Prince William, oil, honor: Why Argentina is pushing to reclaim Falkland Islands

Prince William begins his six-week deployment in the Falkland Islands today. Argentines aren't ready to give up their claim to what they call the Malvinas just yet. 

Marcos Brindicci/Reuters
Masked demonstrators march past an abandoned Harrods store in Buenos Aires on Thursday. Left-wing Activists protested against the arrival of Britain's Prince William to the Falkland Islands, also known as Malvinas by Argentines, for a planned military stint. London has controlled the islands, about 300 miles off the Argentine coast, since 1833.

With the official deployment of Prince William to the Falkland Islands, another chapter in the nearly two-century-old sovereignty conflict between Britain and Argentina is about to be written.

Argentina has compared him to a “conquistador,” while Britain maintains the prince’s six-week stint as a rescue helicopter pilot is routine and in fact says Argentina is the one displaying colonial fervor in seeking control over islanders who are happily British.

Located just 300 miles off of Argentina's coast and referred to as the Malvinas by Argentines, the Falkland Islands have been in the hands of the British since 1833. Argentina has not made the islands a foreign policy priority for the three decades since their brief but deadly war with the British took place over the territory. 

But with the 30th anniversary of the invasion taking place this April, just as Prince William wraps up his tour of duty, and a push by Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to reclaim the islands in light of British oil exploration in nearby waters, the topic has once again been brought to the fore. While some claim that President Fernandez is politicizing the issue, most Argentines, even her foes, agree with the underlying sentiment that the Falklands belong to South America.

According to a new poll by the firm Ibarometro, 70 percent of Argentines surveyed in Buenos Aires consider it important to regain sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. (Only three in 10, however, would want a military solution.)

“No one is saying Argentina should be softer on the issue,” says Pablo Ava, a political consultant in Buenos Aires. “The Argentinean people are very convinced that the Malvinas belong to Argentina. It would be very politically incorrect to say otherwise.”

Eduardo Diez, who teaches Argentine foreign policy at the University of Buenos Aires, says, however, that economic concerns have overshadowed the fate of the islands. “We have much bigger problems, such as inflation,” he says.

The recent flurry of activity has pushed the issue back to the top of the national agenda. Though Prince William’s tour will likely receive the most media attention, the dispute began to simmer even before his arrival, particularly in 2010, when British firms began exploring for oil in the waters off the islands.

The president's rhetoric since then, igniting a diplomatic back-and-forth between the two nations, has earned her support not only in Argentina but across Latin America. In the latest example, the South American trade group Mercosur announced a ban on boats with Falkland Islands flags from their ports in December.

There is nuance within opinions, of course. Left-wing activists, for example, have protested outside the British embassy, demanding that their country break off diplomatic relations with the UK. Others have accused President Fernandez of stirring nationalism for electoral purposes.  

But few will disagree with her end goal, especially as the nation marks the 30th anniversary of an invasion that saw more than 600 Argentine lives lost. “Even if the people don’t agree with what the military government did, taking us to war, they believe the kids who went there are heroes. You honor your heroes’ memory,” says Mr. Ava. “It’s not possible to criticize this and not have a political cost.”

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