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The South Atlantic: Looking Ahead

A conference organised by the South Atlantic Council on 15 April 2011

The views expressed below were those of the speaker. None of the presentations are endorsed by the Council.

In Search of Common Ground

Presentation by Vicente Palermo

It is commonplace in my country to say that governmental policy regarding the Falkland/Malvinas issue is geared toward short-term domestic political interests. This is only partially true. It is true, because indeed in formulating official policy, there is always evidence of how domestic political considerations influence decision-making. For example, we know that within the Argentine Foreign Service there are people that favour an intelligent course of action, consisting of strengthening cooperation with Great Britain and other countries in the framework of the Antarctic Treaty and guaranteeing that the Falkland/Malvinas dispute does not extend to other matters in the bilateral relationship. But the recent dissemination of WikiLeaks cables confirms that their initiatives were rejected, because those opposed to such initiatives, successfully established the idea that they would be detrimental to the government in the domestic electoral political context.

But it is mistaken to consider that this subordination of official Falkland/Malvinas policy to short-term domestic political interests is based upon a solid set of Malvinera beliefs held by the public opinion or by certain groups in society, which would make the adoption of grandiose and symbolically aggressive stances practically mandatory. We can also provide some examples here: Argentina does not currently have an ambassador in Great Britain. But the government is not afraid, in the context of this diplomatic vacuum, that it would lose popularity if it were to designate an ambassador. The government knows very well that this would not happen! However, there might be a belief, mistaken in my opinion, that this "tough" policy will bring about some benefits in terms of popularity. But, above all, there is a solid conviction that in the Falkland/Malvinas issue, "good" things come together: Argentina's malvinera orthodoxy — they believe — not only grants popularity to those that uphold it, but is also the best way to "recover" the islands. In other words, these decisions, extremely unfortunate to my mind, are not made so much as a function of short-term domestic considerations, as they are because of a solid set of beliefs, convictions and perceptions solidified over a long historical process, constituting what we will term here the causa Malvinas (the Falklands/Malvinas cause). These policymakers make their decisions as they see fit, informed by the causa, and they do so freely, not tied down by any deep-seated social preferences that would hypothetically constrain the policy making process.

But, what does the causa Malvinas consist of? It is basically a discursive configuration that includes an account of the past, an interpretation of the present, and a mandate for the future. Simply put, the causa Malvinas holds that Argentines were victims of a plunder, and that our condition as victims of a plunder is, at present, as absolute as it was in 1833. Territorially, what is at stake in this dispute is not just an area, but a part — says the causa — of what has always been Argentine territory, and as a result, Argentina is being subjected to a territorial mutilation. The plunder and the mutilation of the territory render the nation an incomplete entity. This means that territorial redemption (the "recovery" of the islands) is a necessary condition for national affirmation. Precisely because the nation is incomplete, we should be emphatically nationalist. This glorifies nationalism, and in particular one form of nationalism: that which perceives the nation as a victim — plundered, mutilated and incomplete. In truth, the causa Malvinas is a particular mode of Argentine nationalism. It is an outcome of the integration, over time, of notions, forms, words, symbols, beliefs and memories, which are more clearly distinctive of this nationalism than the equivalent characteristics of other particular forms of nationalism. But we need to make explicit one additional, unsurprising feature: in the causa Malvinas, that truth and justice are on Argentina's side is, in fact, a postulate. Critical analyses or discussions of the (legal, political and other) premises for the Argentine position are inadmissible, precisely because they issue not so much from the "facts" as from the basic beliefs of the causa.

In 1982, the capacity of the causa to guide political action was obvious: the Argentine people, "lovers of peace" and "infinitely patient", finally became fed up that the truth and justice of their position were not being recognized. A strict normative pattern, that for the causa held supremacy over any other (such as international law, for example), allowed the occupation of the islands by force to be considered entirely natural and fair. It is true that the causa has absorbed this tragic historical episode, such that it is now commonplace to assert that the struggle to recover the islands should employ exclusively peaceful means (a claim that must be unquestioningly accepted by all parties involved). But it is the fact that the truth and justice of the causa have not been recognized in a timely fashion that revives the feelings of plunder, mutilation and incompleteness, reinforcing our nationalism.

I have dedicated some time to explaining the characteristics of the causa Malvinas because I consider it indispensable in order to distinguish it from a simple diplomatic-territorial dispute. Of course, very different courses of action result from the different ways of perceiving and characterising a conflict. The point of reference, an archipelago, may be the same, but it changes everything if, for one of the parties (I am not concerned here with any other party or parties), the dispute frequently departs from the normal diplomatic channels indicated by international law. Or, to be more precise, if diplomatic activity is almost constantly caught up in the causa.

