Buenos Aires is as exhilarating, as unpredictable, as stylish as ever. But the economic boom is over. Times are hard once again, more shops in Calle Florida are boarded up, the sales are pretty frantic. And so, as Jorge Luis Borges, the blind sage of Calle Maipu, just off the superb Plaza San Martin, once remarked: ‘When Argentina’s economy goes bad, you can be sure that nationalism will soon be beating its wings.’
Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, beautiful, combative and ruthless, was already pretty nationalistic when the economy was doing well. In 2007, when her late husband was still president, she and he unilaterally cancelled the agreement with Britain that the two countries should co-operate on oil exploration around the Falkland Islands. That decision, taken precisely in order to provoke a nationalistic row over the islands, led directly to today’s deadlock. And of course it’s in good time for Monday: the 30th anniversary of the invasion.
If Argentina wants a row, there’s not much that anyone can do to stop it. No one is seriously suggesting that President Fernandez will launch another military invasion of the Falklands. For a start, her air force still largely consists of the same planes that it had back in 1982. Anyway, one of her genuine successes has been to keep the armed forces out of Argentine politics. Nowadays, you scarcely ever see a military uniform on the streets.
Instead, la divina Cristina’s success has been diplomatic, not military. Countries in Latin America which were supportive of Britain in 1982 now make public statements backing Argentina. They don’t necessarily mean them. Argentina is a difficult country to get on with, and President Fernandez is much too friendly with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and edging disturbingly close to him politically, for most Latin American countries to be happy about it.
But Latin America is changing. It’s starting to get a better sense of itself, and countries like China and India are becoming more important to them. China, indeed, is hoovering up the raw materials of many South American countries at an enormous rate, and their governments, grateful for the cash, regard this as a good thing. ‘Why should we be interested in old, declining countries like Britain?’ a radio journalist in Buenos Aires asked recently. ‘We are the future.’
It used to be that, in dealing with Argentina, Britain could always rely on the support of three South American nations — Chile, Peru and Colombia — and the benign neutrality of two others, Brazil and Uruguay. In 1982, during the Falklands conflict, Chile even did some serious sabre-rattling in Britain’s support, so that Argentina had to station its best troops along the Andes to make sure that the Chileans didn’t invade. Colombia used its influence at the UN. Brazil and Uruguay allowed all sorts of dodgy British flights to land in their territory until Argentine intelligence found out and made a fuss.
And now? A majority of the entire continent supports Argentina’s claim to the islands. A week ago, Peru refused to allow a Royal Navy ship to use its ports. Chile is considering an Argentine request to cut the Falklands’ civilian lifeline, the weekly flight from Santiago. In private, Brazil, Chile, Peru and other countries shuffle their feet when the British ambassador comes round. ‘You know how it is — Argentina is a nuisance, but we’re expected to show a bit of solidarity. Anyway, it doesn’t mean anything: the Argies will never invade again.’
They’re right — but the big danger for British policy now isn’t military, it’s diplomatic. Although we’re supposed to be so good at diplomacy, we’ve let this one slip badly. Our attention has been on all sorts of other things over the past few years: Iraq, Afghanistan, Europe. Anything except Latin America. And if we aren’t careful, the islands will become a serious embarrassment in our relations with countries in the region that are starting to count for a good deal. Being forced to choose between better links with an entire continent and the entirely legitimate rights of the 3,140 islanders could prove difficult.
There’s another threat, which worries some people at the Foreign Office. With the anniversary of the invasion imminent, there is at least the possibility that Argentine nationalists will carry out a major stunt. There are no signs that it is about to happen, and it never may. But it could; and it would cause Britain a good deal of awkwardness if it did.
The Foreign Office’s anxiety is that a bunch of Argentine volunteers will charter a plane to the Falklands and demand to land there. Will the British forces on the islands shoot the plane down? Of course not. Will they refuse it permission to land? Difficult, if it doesn’t have enough fuel to get back to Argentina. If it is allowed to land, how will they deal with the more-or-less peaceful invaders? You can see how it could all turn into a big embarrassment. And we wouldn’t have any support from a single country in the region.
Carlos Menem, Argentina’s president from 1989 to 1999, was a mildly absurd figure, but he knew how to put the country back on track after the disasters of military rule. In particular, he set out to resolve the problem of the Falkland Islands in partnership with Britain. The two countries agreed to set to one side the issue of sovereignty, and create better relations between the islands and the mainland, and between themselves. It worked well; until 2007, that is, when Argentina dumped the whole policy.
Even before that, Britain had taken its eye off the ball in Latin America. Now it really has to start hard diplomatic work again. The drink-sodden military junta which invaded the Falklands in 1982 for want of anything better to do believed that Britain didn’t really care about the islands. It took a thousand deaths to demonstrate that this wasn’t true. Letting things slip again could have dangerous consequences.
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor.