Argentina stirs Falkland Islands furor with Olympics ad [Video]

Argentina has stirred up its perennial debate with Britain over the Falkland Islands by airing a television ad showing one of its Olympic athletes sprinting and doing push-ups on the disputed South Atlantic archipelago, including at a war memorial.

"To compete on English soil, we train on Argentine soil," the ad concludes. Besides appearing on Argentine television, the ad has been viewed more than 500,000 times on YouTube.

Argentina and Britain have disagreed over who owns the islands since the 19th century. The dispute has heated up again this year as both countries marked the 30th anniversary of the outbreak of a war over the Falklands that cost hundreds of lives. Argentina wants Britain to negotiate over the islands; Britons say it is up to the islanders themselves, who have resisted Argentine claims to the territory.

British officials called the Olympic ad insensitive and disrespectful. Falkland Islanders said it had been filmed without their knowledge and condemned the video as an attempt to politicize the Olympics.

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What a Falklander thinks about the Falkland Islands dispute


It's the conflict that seems to never end: Argentina and Britain have disagreed over who owns the Falkland Islands since the 19th century. Thirty years ago, hundreds of people died in a bloody war over the British territory after Argentina sent in troops and the British ejected them.

They can’t even agree on the name: Argentinians call the islands the Malvinas.  

Tensions have grown after the British announced that Prince William would take part in military exercises nearby, which Argentina saw as a threatening sign of militarization. Argentina, in turn, has put new economic pressure on the islands, shutting Falkland-flagged vessels out of regional ports.

Plans for oil and gas exploration off the Falklands only raise the stakes of the perennial conflict. Argentinian officials want the United Nations to mediate negotiations and put the islands under its control. The British have refused, saying the islanders want to stay under British sovereignty.

But what do the Falklanders think about it? The Times talked to Mike Summers, a member of the Falkland Islands Assembly, about the sparring over the South Atlantic islands.

How does the recent escalation in rhetoric between Argentina and Britain affect people living on the islands?

It doesn’t really. We’ve been so used to this for so many years. It just goes on. For people in government, it’s slightly different. We have to keep reacting to things. But for most of the citizens, it’s just part of the background noise.

I’ve heard that the vast majority of Falklanders want to stay under British sovereignty. Has the issue of British vs. Argentinian sovereignty ever been put to a vote?

We’ve never had a referendum on the subject because it is just so self-evident to everybody that it’s the way people feel.

In every election, everybody who stands for election says we’re opposed to the Argentine claim to our country. Nobody has ever got anywhere in an election that didn’t make that perfectly clear. Public sentiment is not at all difficult to judge on this issue. I’m not aware of a single person on these islands who thinks we should be talking about transfer of sovereignty.

It’s hard to imagine what a change in sovereignty would mean. Why does it matter to Falklanders?

The Falkland Islands are largely self-governing. We have our own government, we make our own laws. The British sovereignty contributes a defense deterrent and assistance in foreign affairs matters and that’s it.

If Argentina became sovereign, that sort of arrangement is unlikely to exist. They would likely be trying to recolonize the Falklands. It would be an enormously retrograde thing.

We’d be governed by a foreign country with no knowledge or understanding of the people here, no knowledge or understanding of how this community works and how the people in it think. It would be a foreign country taking over our country.

You have to add to that the fact that Argentina is historically and culturally completely different than the Falklands. Their legal system is different from ours. Their cultural mores are different than ours.

And frankly, it’s a country that’s not very well governed. Corruption is rife. Press freedom is restricted. It's not a country you’d want to be associated with.

Is there any anxiety about the idea of the U.N. talking about its sovereignty?

People in the Falklands are not concerned about that because the U.N. is the guardian of the principle of self-determination. As far as people in the Falklands are concerned, this shouldn’t be judged as a dispute between England and Argentina, it should be judged as what the people of the Falklands want to do.

What do you make of what Sean Penn said? [The actor has taken Argentina’s side in the dispute, saying “the world today is not going to tolerate any ludicrous and archaic commitment to colonialist ideology,” the Associated Press reported Monday.]

Good luck to Sean Penn. I don’t think many people [care] what Sean Penn thinks. I hope he’s a better actor than he is a politician.

Why do you think tensions have grown so much recently?

The main factor is really Mrs. [President Cristina Fernandez de] Kirchner racking up more and more harassment and attempts to intimidate the people of the Falklands by trying to cut trade between us and mainland Latin America. The British government, to their credit, has responded to it.

Effectively, Argentina is trying to blockade the Falklands and force us to go and discuss sovereignty. It’s like a schoolyard bully trying to beat someone up to give them their sweets. It’s intolerable that a country of that size should be trying to bully a country of 3,000 people into submission.

The upcoming anniversary of the invasion of the Falklands will also cause some focus in the next few weeks. [April 2 is the 30th anniversary of Argentina sending troops to the islands; June 14 is the 30th anniversary of end of the war.] I hope very much once we get past June that Argentina will relax and take a more mature attitude toward its neighbors.

How does oil exploration play into this conflict?

I think it does, in modern times. But of course the Argentines started on this track in the 1950s when [former President Juan] Peron decided claiming the Falklands would be a good way of distracting the public from problems he was having in Argentina at the time.

Whilst Argentina may shout and scream that they’re pinching our oil, that’s not how it started. It was an attempt to divert attention of the common man in Argentina from problems there and find a common rallying point.


Argentina protests British naval exercises 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: Prince William and his crew lift off at the beginning of a six-week deployment in February in the Mount Pleasant Complex, Falkland Islands. Credit: Andy Malthouse / MoD via Getty Images

Why Argentina, Britain and Sean Penn care about the Falklands

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



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