On March 10, the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas voted on a historic referendum that addressed the islands’ territorial status. The query that was asked was “Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?” With a 92 percent participation rate, 1,513 residents voted in favor and only three voted against maintaining the islands’ current political relationship with London. Reactions in Buenos Aires and London thus far have been fairly predictable. If anything, the recent election of an Argentine citizen as the new Pope may bring an unexpected opening for new developments to occur on the South Atlantic front, as the Vatican is no stranger to conflict resolution initiatives in South America.
Predictable reaction so far
After the results were made public, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague released a statement explaining, “I welcome today’s result [and that] all countries should accept the results of this referendum and support the Falkland Islanders as they continue to develop their home and their economy.” On the other hand, following her well rehearsed script, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner declared that the referendum had been a “parody.” She has repeatedly stated that the referendum is invalid, since the inhabitants of the islands are not an indigenous population but rather colonizers. Additional criticism came from the Argentine ambassador to the U.K., Alicia Castro, who said in a recent interview, “For how long can the islanders live isolated from the rest of the continent?” Like President Kirchner, the diplomat also called for negotiations with London over the sovereignty of the islands.
The Hemisphere responds
Aside from the declarations from London and Buenos Aires, it is important to note reactions by Western Hemisphere governments. In recent months, the Argentine government lobbied for Latin America and Caribbean states not to send delegates to the islands to observe the referendum. This tactic was only partially successful as several Latin American nations sent observers (namely Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay).
It’s not surprising that Chile sent an observer, as Santiago has been at odds with Buenos Aires for decades, partially due to a territorial dispute that almost ended in a war during the Beagle Canal conflict in the late 1970s. Furthermore, during the 1982 Falklands War between Argentina and the U.K., Santiago (then ruled by General Augusto Pinochet) provided the British military with intelligence that was used against Argentina. Meanwhile, Mexico resisted pressure from Buenos Aires, most likely as a result of President Enrique Pena Nieto’s desire to assert his nation as a Latin American powerhouse. The fact that Brazil and Uruguay sent observers, on the other hand, is somewhat surprising as both countries have repeatedly stated that the Falklands belong to Argentina. In the case of Uruguay, this decision created a small political scandal in Montevideo.
Finally, it is worthy to note that Washington has remained neutral, much to the chagrin of London, which was hoping for diplomatic support for this democratic electoral process. To make matters worse, right wing conservative commentators have criticized the Obama White House for Washington’s neutrality.
Where do we go from here?
As previously mentioned, the referendum and its predictable results don’t actually change the situation in the South Atlantic. Argentina will continue to openly voice their claim to the islands, because Malvinas has become a part of Argentine national identity. Meanwhile, London will continue to maintain its position that it’s willing to address different cooperation initiatives with Buenos Aires, as long as it doesn’t involve the discussion of sovereignty. The White House will most likely continue to be criticized for not more openly supporting London and protecting the historical “special relationship” between the two nations. But it’s in Latin America where the referendum provided some examples of the complicated inter-regional relations as Western Hemisphere states are trying to balance supporting Argentina’s claim (to promote regional unity) while also improving relations with Britain.
At this point, the most we can hope for is that other domestic issues will attract the attention of both governments and their populations in the coming months and away from the islands. For London, the U.K.’s struggling economy and the 2014 referendum over Scottish independence are immediate priorities for Prime Minister David Cameron. Meanwhile, Argentina is suffering from the global recession and the effects of its default in 2001 (the government ordered in February a freeze on supermarket prices), as well as ongoing unrests by various sectors of the population (like the country’s school teachers). In other words, President Kirchner also has several domestic priorities that she should focus on.
The offshore oil and gas deposits around the islands notwithstanding, the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas are hardly the key to a greater future for either Argentina or the U.K., and both the Casa Rosada and 10 Downing Street should focus on their numerous outstanding domestic problems.
A divine breakthrough?
As an appendix to the referendum, it is worthy to note that the Vatican has chosen an Argentine cardinal, Jorge Bergoglio, to be the next Pope. This is relevant to the Falklands dispute as Argentine commentators have already mused whether the new Pope, as an Argentine, could express an interest in mediating between London and Buenos Aires. Interestingly, this situation is not without precedent. During the aforementioned Beagle conflict between Chile and Argentina, Pope John Paul II became involved in the territorial dispute, sending Cardinal Antonio Samore, nicknamed “the Vatican Kissinger,” to South America. The Vatican’s involvement can be regarded as successful given that war was prevented (though bad blood between Chile and Argentina persisted, as exemplified by Chile’s role in the Falklands War). Certainly, a Vatican involvement in the Falkland Islands dispute is just a plausible but still an unlikely scenario, though it is assumed that with the Latino Pope Francis I, the Vatican will have a greater interest in Latin American affairs.
Regarding the Falklands, the referendum has demonstrated the will of the islands’ inhabitants. As previously mentioned, this will not affect Buenos Aires’ position, as the Kirchner government has made several aggressive statements, and it will not take a more neutral position anytime soon. Maybe it would indeed take divine intervention for some kind of positive progress, such a rapprochement between London and Buenos Aires, to occur in the South Atlantic.