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Tensions Bubbling Again Over Falkland Islands


Last night, Argentina's president, Cristina Fernandez Kirchner, said that our country will ask the United Nations to stop what she called Britain's militarization of the Falkland Islands. President Kirchner was referring to the Royal Navy sending a destroyer, HMS Dauntless, to the islands.

PRESIDENT CRISTINA FERNANDEZ KIRCHNER: (Through Translator) The sending of a destroyer, just the word itself, this huge and ultra-modern destroyer, accompanied by the heir to the throne.

SIEGEL: She was referring to Prince William, also known as the Duke of Cambridge, and also known as Flight Leftenant Wales, who's also there.

Britain and Argentina have long been at odds over sovereignty of the Falkland Islands or, as Argentines call them, The Malvinas, at least since 1833 when the British took charge. Argentina seized the islands 30 years ago when they were left undefended. Britain went to war and took them back.

The significance of the islands to the two countries is a lesson in asymmetry. To Argentina, the Malvinas are a severed limb of the body politic; their seizure, a case of British imperial rape. To Britain, well, 30 years ago, I was working out of the world headquarters of the BBC in London, and among the tasks my British officemates would rotate through was hosting a weekly record request show, Calling the Falklands. And to put it mildly, it was not a high-prestige spot.

Professor Mark Jones is a political scientist and Latin America specialist at the Baker Institute of Rice University in Houston. he joins us from Houston.

Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: Help us sort out symbolism from substance here. First, is the dispatch of a destroyer and a royal prince to the Falklands really a provocation to Argentina?

JONES: Well, the sending of the destroyer is very routine. However, the symbol of sending a modern ship, a more powerful militarized ship, is one that at least some Argentines would take as a provocation.

Though, I think it's important to keep in mind that much of this is done for domestic political theater and regional political theater by President Fernandez de Kirchner.

SIEGEL: We're coming up on the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War and she was addressing veterans of the Falklands War. What are some of the domestic issues and domestic pressures on her?

JONES: Well, right now, there is a high inflation rate in Argentina, approaching 25 percent. The government is short on dollars and Cristina Fernandez, more than anything else, wants to attain reelection, which she's barred from doing. The only way she can do so is to obtain a constitutional reform during the next couple years to allow her to run in 2015.

So it's probably the one thing, second to only the national side in soccer, that unites Argentines more is the support for Argentina's claim to the Malvinas.

SIEGEL: Now, on the occasion of a British destroyer being sent south to the Falklands, there's an interesting history here of symbols and sometimes symbols being misread over the Falklands. Back in 1982, even as the British were negotiating with Argentina over the status of the islands, the government of Margaret Thatcher cut funding for one Antarctic patrol ship for budgetary reasons and the Argentines thought that meant more than, perhaps, it did.

JONES: Right. That was a signal to the Argentine military that the British were not too serious about keeping the Malvinas or the Falklands and, therefore, the military thought that it could invade and that Britain would settle quite quickly and Argentines would then be able to negotiate from a position of strength. That is, holding possession of the islands.

SIEGEL: Another example. A couple of years before that, Britain had rewritten its nationality law. They were really thinking about trying to prevent the Hong Kong Chinese from moving to Britain, but they did some of the Falkland Islanders out of the right of a vote in the U.K. And that also, I gather, was seen as a sign of - they didn't take this place very seriously.

JONES: Right. That was just one of the many signs of disengagement. So the fact that not all Falkland Island residents, about 300 at the time out of close to 2,000, would not be considered British citizens and the cutting of the garrison to a few dozen marines were all signals that Britain's interest in the Falklands was not all that great.

SIEGEL: So these symbols can be meaningful, in that case, if the message sent is, look, if you were to take it again, we would respond with great force.

JONES: Yeah. The British, more than anything else, are sending a signal to Argentines that they have military capacity that the Argentines do not. At the same time, I think a lot of the British actions are designed for their domestic political audience, allowing the Cameron government to demonstrate force, at least in a relatively important way for the public, that it will respond forcefully to any attempts by Argentina to take the Falklands.

Now, it's key to keep in mind that the Argentine military has utterly no military capacity to invade the Falklands. It's fallen to a state of disrepair where it'd be lucky to get six ships in the sea and more than a dozen planes in the air.

SIEGEL: Professor Jones, thank you very much for talking with us today.

JONES: Oh, my pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's Mark Jones, political scientist who specializes in Latin America at the Baker Institute of Rice University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.