In the Monty Python film ‘The Life of Brian’, the People’s Front of Judea (not the Judean People’s Front, splitters) in plotting to overthrow the Romans, ask “What have the Romans ever done for us?” A long list of everything the Romans have done ensues. I’m getting off the bus in Retiro and I wonder if Argentines ever ask themselves “What have the British ever done for us?”
Here in Retiro we have the beautiful stations of Mitre and Belgrano, architectural palaces that once led out to railways the length and breadth of the country, most of them built by the British. Perón nationalised the railways, which declined under subsequent governments until Peronist president Carlos Menem put them out of their misery by privatising them, which turned out to be an even worse idea than nationalising them. Not that I’m saying the railways would have prospered under British control, given that Britain’s railways now lag far behind those of other major European nations, and France. And not that I’m saying that the British gave these railways to the Argentines as a grandiose altruistic gesture, but rather as a way of getting the cereals and the beef out of Argentina and into Britain. The British also introduced major innovations to Argentine agriculture, but then they would have, wouldn’t they? They intended to eat the product of such innovation.
The British gave Argentina football, the first ball being brought over by Isaac Newell, who gave his name to Rosario football club Newell’s Old Boys, while Alexander Watson Hudson founded Alumni Athletic Club, the first great Anglo-Argentine football team, and founded the organisation that eventually became the Argentina FA. Of course, the Argentines improved on the idea of football a good deal, bringing in such innovations alien to the British game as ball control, dribbling and scoring goals with their hands.
Britain brought Argentine independence from Spain, in a roundabout way, as it was in repelling the 1806 and 1807 British invasions that the United Provinces of the River Plate realised that they were quite tasty and could probably have the Spanish. Not that the British invasions were intended as an extended self-esteem seminar, but still.
Britain gave Argentina some of its major figures, including writer Jorge Luis Borges, whose paternal grandmother was English, former Argentine president Raúl Alfonsín, the man who invented democracy and whose mother was Welsh, former Argentine president Carlos Pelligrini, who had one of the bushiest moustaches ever seen on an Argentine, and was half English. Legendary Huracán football club president and former player Carlos Babington was of British descent, to the extent that you can still see banners at Huracán matches proclaiming “¡Gracias, inglés!” Britain even gave Argentina one of its dictators, Roberto Marcelo Levingston. But then, Spain gave Argentina San Martín, France gave it Liniers, and even Ireland gave it Admiral Guillermo Brown, first Admiral of the Argentine Navy and all-round naval hero. The first man to raise the Argentine flag on the Falkland Islands, in 1820, was David Jewett, a nationalised American pirate.
Although I took the 20 bus (a fairly boring route from Retiro to Barracas) back in November, I’m writing this for publication at the start of April, for the 30th anniversary of the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands, a national holiday in Argentina to mark the country’s longstanding claim of sovereignty over the Islands. With this anniversary approaching, the last few months have been particularly uncomfortable for those Brits who live in Buenos Aires as a new wave of anglophobia has taken over the country, despite the long history of friendship and trade between the country where I lived for 22 years and the country where I’ve lived for 13 years.
Anglophobia is particularly rife in the comments that appear below the Colectivaizeishon articles in La Razón, which tend to be written in block capitals and include instructions to return to my own country (which one?) and return the Falklands to Argentina. You’d be surprised how many readers think I wield the slightest influence over British foreign policy. And it is disappointing that a country that has been pro-British in so many areas of society for so many years should turn so anti-British.
As a prominent Brit in Buenos Aires I am often invited to be interviewed about the Falklands. A few weeks ago, I participated in a debate with BBC Radio at La Biela café in Recoleta, a debate that included Argentines and Brits, Argentine Falklands veterans and a live link-up with a group of Falklanders in Port Stanley. The debate helped me reach my own conclusions about the future of the Falklands. (By the way, my use of the names “Falklands” and “Malvinas” when writing in English or Spanish is purely a linguistic choice and is not intended as a political statement, in the same way that when I say River Plate instead of Río de la Plata I’m not expressing some inherent support for the 19th-century Franco-British blockade of said river.)
