The Falkland Islands are back in the news. One one side of the court: Argentina, accusing Britain of exercising “19th-century colonialism” over the wee South Atlantic archipelago. On the other side: British leaders are flexing muscle–and threatening a fight, if Argentina messes with its territory.

I just published a piece in Maclean’s: explaining today’s conflict–and its historical background: the Falklands War of 1982: ‘Argentina wants to claim the Falklands, but Britain’s not having it.

Here’s a slightly longer version of the published story:



The British government’s latest military maneuver seems fresh out of a Monty Python sketch. 150 British infantrymen who just returned from a tour in Afghanistan’s conflict-riddled Helmand province are being redeployed to the Falkland Islands: a landmass roughly the size of Connecticut, and some 8000 miles from Britain. They will join more than 1000 British service personnel who permanently hold down the South Atlantic fort—along with four Typhoon jets and several Navy vessels.

The saga began early this month, when Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner published a letter in two British newspapers: addressed to UK Prime Minister David Cameron (“Cc: Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations”). In the letter, a bellicose Kirchner staked her claim on the Falklands (in Spanish, las Malvinas), which are just off Argentina’s coast. Kirchner wrote: “One hundred and eighty years ago… in a blatant exercise of 19th-century colonialism, Argentina was forcibly stripped of the Malvinas.” Kirchner urged the UN to restore the Islands’ “territorial integrity.”

David Cameron didn’t miss a beat: quickly appearing on the BBC to remind us all that the Islands are an overseas British territory—and to declare his “extremely strong” resolve to keep it that way. British military chiefs have reportedly “drawn up new contingency plans to prevent hostile action by Argentina,” London’s Telegraph reports.

Of course, we’ve been here before. In 1982, Britain and Argentina went to war over the Falklands. Argentine troops occupied the area for ten weeks before British troops reclaimed it. Some 250 Brits and 650 Argentines lost their lives. The Islands have been under British control since 1833, after changing hands several times in the 18th-19th centuries. Argentina claims to have inherited them from Spain.



Memories of 1982 are certainly guiding Cameron’s hand, says Graham Stewart, author of A History of Britain in the 1980s. That year, prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s firm action during the Falkland War helped solidify her political support—and shape her legacy. “Cameron is clearly aware of the legacy,” says Stewart.

About 3000 Falklanders live on the Islands. Most make their money on fishing or wool. Though a British territory, the Islands has its own government and constitution.

But the people “feel firmly British,” avows Falkland member of parliament Richard Sawle. Each year, Falklanders celebrate June 14th—the day in 1982 when British troops gave Argentina the boot—as “Liberation Day.”

But as of late, Argentina has appeared increasingly belligerent on the Falklands issue. This might have something to do with the commercial quantities of oil that have recently been found around the Islands. Kirchner has been accused of orchestrating a 2011 decision by the Mercosur bloc (which includes Brazil and Uruguay) to close its ports to Falkland ships.

As tensions escalate, Falklanders are preparing for a March referendum: on the issue of their territorial status. Elsby anticipates that “at least 98%” will vote to remain a British overseas territory.

In the meantime, and in response to president Kirchner’s entreaty, editors at Britain’s Sun published their own letter in The Buenos Aires Herald. In it, they issued the sternest of warnings to Argentina: “HANDS OFF!”