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Britannia rules waves created by Falklands -- for now

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As the 30th anniversary of Argentina's short-lived invasion of the Falkland Islands approaches, President Cristina Fernández continues to ratchet up the pressure in pursuit of her demand for talks with Britain about what her country calls the Malvinas.

Argentine Industry Minister Debora Georgi, has called on Argentine companies to stop sourcing imports from Britain. Authorities in Ushuaia turned away two cruise ships, with several thousand tourists on board, because they had called at the Falklands.

And under the guise of an offer to launch scheduled flights from Buenos Aires, Fernandez threatened to withdraw permission for a weekly commercial flight by LAN Chile from Punta Arenas that crosses Argentine airspace.

The government defends all this as a response to what it says is Britain's "militarization" of the South Atlantic, with the dispatch of the Royal Navy's newest destroyer and of Prince William, as a helicopter pilot. Britain says these are routine missions and refuses to comment on an Argentine claim a nuclear submarine is in the vicinity.

Even if some Argentines believe Fernández is using the issue to distract attention from approaching economic problems, most back the demand for sovereignty over the islands, which have been a British territory since 1833.

The only sign of dissent came in a thoughtful open letter published last month by 17 writers and academics, who criticized "a climate of nationalist agitation," pointed out that the issue bears little relation to the country's main problems and called on Argentina to accept the rights of the islanders to self-determination. A barrage of insults and death threats greeted this.

The islanders, who want to stay British, are stoic about the Argentine measures. A shortage of eggs did not last long. Most islanders keep chickens and grow their own vegetables in their gardens and greenhouses. Staples they cannot produce, such as milk and rice, arrive by ship from Chile. The economy is more buoyant than it was in 1982, thanks to the sale of fishing licences and tourism.

Fernández has forsworn the use of force to retake the islands. Even if she had not, Argentina's depleted armed forces would struggle to overcome the British garrison of 1,300 troops backed by four Typhoon jets. (But Britain would now find it hard to oust a better-equipped invader.)

If the deepwater drilling now proceeding around the islands reveals significant quantities of oil, that might prompt Fernández to attempt a full-scale economic blockade. And in a continent that is imbued with resource nationalism, and which backs Argentina's claim, this might be rather more effective than Britain is prepared to admit.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 12, 2012 A11

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