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.
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-- 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