In 1982, Argentina’s right wing military junta launched a sudden invasion of the Falkland Islands, the South Atlantic archipelago that has been a British possession since 1833. The invasion was motivated by a desire to distract attention from the country’s severe economic woes, including hyperinflation and massive capital flight. We all know what happened next: Margaret Thatcher dispatched troops to retake the islands by force; the subsequent British victory boosted her popularity at home while further weakening the Argentina junta; and by the end of 1983, constitutional democracy had been restored in Buenos Aires.
Ever since then, however, democratically elected Argentina governments have periodically played the Falklands card to drum up domestic support and enhance their diplomatic standing in Latin America. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the war, and, not surprisingly, President Cristina Kirchner is once again bullying the islanders, with the help of neighboring countries. In December, the Hugo Chávez–inspired Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) voted unanimously to endorse “Argentina’s legitimate rights in the sovereignty dispute over the Falklands/Malvinas.” (The islands are known as the “Malvinas” in Argentina.) A few weeks after the CELAC summit, the Mercosur trade group—which consists of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay—formally agreed to embrace “all measures that can be put in place to impede the entry to its ports of ships that fly the illegal flag of the Malvinas Islands.”
As if Buenos Aires needed more encouragement to rattle sabers, the Obama administration provided it on January 20, when a State Department official was asked about the Falklands dispute. “This is a bilateral issue that needs to be worked out directly between the governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom,” the official said. “We encourage both parties to resolve their differences through dialogue in normal diplomatic channels. We recognize de facto United Kingdom administration of the islands but take no position regarding sovereignty.”
From a British perspective, these comments were deeply disappointing, but not altogether surprising, given Obama’s history on the issue. From an Argentine perspective, the comments represented a major diplomatic triumph. “The fact that the United States government does not recognize the British allegation of sovereignty on the islands show[s] that it is necessary that the United Kingdom should sit at the negotiation table with our country, to open a bilateral dialogue,” declared Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman. “We are sure that all Latin America views with satisfaction the stand taken by the United States on Malvinas.”
(Timerman, incidentally, is the same man who accused the United States of operating torture schools, who helped provoke a crisis in U.S.-Argentine relations over a routine military-training exercise, and who reportedly offered to suspend the investigations of two Iranian-backed terrorist bombings in return for economic concessions from Tehran.)
London is clearly alarmed by the recent escalation of Argentine rhetoric, and also by Timerman’s successful diplomatic offensive across the Western Hemisphere. (The Argentine foreign minister recently traveled to Central America, and subsequently reported that “the support of the Central American countries [on the Falklands] was outstanding.”) The British government has bolstered its military presence in the Falklands, and Prime Minister David Cameron has rebuked Buenos Aires for its provocations while rebuffing charges that British policy amounts to colonialism. “What the Argentinians have been saying recently, I would argue, is far more like colonialism because these people”—the Falklanders—“want to remain British and the Argentinians want them to do something else.”
Make no mistake: Just as the Galtieri regime did in 1982, the Kirchner government is deliberately stoking a conflict with Britain in order to divert public attention from domestic concerns. Argentina’s inflation rate is not nearly as high today as it was 30 years ago, but it’s still among the highest in the world. Buenos Aires has been doctoring inflation statistics and other economic figures, hoping to conceal the extent of the problem, but foreign investors haven’t been fooled.
Back in September, the government went a step beyond fudging the numbers: Judge Alejandro Catania subpoenaed several Argentine newspapers, demanding that they hand over the contact information of journalists who had written or edited articles about the economy. Judge Catania also went after private consultants who had given legitimate economic data to institutions such as the IMF. His actions prompted Council on Foreign Relations scholar Walter Russell Mead to write that “stockholders should be able to sue the management of any company which puts money into Argentina. It is hard to think of measures which send a more unmistakable warning of dishonesty and impending crisis. Nothing and no one can be safe in a country where such things are done.”
Kirchner’s persecution of unfriendly economic journalists has been part of a larger campaign to intimidate all Argentine journalists from criticizing her administration. A newly enacted media law will expand her control over the press, and a newly enacted “terrorism” law could potentially “allow the state to imprison people for up to 15 years for activities as diverse as marching in protests or pulling money out of banks,” according to Reuters. Justice Eugenio Zaffaroni of the Argentine Supreme Court has warned that it may eventually be used “against social protest and against the unions,” adding that “the country does not need this anti-terrorism law.”
Rather than address well-grounded fears about the media and terrorism laws, the Kirchner government has chosen to whip up a nationalist frenzy over the Falklands. We should note one other key motivation for its behavior: The British have increased their oil-exploration activities around the archipelago, and “Falklands oil industry sources” recently told MercoPress that the initial exploration “was hugely successful.” Needless to say, major oil discoveries would raise the stakes in the Falklands dispute.
As that dispute continues, Britain should recognize Argentina’s saber-rattling for what it is: A transparent political ploy by an increasingly autocratic government whose domestic policies have reduced freedom, unleashed high inflation, sparked enormous capital flight, and created the conditions for an economic crisis.
Jaime Daremblum is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.