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Thirty years after the Falklands/Malvinas war, its memory lives on in the echoes of the veterans’ protests and in thousands of posters plastered on almost every Buenos Aires’ wall. Claims for the ownership of the islands and foul-mouthed graffiti directed towards the English and sprayed across walls in Buenos Aires -in a language that seems right out of a football stadium – make the national discourse clear.
The debate about the islands’ sovereignty is not only a political one, but also a discussion about Argentina’s own identity, of which the lost islands have become a potent metaphor throughout the years.
“Malvinas […] is a way to ask ourselves what kind of country wants to be the one that would eventually retrieve the islands and welcome its inhabitants,” once wrote Federico Lorenz, historian and author of the book ‘Las Guerras Por Malvinas, 1982-2012’.
Much has been written about the diplomatic controversy between Argentina and the UK. On the 30th anniversary of the invasion, it is interesting to look instead at the paradox raised by Lorenz: how is it possible that the crowd gathered in Plaza de Mayo to cheer for Leopoldo Galtieri announcing the invasion was the same that had taken to the streets only three days before in protest against the military dictatorship?
The reasons lie in what the ‘Malvinas cause’ is to Argentines. As Lorenz argues, “it is perfect for the banal patriotic discourse to work: it is the right cause [to fight for].”
But what exactly is the ‘Malvinas cause’? Argentine political scientist and member of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), Vicente Palermo, defines it as a discursive aspect of Argentine nationalism that includes “a narrative of the past, an interpretation of the present and a mandate for the future”, and which has helped to shape national identity.
Two factors have been crucial in developing and keeping the ‘Malvinas cause’ alive: the constitutional mandate and the education system (of which the Constitution is both cause and consequence).
The ‘Malvinas Cause’ at School
In his 2007 book ‘Sal en las heridas’ (‘Salt in the Wounds’), Vicente Palermo recalls that his first memory related to the Malvinas dates back to when he was 12, and he was wearing his first pair of long trousers.
Asked to write a wish to his aunt travelling to Europe, an embarrassed young Palermo all of a sudden wrote “Las Malvinas son argentinas“, without even thinking about what he was writing.
Similarly, historian Federico Lorenz said: “I learned that the Malvinas are Argentine at school. We used to write letters to soldiers in class, confident about what we were doing, and the teachers would help us with the envelopes. Somewhere we learned that this or that is the homeland, and that someone stole a part of it away from us.”
Behind the obsessive mantra “Las Malvinas son argentinas“, lies a whole set of patriotic messages children come in contact with from a very young age, at school.
With the aim of tracing the origins of the widespread malvinero nationalism back to school, Carlos Escudé, a renowned political scientist and leading figure at the CONICET, analysed the way geography was taught in Argentina from 1879 to 1986.
The results of his study, conducted in 2000 by examining 77 geography textbooks used in primary and secondary schools, were stunning.
What Escudé calls “the indoctrination about territorial nationalism” is a process that consolidated around 1945, more than a century after the islands were taken over by the British.
“Geography textbooks printed before the 1940s attributed to Argentina a territory of 2.800.000 km2, while later textbooks attributed it lands for approximately 4.000.000 km2,” he wrote in his essay.
“In previous years, talking about the so-called disputed territories,” – such as Malvinas and other southern islands, Beagle Channel, Cape Horn Archipelago and Argentine Antarctic Sector – “was a task for diplomats only, not for teachers.”
According to Escudé, the use of these “indoctrination” methods was not specific to the Peronist era, but it also extended to the last decades of the 20th century.
“These images promoted by writing exercises, readings and essays at school stay engraved in children’s memories. […] I have the impression that [continuously looking at and sketching maps] has a strong psychological impact.”
In a controversial article titled ‘Are the Malvinas really ours?’ published in La Nación on the 14th February, Argentine historian Luis Alberto Romero wrote that: “We have outlined [the frontiers of the Argentine territory] so many times at school that we ended up believing this was the reality.”
The Origins of Territorial Nationalism
The words of Vicente Palermo help give a framework to Escudé’s studies. Palermo explains that Argentine education policies are rooted in the massive plan of immigration from Europe ordered by the liberal elites at the end of 19th century to provide the country with a larger workforce.
“From 1880, timid education policies were turned into a powerful apparatus of free, compulsory, public education,” Palermo elucidates. “Given the large quantity of foreigners in the country, education is quite nationalistic, featuring a strong element of identification with national symbols and the official history. It is visible in this galloping love for flags; marches and anthems sung everyday while raising the flag.”
Likewise, historian Luis Alberto Romero wrote that Argentine politics are imbued of a nationalistic syndrome. “At the beginning of the 20th century, the obsessive quest for a national identity started […] developed by strong institutions like the army, the [catholic] church and the two biggest democratic movements, Yrigoyenist radicalism and Peronism”
According to the experts, the lost Malvinas islands are at the core of a nationalism constantly looking for itself.