But an understanding of the terms of the conflict that concerns us here requires knowledge of how rooted the different interpretive frameworks of this conflict are (in society, the political system, the public bureaucracies, etc.). Thus, we must ask, what currency does the causa Malvinas hold in today's Argentina? Fortunately, it is in retreat, though it is a slow and uneven retreat — the withdrawal of a beast with great capacity to resist. For now, the causa Malvinas continues to cast its gloom on innumerable occurrences — big and small, of all sorts — which would be incomprehensible without it. Let us give a few simple examples here. Following the recent declassification of English wartime documents related to Margaret Thatcher's efforts to persuade friendly nations to impose economic, commercial and financial sanctions against Argentina, the information was presented by a leading newspaper, Clarín (31-10-2010), as an effort to "destroy Argentina" (more moderately, the headline accuses Thatcher of having only wanted to "destroy the Argentine economy"). This vicitimisation, bordering on paranoia, fits well with the resentment exuded in a La Nación editorial (14-01-2011), for example, which, after accusing the British government of "violating UN resolutions", adds, "one could even maintain that the prohibition that prevented Argentine citizens for years from being able to reside in the islands, following their massive expulsion by the British, is a form, perhaps subtle, of what today we call ethnic cleansing, and is therefore politically, ethically and legally as inacceptable as it is reprehensible."

But in many cases, expressions of this type are more like tics, or automatic reflexes, more side effects of the causa, than expressions of the causa itself. Recent years have shown (based on different opinion surveys) that the perceptions and opinions of Argentines on this matter are very far, for a significant proportion of the population, from identifying with the causa Malvinas. A significant number of those consulted are willing to try forms of negotiation, to imagine innovative solutions. In truth, the causa Malvinas is at its most healthy in a significant part of the political system and above all in the civil service — in the diplomatic service, for example, where malvinera orthodoxy is unquestionably dominant. It is impossible to neatly address the issue here, but to understand this significant retreat of the causa would require touching on the impact of the war experience (1982) on the causa per se, as well as the impact of the democratic experience (since 1983) on nationalism. In any case, the causa Malvinas still occupies positions of strategic importance, but the main problem is not so much the currency of the causa, nor whether it is strong in different parts of society or in the political system, as it is the fact that there is no alternative interpretive framework. Years have passed since the Falkland/Malvinas war, but neither the war nor the democratic experience have been capitalised on to create a vision that could go against the causa and inscribe a set of assessments and objectives in the country's best interest. The few original initiatives that went against the causa, taken by different governments in the 1980s and 1990s, barely left a mark.

Nonetheless, the space for innovation created by the erosion of the social and cultural bases that have sustained the causa is, in my opinion, real. But such a momentous change cannot be made in a vacuum. Paradigm changes require political leadership. Their development, as well as their necessary support, must be the result of a coming together of politicians, civil service and civil society. There is an intellectual and political battle to fight. This should, in my opinion, be based on concrete proposals about relevant aspects of the Falkland/Malvinas issue and not, in a first stage, on an alternative paradigm to the causa Malvinas. This alternative paradigm can not be the point of departure; rather, it must be the destination of the intellectual political debate.

Concrete proposals to initiate this debate should include, in my opinion, the following:

  1. a proposal to Great Britain to re-implement the 'sovereignty umbrella' formula as a framework for a far-ranging policy of cooperation;
  2. recognising the islanders (Falklanders/Malvinenses) as subjects with rights and desires and not merely interests;
  3. removing the Falkland/Malvinas issue from the top of Argentina's priorities with respect to foreign policy; and
  4. making some symbolic and legal decisions related to the causa.

Let us examine these initiatives in some detail.

1) Re-implementing the sovereignty umbrella. In the region, the most significant precursors to the so-called "sovereignty umbrella" were the Antarctic Treaty and the ultimately frustrated policies of the 1990s. The sovereignty umbrella basically consists of an agreement by which the parties' positions on the matter of sovereignty are protected, stipulating that no act or activity carried out under the agreement shall constitute grounds for either denying or affirming the position of either of the parties with respect to sovereignty. It thus clears the path of obstacles to cooperation in all possible areas. The cornerstone of the umbrella strategy is that both countries acknowledge the obvious: there is a dispute — an issue linked to sovereignty, upon which the two parties do not agree. Acknowledging this dispute is made explicit in the formula in a way that protects the parties' positions in order to allow them to agree upon a wide range of possibilities for cooperation, without the fear of creating precedents that could put their interests at risk.

The indispensable complement to the "umbrella formula" is a unilateral decision by Argentina in the diplomatic sphere: Argentina must decide not to demand that the United Kingdom engage in discussions about sovereignty as a condition for negotiations or agreements in any other area.

