One of my hopes for visiting Argentina was understanding the Argentinian perspective on the 1982 war in the South Atlantic known in Britain as the Falklands War and here in Argentina as the Malvinas War. The British perspective is the islanders of Britain’s long time Falklands Island colony are entitled to self-determination. They wish to remain British. For the British that is the end of the analysis.
I was reminded today walking around Buenos Aires that for Argentina the story is more complex. Argentina’s modern history began with European invasion in the 1500s, a War of Independence in the early 19th Century, a rise to independent economic promise in the early 20th Century, an uncertain end to the 20th Century, followed by new promise in the early 21st Century. Around me was a modern city with architecture of the colonial period and 19th and 20th Century European architecture. On one side of the Plaza de San Martin was the largest art deco building I have ever seen. It was built in the 1930s and at one time it was the tallest building in Latin America. The breathtaking architecture is a reminder of a history as rich and complex as any of the republics of the Western Hemisphere.
But it is a history that begins with European powers invading and taking from the indigenous population century after century. At the top of the park of San Martin in a plaza is the perfectly balanced equestrian statue of San Martin, the liberator of Argentina who won the battles of independence from Spain. Across the plaza French inspired buildings rise in perfectly fitted stone blocks to gables and turrets of classical 19th Century Paris. The trees bursting with green in textures I had never seen floated in a strong wind. A wind that kept the giant blue, gold, and white flag of Argentina flapping below the plaza over the war memorial.
The guide who met me at the airport had warned me not to walk in the park. But I knew below that billowing flag was the national monument to the fallen of the Malvinas War. As the guide had promised I was propositioned a few times as I walked under the billowing canopy of trees, then down the long stone stairs. At the bottom a work crew was busily freshening the monument with new gold paint on the long list of dead.
Two sailors stood at attention within the memorial holding their rifles at attention in front of them. It was a reminder that the largest disaster of the war for Argentina was not the recapture of the islands, but the sinking of the General Belgrano in the cold expanse of the South Atlantic. Hundreds of Argentina sailors drowned in the frozen waters when the British submarine the Conqueror torpedoed the old cruiser. It is ironic that the United States sold the cruiser, which had survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, to Argentina so that America’s staunchest ally could sink it.
The twentieth anniversary of the war, the breakdown of talks between Britain and Argentina, and the Duke of Cambridge’s recent tour of duty on the Falklands have made the war a cause in Argentine politics. But the work on the war memorial was not the only sign that the Malvinas War is not forgotten. As I walked down Florida Street, a pedestrian shopping area, I noticed graffiti declaring the war not forgotten and urging Argentina to recapture the Malvinas.
I stopped at a book store to study a map. The islands purely from geography appear part of Argentina. Forgetting self-determination for a moment, what other country would rule the Malvinas? And given the long history of Spanish and British attempts to rule Argentina, what nationalist would not see the War as the last task of independence that San Martin began so long ago? Although the United States is nominally neutral on the islands, it is also true that the story is reported in the United States from a British perspective. If the Germans could not defeat the British propaganda in America during World Wars I and II, it is perhaps too much to hope that Argentina’s story be told in the United States.
Over the course of the next week I hope to learn more from Argentinians about a war that twenty years on still captures the imagination of both the British and Argentine publics.