“This is a fundamental part of the dogma. We are a righteous country and our pacifism has turned us into victims. We lost big territories […] but we are morally superior,” Carlos Escudé wrote.
Today: the Righteous State Mission
Speaking before the 41st Assembly of the Federal Education Council on the 28th March, Minister of Education Alberto Sileoni said: “the Malvinas belong to the ministry too,” asking for an increasing prominence of the issue “in all the classrooms of the country.”
“This is because the National Education Act establishes that, and also because the Malvinas were, are, and always will be Argentine,” he added.
The minister was indeed speaking the truth. National Education Law No. 26,206, in its third article, states that one of the aims of the education system is “to reaffirm the sovereignty and national identity.”
In particular, article 92 of the same law establishes that the common basic curricula should provide resources for the building of a national identity from a regional Latin American perspective (Mercosur) and the inclusion of the “recovery of the Malvinas islands.”
Similarly, the Senate of the Province of Buenos Aires passed law 14.222 (made effective in 2010) to promote the teaching of the sovereignty rights over the Antarctic Sector, the Malvinas, Georgias del Sur and Sandwich del Sur.
“They have to stop with this ‘malvinismo educativo’ (‘educational malvinism’),” comments Vicente Palermo. “Government should promote a sober education: this instilling children with clichés about the ‘Malvinas cause’ seems toxic to me. And it is still in school nowadays.”
In a paper published in 2010 within the booklet Pensar Malvinas, academics Iván Falcón, Evangelina Aceval, Nicolás Cardozo, Eduardo Gómez and Patricia Bernasconi showed how young generations perform a clear dissociation between the Malvinas and the last military dictatorship.
In their study, they interviewed adolescents between 17 and 18 years old in four schools of Corrientes. What they found was that approximately 90% of the interviewees, when asked to tell what was the first thing they could think upon hearing the word ‘Malvinas’, answered: 1. they are Argentine; 2. the bad conditions of the soldiers during the war; 3. their geographical location.
Thus, as they reflect, “the memory is formed and forged in a systematic way, without a deep reflection about the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’”.
On the opposite side of the dispute, the war of 1982 – known in Argentina as the ‘righteous cause in the hands of bastards’ – was not taught in Falklands’ schools up until 1999.
The ‘Malvinas Cause’ in the Constitution
In 1994, former Senator Eduardo Menem pushed for the introduction of the so-called ‘first provisional clause’ in the National Constitution. The clause requires the government to peacefully “seek to retrieve full sovereignty over the [contended] territories and maritime spaces.”
“[In doing so,] it imposes to respect the life and the customs of the islanders, which above all means to respect their interests,” Eduardo Menem recently answered to Luis Alberto Romero, who had questioned the islands’ sovereignty from the same La Nación columns. In his comment, Menem also added that it was in the islanders’ own interest to become Argentine.
“If we stick to the Constitution, there is no way Argentina and the UK can negotiate a middle-ground position. The Constitution imposes seeking full sovereignty,” Vicente Palermo explains. “However, this can’t be done whilst respecting their lives: it is a contradiction in terms since the kelpers have a clear political will and do not want to be Argentine.”
Vicente Palermo raised the same point with 16 other intellectuals in an open letter published in February. In their manifesto, ‘Malvinas: an alternative vision’ they criticised “a climate of nationalist agitation”, pointed out that the issue bears little relation to the country’s main problems, and called on Argentina to accept the rights of the islanders to self-determination.
“They were saying that perhaps we should investigate a bit deeper what Malvinas really mean to Argentines,” commented former BBC correspondent for the Americas Daniel Schweimler.
“As far as I can see, they were greeted by a barrage of insults and death threats. It would help their cause if they could open the debate a bit more, although we have books being written and people are starting to discuss the issue a bit more.”
In fact, as Palermo confirms, a second manifesto is being prepared: “Things are starting to change in Argentina. It seems to me that there are many more different voices in the opposition now. The country seems less homogeneous about it. It is a good thing.”
On the other side of the Atlantic, Schweimler states that for the British, the Falklands are still a distant worry.
“There is this often repeated story about the 1982 invasion. When it started, most of the Brits thought the invasion was off the coast of Scotland, so of course they said that ‘we should fight back’. When they realised where the Falklands were, it simply stopped being an issue. Most British people had no idea where the islands where, and now 30 years later most of the young people wouldn’t probably know where they are,” said Schweimler.
“But here, all of the Argentines have an opinion on it. Some are stronger than others, but they reflect various level of consciousness about the issue.”
To find out what Argentines think about the effect of the education system on their opinions about Malvinas, click here.