Among the world's most forlorn pieces of real estate are three islands over which Argentina and Chile may go to war. The tiny, treeless, wind-seared islands of Lennox, Picton, and Nueva in the Beagle Channel near the tip of South America have little value of themselves. But Argentina and Chile see them as footholds to the seas beyond and to Antarctica, which these nations believe are rich in untapped resources. Though war over the islands sounds improbable, the possibility grows stronger day by day. Queen Elizabeth II and Pope John Paul II have been trying to resolve the dispute between the big southern cone countries, but so far without success.
Unfortunately for Argentina, arbitration by Queen Elizabeth in 1967 awarded the islands to Chile. That arbitration was supposed to be binding. Both nations agreed to arbitration. But when the award was made, Argentina rejected the conclusion and the dispute, which until then had been on a back burner, became serious.
Neither Argentina nor Chile knows for sure what lies in the ocean waters. But Argentine research indicates they may be rich with oil. Test drillings have been promising.
On the Pacific side of the Beagle Channel, Chile is exploiting offshore oil fields that may be part of a much larger joint Atlantic and Pacific oil field.
The waters are also promising for their valuable crop of kelp, a protein-rich substance that is used for animal feed and that could be a food source for man.
Argentines cannot tolerate potential Chilean sovereignty over the waters beyond the islands because the entire South Atlantic would then be opened to Chile.
Chilean ownership of the three islands would give that country a strong presence in the Pacific.
Argentines vehemently protest that it is a historic principle for Argentina to be an Atlantic power and Chile a Pacific power -- a principle that dates from when the two nations were Spanish colonies.
In late 1978, both countries began to prepare for war. Air raid sirens were sounded in Buenos Aires. Armies of both countries called up their reserves. Chile's fleet moved into the waters of the Beagle Channel in force.
Angry words flew across the 15,000- to 18,000-foot Andes that separate the two nations. But finally calm prevailed. Chile and Argentina submitted the dispute to the Vatican. It seemed to be a logical choice of arbiters for two largely Roman Catholic countries. The Buenos Aires newspaper La Prensa said at the time, "Who can be trusted more than the Pope?"
When neither side yielded in negotiations, the Pope proposed his own solution. Although details of that proposal, submitted last December, have not been disclosed, sources say the Pope would confirm Queen Elizabeth's arbitration award, giving the three islands to Chile, but additionally setting up what the Vatican calls a "sea of peace" beyond the islands. Both countries would share the water resources.
"The Holy See actually gave Chile more than the Queen did," complains a high-ranking Argentine general. "We could never accept such an infringement of our sovereignty."
Another says: "We may be Roman Catholic, but we are not subservient."
Although it might be expected to be joyful over the Pope's proposal, Chile finds fault because of the sharing of the seas beyond the islands.
And there the matter rests.
Argentina is at the point of issuing a reply to the Pope -- a reply that is believed to contain a counterproposal that will stimulate more negotiation.
At the moment, a peaceful way out of the impasse appears distant. And the longer the dispute simmers, the more likely it becomes that war may erupt