2) Recognising the islanders as subjects with rights and desires. The catchphrase of malvinera orthodoxy has been unchanging in this sense: "the islanders have interests, but not desires, to be taken into account". To take into account the desires of the islanders is an eminently political move that, sidestepping the unproductive discussion about self-determination, establishes a recognition that is also political: they are a part of all negotiations, and Argentina does not expect to secure an eventual exercise of sovereignty against the will of the Falklander/malvinense community.

It is, in short, about no longer harassing the islanders, without renouncing the legal claim, but granting them both political and symbolic assurances that their desires in the matter will be respected, such that the British, the Falklanders/malvinenses and the Argentines will be free to cooperate on the many tasks at hand.

3) Removing the Falklands/Malvinas issue from its paramount position in Argentina's foreign policy agenda. In practice, this means that Argentine diplomacy and official policy would stop subordinating a wide range of foreign policy issues to the demands of malvinera orthodoxy. Just one example, but a very clear and conspicuous one, is how relations with the United Kingdom are currently "Falklandized/Malvinised". It is not necessarily a matter of abandoning the rituals in the United Nations; it does not mean that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can not reiterate the juridico-political grounds for Argentina's rights to the archipelago. There is probably no alternative; but the intensity and the frequency with which we do so should begin to gradually decrease. In Argentina's diplomatic policy on the matter, we should indicate that it is important to us that the islanders be free to decide what they want. And meanwhile, the best thing we can do is put the Falkland/Malvinas conflict in the irrelevant place it belongs, opening the way to a wide range of possibilities for cooperation in the region. It would not be a formal renunciation of rights, but it would make clear our recognition that we are not entirely in the right in this conflict. The loss of relevance of the policy of denunciation should take place pari passu with an increase in cooperative South Atlantic regional activism.

4) Symbolic and legal decisions with domestic and international impact. These decisions can only materialise if it becomes clear that there is a public sentiment that can offset the active malvinismo, a public sentiment that can enable courageous political initiatives. I have at least four such initiatives in mind: restoring the historical name of the capital of the Falklands/Malvinas, Puerto Stanley; discontinuing the celebration of April 2 as a date of remembrance, and, in any case, establishing a single date of remembrance exclusively for mourning, tied to the history of the conflict, which could be June 14, and would remember all of the fallen, Argentines, British, Falklanders/malvinenses; overturning the legal and/or regulatory cartographic statutes, still in effect, that require all government and private publishers to include the (scathingly named by Carlos Escué) "imaginary territory", instead leaving it up to publishers to include this imaginary territory or not. And finally, going further, engaging in a debate that would make explicit how problematic it is that there is a provisional constitutional clause like the one that figures in the current constitution.

I would like to point out that, strictly speaking, nothing that I am proposing implies affecting or damaging the legal grounds (whose merit is outside the scope of this discussion) of Argentina's position on matters of sovereignty. But it is undeniable, in contrast, that everything said here is in direct conflict with the causa Malvinas. These points address areas that, in my opinion, should not be absent in a public debate that is elaborating an alternative paradigm. But to move forward with such a debate, British and islander counterparts are needed. An effort to create a space for stable discussion between islanders, British and Argentines could be extraordinarily rewarding and create long-term effects on the way in which the parties understand the issue, as well as in policy formation in each case.

Without purporting to tell others what they must do, I shall consider one example. As is well-known, the December 1 1976 Resolution 31/49 of the General Assembly of the United Nations, "calls upon the two parties to refrain from taking decisions that would imply introducing unilateral modifications in the situation" while negotiations regarding the sovereignty dispute are ongoing. Now, it is obvious that Argentina broke from this position when it occupied the islands in April 1982. In this new context, and with no sovereignty-related negotiations underway at the time, the United Kingdom apparently acted on the understanding that it was completely free to take unilateral decisions. In the area of natural resource exploration and exploitation, for example. However, clinging to this way of understanding things is not ideal. If Argentina were willing to profoundly review its policy on the matter, taking up the spirit of Resolution 31/49, it could chart a beneficial direction for all parties.

Argentines have much more at stake in the matter than the British (although obviously not more than the Falklanders/malvinenses). I am not referring to the islands themselves, but rather to the opportunity to leave behind a bitter nationalism and a relationship with the world that has been characterised by strife. It is commonplace in malvinera nationalism to say that "Malvinas is the only thing that unites us"; calling the causa into question will make it possible to bring visibility to other values that bind our union.

*** ***

Vicente Palermo is a Senior Researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas – Conicet) in Buenos Aires, and member of the Argentine Political Club (Club Político Argentino). He is also a member of the group that has offered An Alternative Vision of the Falklands-Malvinas dispute.





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