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Why Argentina, Britain and Sean Penn care about the Falklands

February 15, 2012 |  4:01 pm

Argentines in Buenos Aires protest Prince Williams' arrival in the Falklands

The Falkland Islands are under British control and have been since 1833, but Argentina says it inherited the South Atlantic archipelago from the Spanish crown. The two countries have lost lives over the small territory: In 1982, Britain drove off Argentine troops in a war that killed more than 900 people.

The fury over the Falklands can seem strange to outsiders, and even to Argentines and Britons. Argentine writer Jose Luis Borges once described the Falklands conflict as “a fight between two bald men over a comb.”

Why are the Falklands so important to these two countries?

To Argentina, having a British territory so close to home is seen as a vestige of colonialism. Argentines call the islands the Malvinas and bemoan them as “the lost little sisters” of Argentina. The quest to reclaim the islands has repeatedly been raised as an anti-imperialist cause. President Cristina Kirchner has slammed Britain as "a crude colonial power in decline."

Many Latin American leaders have sided with Argentina. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez declared, "Give the Malvinas back to the Argentine people." Actor Sean Penn recently stepped into the fray, saying the world would not tolerate  “any ludicrous and archaic commitment to colonialist ideology.”

But British leaders say it’s become a question of self-determination. Falklanders overwhelmingly want to stick with Britain, which has given it autonomy and military protection. They tend to be leery of Argentina, fearing it would have a heavier hand. And though the islands are geographically much closer to Argentina than Britain, their inhabitants speak English and identify with Britain.

“We’ve got 3,000 people of British descent who’ve been living quiet lives as shopkeepers and fishermen for the last 175 years,” said Robert O’Brien, a Los Angeles attorney who writes about Falkland affairs. “Just because there’s a bigger neighbor next door doesn’t mean they can take over.”

Besides the emotional claims on both sides, there is also an economic reason that both countries would want to control the Falklands: Britain is now planning oil and gas exploration around the islands.

“For Argentina, it’s a red-hot issue. It’s one thing for islanders to make money from squid fishing. It’s quite another to be drilling into the seabed and become the next Kuwait,” said Klaus Dodds, a professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Yet the dispute was raging long before oil came into the conversation. Some experts believe that the international argument is now so wrapped up in nationalist pride that it isn’t rational anymore.

“That war is like some toxic waste that will keep on surfacing until the issue is solved,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “A poll would show that the issue isn’t all that important. The problem is, it’s endlessly revivable.”

Why is the dispute over the Falklands heating up again now?

The 30th anniversary of the Falklands War is this spring. That puts the subject of Argentine defeat in the conflict squarely back in the spotlight.

In addition, Britain recently announced that it would send a destroyer to do routine military exercises near the Falklands, with Prince William taking part. Argentine Defense Minister Arturo Puricelli called it “an unnecessary ostentation of firepower.” Argentina has complained to the United Nations over British "militarization" of the islands, with Kirchner calling it "a grave risk for international safety."

Falklanders counter that Kirchner has stepped up the conflict by trying to put economic pressure on the islands. Argentina has convinced several South American countries to not let ships with Falkland flags dock at their ports, for instance.

Michael Summers, a member of the Falklands Island Assembly, complained that Argentina also pressures shipping companies not to work with them. Argentina even tried to start a “squid war” in January, telling fishermen to catch squid before they reached the islands.


Argentina protests British naval exercise near the Falklands

Sean Penn stokes Falklands furor; critic says his films are 'turkeys'

Son of British vet of Falkland Islands war becomes a citizen of Argentina

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Demonstrators burn a British flag outside the British Embassy in Buenos Aires during protests this month against the arrival of Prince William to the Falkland Islands for a six-week military deployment. Credit: Daniel Feldman / European Pressphoto Agency