Most everyone remembers what happened when Argentina invaded the British Falkland Islands in 1982. Far fewer people remember what preceded—and in many ways provoked—the Argentine invasion.
In November 1981, with the economy in crisis and the national inflation rate topping 100 percent, General Roberto Viola “temporarily” relinquished the Argentine presidency, and a month later he was permanently replaced by General Leopoldo Galtieri. The ruling military junta claimed that Viola was stepping down because of health concerns; in reality, he had been ousted in a coup. (The junta itself had taken power in a coup, back in 1976.)
Unfortunately for Argentina, its economic situation continued to deteriorate. By the end of March 1982, inflation had reached approximately 150 percent; the country was stuck in a terrible recession; labor unrest was growing; and the Argentine people were increasingly angry about government repression and corruption. On March 30, the biggest Argentine trade union—known as the CGT—spearheaded nationwide demonstrations, including a massive rally in the capital city’s famous Plaza de Mayo. This led to thousands of arrests and even more discontent.
Three days later, however, Argentine troops landed in the Falklands, producing a rally-around-the-flag effect. Indeed, the military campaign immediately won overwhelming public support. “With so many bad things in the country,” opposition leader Angel Robledo told the New York Times, “this is finally a good thing.” Not only was the junta distracting Argentines from their myriad domestic problems, it was also fulfilling a pledge made by Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Méndez, who had vowed to retake the islands before the 150th anniversary of British rule in January 1983.
Of course, British forces quickly expelled the Argentine invaders—the war was over by mid-June 1982—and by the end of 1983 the junta was no longer in power.
Today, Argentina once again has an unpopular government facing public protests over corruption, high inflation, and economic dysfunction. Unlike the military junta of General Galtieri, the current Argentine government was democratically elected. In fact, President Cristina Kirchner won reelection to a second term just 14 months ago, capturing over 54 percent of the vote, thanks to a commodity boom. But Argentina’s export-reliant economy suffered a dramatic slowdown this year, and the government’s approval rating has plummeted. On November 8, anywhere from 250,000 to 700,000 Argentines descended on the Plaza de Mayo as part of a gigantic anti-Kirchner march. On November 20, labor leaders organized a general strike.
Besides 25 percent inflation, draconian currency controls, rising crime, and government corruption scandals, Argentines are also mad about Kirchner’s autocratic abuses, particularly her crusade against opposition journalists. Consider the ongoing saga of Argentina’s biggest media conglomerate, known as the Clarín Group.
In 2009, Kirchner enacted an “anti-monopoly” law aimed at breaking up the Clarín empire and thereby weakening some of her most prominent critics. Clarín has argued that portions of the law represent an unconstitutional attack on press freedom, and many independent experts agree. On December 6, Argentina’s Federal Civil and Commercial Court extended an injunction that will prevent Clarín from having to sell any of its broadcast outlets until its legal challenge is resolved. The government was furious, and it asked the Supreme Court to issue a direct ruling on the case, without regard for the customary appellate-court process. On December 10, Argentina’s highest court rejected this request. But Kirchner refuses to give up the fight: According to MercoPress, she “will seek to impeach the judges of the Federal Civil and Commercial Court for ruling on the injunction extension.”
On top of all these problems, Argentina may soon be censured by the International Monetary Fund for doctoring its economic data, and it may also be approaching another sovereign debt default. Indeed, Fitch Ratings now believes that “a default by Argentina is probable.”
Desperately in need of a foreign distraction, Kirchner has turned to the Falklands. Over the past year—the 30th anniversary of the 1982 war—her government has been making bombastic anti-British statements, trying to intimidate ships from visiting the islands, and working to delegitimize the upcoming (March 2013) sovereignty referendum in which Falklanders will reaffirm their desire to remain British.
For example: On November 19, members of a radical leftist group called Quebracho raided the Buenos Aires offices of Argentine Shipping Services, a company that operates cruises to the Falklands. According to Britain’s Daily Mail, “Police were nowhere to be seen as masked thugs wielding clubs smashed plate glass windows, scrawled graffiti, and upturned dustbins in the Argentinian capital. No arrests were made.” The intruders threatened to harass any cruise ships planning to stop in the Falklands. A British member of the European parliament described the attack—and Argentina’s nonresponse—as “an affront to all the basic principles of free trade, of human decency, and of international responsibility.”
No serious observer thinks that Buenos Aires will launch another invasion. But Argentina’s persistent saber-rattling with Britain highlights the thuggish, reckless nature of the Kirchner government. The United States got a taste of this thuggery in February 2011, when Argentine officials abruptly seized the contents of an American military plane delivering equipment for a routine training exercise. Four months passed before Argentina agreed to return the impounded materials.
One final point about the U.S.-Argentina relationship: I agree with Heritage Foundation scholar Luke Coffey that Washington should revoke Argentina’s status as a “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA). America currently has 15 MNNAs in total: Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. Argentina formally received that designation during the Clinton administration, largely as a reward to then–Argentine president Carlos Menem for his pro-U.S. foreign policy and willingness to support international peacekeeping efforts.
During the 1990s, Argentina deserved its MNNA status. But its recent behavior should disqualify it from membership in such an exclusive club.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.