For the Falkland islanders, the war in Ukraine brings back haunting memories of their own trauma four decades ago. Having themselves experienced a barbaric invasion by a big bully next door, they understand all too well what the people of Ukraine are going through.
‘I still feel that gun in my back,’ one islander told me recently, describing the day Argentine troops landed on Pebble Island and brutally rounded up the locals. Much has changed in the Falklands since 1982, nearly all of it for the better, yet the war remains seared in the memory.
This year’s 2 April is, therefore, hugely significant – the 40th anniversary of the invasion. After two months of conflict and the loss of 907 lives, mostly Argentine, the Falklands were liberated and the aggressor sent packing. But while the anniversary is a chance to reflect, it will also be a day when islanders will shake their heads and sigh. Because the Argentine threat remains.
Landing at the islands’ Mount Pleasant complex today, it’s hard to imagine there used to be only the tiny Stanley airport. Before the war there were no roads to outlying communities. You rode on horseback, or drove across the hills, often getting ‘bogged’ for hours or days. People rarely left and if they did, it was for good. The only industry of note was sheep farming, and that was a tough life. The population was shrinking.
Nobody wanted the war, but it changed everything. Afterwards, British money arrived. Roads were built. Stanley got a new hospital, school and the islands’ first swimming pool. Arrangements were made for children to study in the UK after the age of 16. A vehicle ferry linked East and West Falkland, and a modern telephone system was installed.
Crucially, Britain gave the islanders the rights to fish waters 150 miles offshore, something it had refused to do before for fear of upsetting Argentina. Fishing quickly became a huge source of income, and today is worth about 60 per cent of the economy. Tourism has boomed too, with cruise ships visiting Stanley. The islanders now have a European standard of living and more jobs than people to do them. The population has doubled, with newcomers from as far afield as the Philippines, Zimbabwe and New Zealand. A new port is being built, as well as a national sports facility. No wonder the mantra of the anniversary commemorations is ‘Looking Forward at Forty’.
But amidst it all is the giant, brooding presence of Argentina. Little did we imagine then that 40 years later tensions would still be simmering. We thought it was over – that good had triumphed over evil.
If only. Argentina still feels the humiliation of defeat, covets the islands as much as ever and regards them as stolen, with a one-eyed version of history every bit as warped as Putin’s view of Ukraine. School maps propagate it and the slogan ‘las Malvinas fueron, son y serán Argentinas’ (‘the Malvinas were, are and will be Argentine’) is endlessly repeated. In Tierra del Fuego, the Malvinas crest is sewn into uniforms and sports kits.
Argentina knew it couldn’t launch another invasion. The beefed-up British presence ruled that out. So it has pursued aggressive diplomacy instead. Just six years after the war, it persuaded the UN to request a negotiation. In 1994, it changed its constitution, incorporating the Falklands into one of its provinces; then Néstor Kirchner, elected president in 2003, declared sovereignty over the islands his ‘top priority’. When his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, succeeded him, she pressured Gordon Brown, and tried to thrust a package marked ‘UN Malvinas’ into David Cameron’s hands at the G20. To this day, and with no sense of irony, Argentina’s leaders call Britain ‘an aggressive actor’.
Blatant though these tactics were, they were successful. Most of Latin America supports Argentina’s claim. China and Russia do too, which tells its own story. Even within the EU, Argentina has advocates, not least Spain, which sees a chance to make trouble over Gibraltar.
But not content with this, Argentina has made every effort to bully the Falklands, something that Phyl Rendell, chair of the 40th Anniversary Committee, described to me as ‘economic terrorism’. Tactics have included banning flights from passing through Argentine airspace and pressuring the Mercosur bloc into closing ports to ships displaying the Falklands flag. Argentina has also banned energy companies active in the islands and threatened to arrest their executives, while targeting British natural resource companies with lawsuits. And it has lobbied loudly against Stanley’s new port, declaring it a threat to its own port at Ushuaia.
While these tactics aim to hit the Falklands economically, Argentina has also stooped to a series of nasty pranks. Before the London Olympics, a film crew landed on the islands illegally to film an Argentine athlete training at clearly British landmarks, and in 2020 Argentina demanded a Falklands badminton team play as ‘Islas Malvinas’ in an inter-national tournament. Some Argentine visitors wave their national flag around Stanley and write abusive comments in the church register.
Why all this absurd behaviour? The islanders say it’s envy – that while the Falklands prosper, Argentina remains mired in economic turmoil. But that’s a warning too. In 1982, a brutal administration tried to distract from economic problems by launching a war. For two months, until the moment of defeat, Argentines were fed stories of victory. ‘We’re winning!’ screeched the headlines, even as British forces surrounded Stanley. The junta soon fell after that, and Argentina became a democracy. But still problems mount, and still its government seeks to distract by keeping the issue of the ‘Malvinas’ alive.
Understandably, then, the conflict casts a long shadow over the Falklands, and its people will be forever grateful to the British soldiers who liberated them. On my first work trip there, a decade ago, I went to places that had become familiar in 1982. I visited Goose Green, where Argentine soldiers shoved a hundred men, women and children into the tiny hall, incarcerating them in intolerable conditions for a whole month. I saw the spot where Colonel H. Jones fell. I visited the lonely war cemetery at San Carlos, before hiking across hills to see the wreckage of Argentine planes. I climbed Mount Tumbledown, from where British troops saw the white flag flying over Stanley.
But the other, peaceful, side to the Falklands always shines through: the wilderness and tranquillity. The islands are almost other--worldly. There’s hardly any crime, so people leave their houses and vehicles unlocked. The children roam safely. The air is clean. There’s no noise pollution. The scenery is spectacular, the wildlife incredible. On my last visit in January, a pair of huge turkey vultures swooped above Stanley, while sea lions snoozed on the quayside.
Yet this beauty is forced to sit alongside memories of conflict and subjugation. Perhaps that’s as it should be. For so long as we refuse to forget, we remain determined to defend the rights of the islanders, and nations everywhere, to decide their own futures. Long may they be free to do so.