walk in, then independence may be an option,” says Cheek. “But I think it will be future generations, not this one.”

The 30-years-ago war: Argentina invaded. Thatcher fought back

When Argentinian special forces attacked the small garrison of British marines on the Falkland Islands on April 2nd, 1982, it was the first time most people in the UK had heard of the archipelago.

The swift conquest of the islands and the raising of the Argentinian flag over Stanley sparked euphoric scenes in Buenos Aires. Hundreds of thousands gathered in the Plaza de Mayo to acclaim a military dictatorship only days after mass demonstrations against it in the same square.

The generals had hoped that London would accept a fait accompli, but Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher immediately formed a war cabinet and dispatched a task force of 127 ships to retake the islands.

By May 1st British planes had started bombing the Argentinian forces on the islands. On May 2nd one of its nuclear submarines sank the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano, killing 323 of the crew. After this loss the rest of the Argentinian fleet returned to port, isolating their troops on the islands.

On May 21st the British landed unopposed at San Carlos and quickly established a beach-head. Only the Argentinian air force threatened the mission’s success, its pilots flying near-suicidal attacks against the task force. Once on land the British never surrendered the initiative and, despite being heavily outnumbered, routed the largely conscript army facing them in a series of brief but vicious land battles before liberating Stanley on June 14th.

Defeat led to the rapid disintegration of Argentina’s military dictatorship and the return of democracy a year later. Victory led to a surge of support for Thatcher’s previously unpopular administration and helped set the stage for her 1983 electoral triumph.