Happy Malvinas Day
Letters from the Falklands front: storming the embassy?
To mark 40 years since the Falklands War, two Critic contributors based in the Southern Hemisphere, A.S.H. Smyth in the Falklands, and Dominic Hilton in Argentina, are exchanging letters reflecting on the events of the war, and the differing perspectives on it in Port Stanley and Buenos Aires. Have the two societies moved on? Do scars still run deep?
In the previous letter Adam recalled the fall of Port Stanley, 40 years ago.
On Malvinas Day (or Día del Veterano y de los Caídos en la Guerra de las Malvinas as one says here in Argentina) I was jolted awake from a Malbec-induced sleep by the clangs and crashes of dozens of riot police erecting crowd control barricades around the perimeter of my plaza in Buenos Aires. By unhappy coincidence, the building in which I live is sandwiched between the hideous British Embassy and its opulent Ambassador’s Residence. This being the fortieth anniversary of the outbreak of the undeclared ten-week war, the Argentine security services were clearly expecting trouble, plus triple pay for working on a Saturday.
The day before, I’d walked to my favourite bakery in Palermo to buy a large box of freshly baked medialunas. It was my intention to breakfast in the sunshine on my balcony, bearing witness to the violence as I dunked the buttery glazed pastries into my mug of strong Colombian coffee. I had it on good authority that Malvinas Day 2012 saw mobs wielding Molotov cocktails while a terrified British Ambassador hunkered in some sort of makeshift command and control bunker. So I was disappointed when I peered down into my plaza, seeing only a gaggle of cops with shotguns and blue bulletproof vests kissing each other hello.
I ran into a mini rent-a-mob draped in Argentine flags
Turning to the headlines, I saw that President Fernandez had given a rare interview to the BBC. “If there is one thing I am clear about,” he said, “the only thing I am clear about, is that the Malvinas are not British, I am clear about that.” Meanwhile, in a shrewdly worded think piece for the Guardian, Argentina’s foreign minister wrote, “[T]he recovery of sovereignty is an inalienable objective of the Argentine people” and “No Argentine government will cease in its pursuit of our sovereign claim”. In the Argentine press, stories abound of “a hero who fought alone against 600 English soldiers” and another hero who “hid the flag that had fluttered honourably for 76 days on Argentine soil in a sailor’s purse, so that it didn’t serve as a trophy or an exhibition in any British museum”.
“The Malvinas were always Argentine and we will never surrender our aim!” a voice cried on my TV. “Argentina is the country to which the Malvinas belong by natural law!” bayed another. “Every Argentine knows that the Islands were illegally stolen in 1833!” For once, the Obelisco de Buenos Aires on the intersection of avenidas Corrientes and 9 de Julio was lit up with a message not about Diego Maradona. “Malvinas Argentinas,” it read. And “No las hemos de olvidar” (“We must not forget them”).
No chance of that, I thought, still sunning my legs on my balcony. Then a massive explosion went off somewhere dangerously nearby. I rocketed out of my wicker chair, scalding my thighs with hot coffee, but the riot police down below didn’t even flinch, so I guessed it was just a firework, or one of those thunderous bombs football fans always set off at matches here.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. It was a message, from you: “I can’t believe Arg has a Malvinas Day commemorating the start of a losing war!” I was preparing to attempt a brief explanatory reply, when there came another deafening explosion, and I shot indoors to hide inside a bathroom, the pitiful irony of my lifelong phobia of bangs far from lost on me.
Late afternoon, I went in search of aubergines. Several policepeople tried to stop me, asking what I was doing out in the square, and I had to flash my official papers, proving that I live here. When a beautiful, Cleopatra-eyed policewoman reluctantly let me through one of the barriers, I ran into a mini rent-a-mob draped in Argentine flags, twirling sky blue and white umbrellas above their heads.
Several were beating drums, and everyone was yelling about the defence of the everlasting fatherland. Coffee and sausage sandwiches were being bountifully dished out to the protestors, who I took to be members of one of Argentina’s many movimientos sociales, paid off by self-serving politicians to look and sound usefully angry and violent. I wondered how many of them could have identified the Malvinas on a map.
The ringleader brandished a bullhorn that made a sound like a United States police siren whenever he squeezed its button. His eyes had a quick, suspicious expression as he gave me the once over. Mine strayed to a giant black and white banner referring to Brits as pirates.
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been given grief down here for being English. But one time, in a nose-to-nose argument with a noisy neighbour, I was called “an English condom” and then “an English pirate”.
It was only later, safely back in my apartment, clutching a hot cup of peppermint tea, that I realised how to his ears my response must have sounded like pirate-speak: “Arrrgh.”
Children’s playgrounds are named after the fabled islands
The straggling mob made a half-arsed effort to break through the barriers into my square, presumably to storm the British Embassy. Re-entering my building with my groceries, the concierge mentioned the commotion and I told him it was a difficult day for me. He nodded sympathetically, and I held open the elevator doors to whisper, “Soy inglés. Pero, para mí, las Malvinas son argentinas.” To my surprise, he backed away across the lobby, shaking his head while waving jazz hands, saying that under no circumstances did he want to get involved, thank you very much, sir.
Governments here are forever considering making it actually illegal to deny Argentine sovereignty of the archipelago. I thought back to a scene a few months before. I’d gone for dinner at a traditional family-run restaurant in barrio La Paternal. As I entered the restaurant, the place fell worryingly silent. Dozens of suspicious faces gawped up at me, before a waiter advanced, rubbing his bloody hands on a towel tucked into his trousers, asking me where I was from. When I told him, his beady eyes narrowed. “And what’s your opinion about the Malvinas?”
I answered his question, in a brash voice, after clearing my throat, and the dining room went bananas. There were whoops and cheers to accompany the rousing applause, and by evening’s end my back hurt from being slapped so much.
Living here, you get used to this sort of thing. On every corner, there’s a mural reminding you that LAS MALVINAS SON ARGENTINAS. Children’s playgrounds are named after the fabled islands, pilfered once upon a time by dastardly British swashbucklers. I recently received an email from the head of the migration services in Argentina. The first line, before the salutation, read, in bold capitals, LAS MALVINAS SON ARGENTINAS.
So there’s no use engaging in what Jorge Luis Borges called “a fight between two bald men over a comb”, especially given my gaucho locks and your ZZ Top scruff. Shortly after Malvinas Day, I stepped out onto my balcony again, and watched yet another patriotic march take place along one of the city’s eight-lane boulevards. This time, for whatever reason, everyone was on horseback.
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