USHUAIA, Argentina — Argentina’s president said Monday that she’s asked the International Red Cross to persuade Britain to let its DNA experts identify unknown soldiers buried in the Falkland Islands.
Thirty years after Argentina and Britain went to war over the remote South Atlantic archipelago, Cristina Fernandez says universal human rights demand that both countries work together to give those remains back to their families.
Her much-anticipated speech on the anniversary of Argentina’s April 2, 1982 invasion of the islands was focused on promoting dialogue and understanding. She said her government sets a global standard for protecting human rights and vowed to “respect the interests of the islanders” as Argentina seeks to peacefully regain control.
“We don’t have war drums, nor do we wear military helmets. Our only helmets are those of construction workers, working for the inclusion of all,” she said at the city’s Monument to the Fallen, honoring the 649 Argentines who died in the conflict.
Despite attention-grabbing images of protesters burning a Union Jack flag outside the British embassy, polls show zero appetite among Argentines for a military solution.
Prime Minister David Cameron said in London earlier Monday that Britain had to come to the islanders’ defense in 1982, and will do so again if anyone tries to deprive them of their liberty. The 74-day occupation ended when British troops routed the ill-prepared Argentines in hard-fought trench warfare. In all, 255 British soldiers and three islanders were killed.
Fernandez called Cameron’s statement absurd and ridiculous, noting that Argentines were also deprived of their liberty at the time, living under a 1976-1983 dictatorship, supported by outside powers, that had kidnapped and killed thousands of its own people.
“I am proud of having made promoting human rights one of the pillars of our state,” she said. For this reason, it’s impossible to consider that Argentina would not also protect the rights of the 3,000 islanders, she argued.
Britain has refused Argentina’s repeated calls to negotiate the islands’ sovereignty, saying it’s up to the islanders to decide. Before, during and after the 1982 conflict, the islanders have overwhelmingly said they want to maintain British protection.
For about a year now, Argentina has been intensifying its campaign to pressure Britain into sovereignty talks, a theme it pushes in every international forum. Argentina’s historical claim to the islands Latin America knows as Las Malvinas has support across the region, and got moral backing last week from a group of Nobel Peace Prize winners who scolded Britain for ignoring U.N. resolutions urging talks.
Argentina has closed off shipping routes and air space. Unions have refused to unload British cargo or accept British-flagged cruise ships. Fernandez’s ministers have sought to close off British imports, sue British investors and banks, and block oil development.
It adds up to an “economic war” that has made life difficult, but Argentina seems to be running out of leverage and is no closer to recovering the territory that fell under British control in 1833, said Dick Sawle, a member of Falkland Islands legislative assembly.
“I think that Brazil, Uruguay and Chile will see what they’re missing in the Falklands, and at that point it just becomes a lot of shouting across the water that can be ignored,” Sawle added.
As for identifying the war dead, Sawle said last month that his government would await a formal proposal before commenting.
While the president explicitly sought to reassure islanders several times in Monday’s speech, feelings on both sides have hardened.
“Penguin News” Editor Lisa Watson said she tries to find the right tone as she responds to hate mail through public Twitter messages. But it didn’t help when Argentines discovered that the newspaper’s photo of Fernandez had been saved under a crude insult.
“It never occurred to us that the filename would be so transparent. It was hugely embarrassing, particularly now as we were seemingly winning the image war,” Watson’s colleague John Fowler said. “Before that, Lisa had been pretty continuously receiving hundreds and hundreds of nasty sexually insulting messages a day.”
Argentina has variously tried to charm, occupy, negotiate and threaten its way back into the islands. In the 1970s, it established a direct air link with Buenos Aires, supplied them with gasoline and paid to educate island children. For Britain, the island had become a burden; it was pushing islanders to accept a Hong Kong-style handover before the junta decided to invade.
For many islanders and Argentines, those 74 days of armed occupation provided their only glimpse of each others’ lives.
Other attempts to build ties in the 1990s included agreements on shared fishing and oil rights, shipping and air links and other exchanges, but nearly all were abandoned under Fernandez and her late husband Nestor Kirchner, who have sought to isolate the islands instead.
“Thirty years and now we find it again, we are worried we are going to go through it all again, another invasion,” islander Mary Lou Agman said at a Sunday march by the small Falkland Islands Defense Force.
Islanders should relax, because another invasion will never happen, said James Peck, an islander with dual Falklands-Argentine nationality after marrying an Argentine and moving to Buenos Aires, said he saw the pre-anniversary war of words “fueling itself and becoming hysterical.”
“Someone has to speak out for common sense,” he said. “For me Argentina has real dignity these days, and I’m amazed that grown up politicians cannot sit down and talk civilly to each other. I think that’s really sad. Not everybody’s getting stoked up by all this.”
Riot police outside the British embassy fired tear gas and blue-painted water from a cannon at protesters wielding slingshots and throwing bottles of burning liquid. But outside this small group, Argentines from across the political spectrum endorsed the pacifist response.
“The soveriegnty campaign seems correct to me. I don’t think there’s any other road but the diplomatic one, although I don’t have confidence in anything this government does,” said Martin Dhers, who joined a solemn crowd outside the Buenos Aires war memorial.
Yearning for common ground, several veterans were holding a quiet ceremony at the Argentine war cemetery in the islands, on a lonely bluff near the scene of one of the most intense battles.
“To return to this little piece of land, which for me is a little bit of my country and apart from that, being here is so pleasing, to be among the people that were once our enemies, that which we can now live together with — it’s just really proof that we human beings are not like animals,” said Juan Carlos Lujan.