Falklands defeat plunges Argentines into identity crisis

The anguish and fury unleashed among Argentines in the wake of their military surrender in the Falklands are those of a people who feel they have had dashed from their hands one of the foundations of their identity.

Argentine identity, for all the rhetoric, has in fact been a fragile thing ever since the country acquired independence more than a century and a half ago. Argentina's own revered writer, the octogenarian Jorge Luis Borges, once painfully wondered whether Argentina itself existed.

And if there has been a thread keeping alive a sense of nationhood, it has been the long claim to the Falklands -- yet another example of the kind of irredentism that has so often given insecure peoples a sense of purpose and cohesion.

Generations of Argentines have been taught in school -- along with their reading, writing, and arithmetic -- that the Falklands, or Malvinas, are theirs.

Since World War II, Argentina has been in gradual decline -- economically and politically. Thinking Argentines were naturally more aware of this than outsiders. ''We haven't forgotten that in the 1920s Argentina was the fifth power in the world,'' Antonio Troccoli, a leader of the Radicals, one of the two main civilian political parties, told the French newspaper Le Monde.

Then this April, the military leaders -- after six years of failure in office -- decided to go the whole way to try to revive national unity and purpose by their move to possess the Falklands by invasion and armed force.

For a moment, it seemed to work. April 2, the day of the Argentine landings, briefly became a landmark. Patriotic fervor seized the entire political spectrum of the country. The military junta leader, Gen. Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, and his colleagues were turned from increasingly discredited and resented figures into national heroes overnight.

But in 10 short weeks, everything has turned sour. General Galtieri has given his countrymen defeat instead of victory. The respect they felt they had won internationally since April 2 is turning into pity -- at best. Even the Pope's visit to Argentina, which the generals unabashedly sought to exploit politically , backfired.

In the presence of General Galtieri, John Paul II said embarrassingly only a week ago: ''Each time we risk a man's life, we trigger the mechanisms that lead to these catastrophes. . . . At this moment, humanity should question itself, once more, about the absurd and always unjust phenomenon of war, on whose stage of death and pain stands the negotiating table that could and should have prevented it.''

Today, 15,000 Argentine prisoners of war still on the Falklands under cruel winter conditions are already posing a major humanitarian problem. They have yet to return home to tell their pitiful story. And a triumphant British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, is talking in terms of the day when Argentina might get its hands on the Falklands as further away than ever.

The Argentines' present cruel sense of loneliness and being abandoned is all the greater because of their long perception of themselves as a superior people apart from the rest of Latin America. They have long thought of themselves as more European and more racially homogeneous (white) than other peoples of the Americas. Le Monde quotes a former Argentine Cabinet minister as saying that in a discussion with the military on immigration policy, the military argued that Argentina could not admit workers from neighboring countries because they were ''illiterate and unhealthy.''

Even before the Falklands defeat, some Argentines were raising the question of their identity. A leader of the Peronists (the other major political party besides the Radicals), the former Economy Minister Antonio Cafiero, said to Le Monde:

''We don't belong to the West because we don't have a democratic government. We don't belong to the East either. We don't belong to North or South (i.e. rich or poor) because we are a country of average development. We are not Europe, nor the US, nor Latin America. We are the rich one of the poor countries and the poor one of the rich countries.''

Mr. Cafiero was speaking when Argentines still believed that military victory in the Falklands would be theirs. This week's debacle has already turned such rational self-questioning as his into the imprecations and violence of the anguished crowd outside the presidential palace in Buenos Aires June 15.

Whether General Galtieri and military leadership of the nation can survive politically, and -- if not -- where Argentina will head politically remains to be seen.

But the fury and destructiveness of the demonstrators outside the palace is a stark reminder of the backlash possible when any people feel robbed of their identity and denied their full dimensions as human beings. One has only to recall how in the past two decades such peoples as, say, the Palestinians and black Americans have reacted under somewhat parallel traumatic circumstances.

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