Falklands war 30 years on: Will a vote solve the dispute?

Of all the potential solutions for the Falkland Islands conflict, the most creative is the one allegedly floated by iconic Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges in 1982: Give them to Bolivia.

Lisa Watson, Penguin News/AP
Falklands Islanders attend a ceremony to pay homage to Britain's soldiers who died during the 1982's war against Argentina at “Liberation Monument” in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, Thursday, June 14.

Of all the potential solutions for the Falkland Islands conflict, the most creative must be the one allegedly floated by iconic Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges in 1982: Give them to Bolivia.

As the Falkland islanders celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the June 14 end to the war between Argentina and Great Britain, the dispute is far from settled. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is expected to argue her country's claim of sovereignty over the South Atlantic islands, which they call the Malvinas, before the United Nations today, the latest move in the continuing diplomatic dust-up between the two countries.
It’s a long-standing problem that might need an innovative solution. Think about it: The Borges proposal of a Bolivian Falklands should gratify Argentines and Britons because it would mean one less nationalist cause that their politicians could use to distract them from more important matters. It would finally give the impoverished and land-locked Bolivia an answer to its historical call for access to the sea. And it would provide excellent material for followers of the Latin American surrealist literary tradition.

But, alas, it wouldn’t resolve the issue at the heart of the conflict, which is the freedom to self-determination of 3,000 Falkland islanders, known as kelpers – a decision they will make in an early 2013 referendum, announced on Tuesday by Gavin Short, chairman of the Falklands Legislative Assembly. British leaders have maintained they will not negotiate over island sovereignty unless residents express a desire to do so.
 
And Mr. Short was clear: “I have no doubt that the people of the Falklands wish for the islands to remain a self-governing overseas territory of the United Kingdom,” he said in a statement. “We certainly have no desire to be ruled by the government in Buenos Aires, a fact that is immediately obvious to anyone who has visited the islands and heard our views.”
 
While the referendum will likely bolster the British side of the dispute, President Fernandez claims that the Falklands are an “absurd” relic of a colonial past, and has pursued a multi-pronged diplomatic and legal effort to pressure the UK into negotiations, including the banning of British ships in the region, and filing a suit against firms exploring for offshore oil. She’s expected to raise the issue on Thursday in New York for the annual UN decolonization committee hearings.
 
Thirty years ago, the Argentine military government invaded the islands as part of an effort to galvanize waning support for its rule. A 74-day war ensued, ending the lives of 649 Argentine and 255 British soldiers. The British military presence left behind allowed Falkland authorities to update its infrastructure, and collect fees from the international boats that fish its rich waters, turning the islands from a sheep-farming economic backwater into one of the richest territories (per capita) in the Western Hemisphere. Kelpers were given full citizenship and representative government under British protection, forging even stronger ties between Great Britain and the islanders, who speak British English, watch the BBC, and send their kids to university in Britain.

Meanwhile, children in Argentina learn in school – and Argentines preserve the widely held conviction – that the "Malvinas are Argentine." Authorities say the territory was inherited from Spain upon independence in 1816, but historical documents show that no nation had undisputed control of the islands when they were claimed by the British in 1833. Argentina’s bid for a share of expected oil wealth has been abandoned, and they're instead trying to isolate the Falklands by blocking ships, and pursuing diplomatic efforts to get other Latin American countries to do the same. And the demand for revenue sharing, if it ends there, is disingenuous: Argentina's constitution was reformed in the 1990s, and calls for full sovereignty over the islands.
 
The Argentine cause, then, if it continues to be used as a cudgel for heavy-handed nationalism, and views the islands only as a physical space without recognizing the wishes of the kelpers, would be just as fanciful as Borges’s.

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