Marcos Brindicci/Reuters
A Falkland Islander gestures as he casts his vote at the Town Hall polling station in Stanley, March 10. Residents of the Falkland Islands started voting on Sunday in a sovereignty referendum that seeks to counter Argentina's increasingly assertive claim over the British-ruled territory.

Malvinas curriculum helps Argentina revive Falklands claim

Residents of the Falklands vote today and tomorrow in a referendum that's expected to reaffirm the population's desire to remain an Overseas British Territory.

In a sunny classroom in rural Argentina, a teacher stands in front of a group of primary school students in white coats. 

Behind her two maps pasted on the chalkboard display Argentina and the wing-like shape of a group of 800 tiny islands Argentines contend are being illegally occupied by the United Kingdom.

“Would I need a passport to go to Tierra del Fuego?” the teacher asks.

“No,” students say.

“Then why is a passport required to go to Malvinas?”

“Because it’s dominated by the English.”

This exchange during a geography lesson in a documentary that aired on public television late last year is part of Argentina’s revamp of school curriculum in order to revive sympathy for the republic’s longstanding claim to what it calls the Malvinas, otherwise known as the Falkland Islands, that lie 310 miles across the south Atlantic from Argentine Patagonia.

The campaign is part of a broader effort by the administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to assert sovereign rights to potentially lucrative natural resources in the Falklands territory and Antarctica.

A disputed history

How the islands came to belong to Great Britain, some 8,000 miles away, is a taught history that diverges greatly depending on perspective.

Mrs. Kirchner has framed Britain’s takeover as “a blatant example of 19th -century colonialism” while Falklanders, some of whom trace back nine generations on the islands, say that they are proud of their British heritage.

Argentina says it inherited the islands from Spain after winning its independence in 1816 only to be plundered by British pirates 17 years later.

Argentina’s so-called revisionist historians have reclaimed Antonio “El Gaucho” Rivero, once a condemned figure in Argentina’s history as the leader of a murderous rebellion in the Falklands, as a patriot. Mr. Rivero, hired by French merchant Luis Vernet to work in a settlement that was sold to him by the United Provinces of the River Plate, the predecessor to the Argentine republic, murdered the settlement’s five commanders, the event that triggered Britain’s return to enforce its claim.

In a recent episode of “Zamba’s Amazing Tour,” a popular children’s show produced by a state-run animation company in which a little boy revisits key moments in Argentina’s history, Zamba travels back to 1982 to learn why the islands are Argentine and the injustice of the British occupation.

“There are countries that think they own the world," an Argentine fighter pilot tells Zamba.

Critics: 'indoctrination'

Jan Cheek, a member of the territory’s legislative assembly who oversees education, condemns such programming as “almost indoctrination.”

Falkland Islanders, whose educational system is modeled after the British, are not taught about the sovereignty dispute until they reach high school, Cheek says. 

Unlike Argentine students, who are taught that the British invaded the islands in 1833, islanders learn in classrooms that the British never gave up its claim, originating from an Englishman’s discovery in 1592, and had no colonial interests because the islands were empty when they arrived.

“The accusation that we expelled an Argentine population is not correct because there was no indigenous population. The people who were expelled in 1833 were a small garrison from South America of several nationalities who had been behaving riotously, killed the commanding officer and were shipped back. But all the civilians who had settled on the islands in prior years were invited to stay,” Cheek says.

This version of history is cemented in the minds of pupils when they leave the islands for Britain around the age of 16 to continue their studies, fully-funded by the Falklands government, through university.

Both Argentina’s and the Falklands’ national identity hinge on this disputed history.

During moments of political turmoil, Argentines have rallied around the Falklands claim as their greatest patriotic cause.

Referendum today

Islanders are hoping today and tomorrow’s referendum will demonstrate their wish to maintain their political status as an Overseas British Territory.

Argentines are conflicted over a tradition of rankling over the islands and growing sympathy, since the end of the 1982 war, with the islanders’ plea for self-determination.

Despite winning initial support, the military junta’s 1982 invasion is now generally considered a last-ditch effort by a morally bankrupt government to stave off public rebellion.

After its defeat in a 10-week war with Britain that cost the lives of 255 British and 649 Argentine soldiers, sailors, and air force and three civilians, Argentine leaders, including public teachers, became less vocal about the cause.

“To teach about Malvinas is painful,” a teacher from the Argentine province of Santiago del Estero says in testimony to a congressional committee on the islands. “I am one of those Argentines who personally suffered the paradox of the construction of nationality, that feeling that led us to define homeland through our rights to the Malvinas. We went from condemning imperialism before April 2 to the pain of the surrender, and later on the silence.”

Reintroducing the cause

Kirchner has fervently reintroduced the cause into public debate in Argentina, pledging in her first inaugural speech in 2007 “our unwaivable and irrevocable claim to sovereignty over our Malvinas Islands, where there is a colonial situation that has been denounced before the United Nations.”

A new National Education Act directs public school teachers’ pedagogical approach to the Falklands in lessons – whether history, geography, or civics – that support the sovereignty claims, says Alberto Sileoni, Mrs. Kirchner’s former education minister.

“The actions of the ministry aim at designing policies that contribute to knowing the history of the islands and to have a feeling for and love them as ours,” Sileoni writes in a compilation called “The Malvinas Question,” published in 2010.

Public schools are no strangers to nationalist causes in Argentina, and the phrase “Malvinas are Argentina” is imprinted in the minds of many generations, like it is now imprinted, in posters, graffiti, and t-shirts across Buenos Aires.

During recent diplomatic and trade missions, Kirchner has won the support of China, Russia, and a host of other countries across Asia and Africa.

The “Malvinas Question” has also been taken up by celebrities, with Sean Penn, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, and Morrissey all having attested publicly that the Malvinas are Argentine.

Kirchner’s charge that the UK plans to rob Argentina of the deep-sea oil reserves recently discovered off the Falklands echoes last year’s nationalist takeover of YPF, the Argentine branch of Spanish oil giant Repsol, and current skirmishes with bondholders in New York in a suit over defaulted Argentine debt.

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