In making its claim for the Falklands (which I completely respect, if I was Argentine I’d do the same), Argentina has history and geography on its side. Argentina claims to have claimed the Islands before the British, not just via the above-mentioned American pirate but on other occasions, and is nearer to the islands than any other country. But take a look at a world map. It’s full of historical and geographical anomalies like the Falklands. Why does Hawaii belong to the USA but not Cuba, when Cuba is far closer to the USA than the Falklands to Argentina? Why does Greenland belong to Denmark when it is closer to Canada? How can Gibraltar be British when it’s clearly in Spain, and how can the Canary Islands, off the coast of Morroco, be Spanish? Don’t Argentines find it odd how the north eastern province of Misiones juts right into Brazil? But these things have been this way for decades if not centuries. The arguments that “we were there first” or “we’re closer” just doesn’t cut it. Who was in Argentina first? Certainly not the Argentines. It is worth remembering that Argentina gained most of the land south of the pampas through a state-sponsored policy of systematic genocide, although it’s also worth remembering that this was the 19th century and genocide didn’t have the bad rep it has these days. (And admittedly if genocide had been an Olympic event back in the day, Britain would’ve taken gold, silver, and bronze.)
The people who live on the Falkland Islands are Falklanders. Some have moved there since 1982, others can trace their family’s presence on the Islands back to the 19th century. Those Argentines who feel these people should be kicked off the Islands should consider how long their own family has been in Argentina, and how they’d feel about their grandmother’s house being usurped by some other people with a prior claim. Falklanders are naturally distrustful of Argentina, like a dog is distrustful of a cruel neighbour, but Argentina isn’t going to gain the Falklanders’ trust through its present policy of isolation. If Argentina wants to have a say in the future of the Islands, it needs to build bridges, through cultural and economic ties, through sport, through transport links. It’s been 12 years since Argentines have been allowed to visit and live on the Islands, but how many of them do? Of a population of not much over 2,000, only about 20 are Argentines. If the Argentines love the Islands so much, why don’t more of them move there? Granted, they’re going to be treated with distrust by the Falklanders, but no one ever said love came easy.
Personally, as an Argentinised Brit I couldn’t care less about the Islands, but I’m asked about them so often and if you write a book as a Brit in Buenos Aires you kind of have to mention them. The Falklanders strike me as typical ex-pats pining for a bygone halcyon Britain that may never have existed, one of close-knit communities and leaving your door open and not worrying about crime and unemployment and coloured people, which is ironic, because Argentines miss that halcyon Argentina too. One of the Argentines at the BBC debate told me a story about how when British troops arrived in Stanley in 1982, they started referring to Falklanders as “Bennys”, after the slow-witted character from the soap opera Crossroads. The commanding officers got wind of this and told them not to do it, so they started calling the Falklanders “Stills”, as in “still a Benny”. The commanding officers caught on to this, so the soldiers called the Falklanders “Andys”, as in “and he’s still a Benny”. Presumably the war ended after that and they didn’t have time to come up with a new nickname.
But the Falklanders are a peaceful people, with a happy, established way of life. I respect the opinions of Argentine friends and family who would like Argentina to gain sovereignty over the islands. I’m not a fan of British colonialism, wasting resources on faraway islands while the NHS is privatised, or David Cameron, who everybody knows is a lizard in a human body suit who eats children and other small defenceless creatures. But the Falklands have been separated from Argentina for so long that they really are a country apart, with different people, different customs, a different way of life. The Falklands are clearly not Argentine at this moment. Argentina has no need for more territories when it is still a long way from populating its own lands, when it allows foreign companies to exploit its natural resources with minimum royalties for Argentina, and when its own crumbling infrastructure is a far more pressing issue. Argentina should let the Falklanders worry about the Falklands, and those Argentines who wish to live there should be allowed to, so that the Falklands are neither Britain’s nor Argentina’s but an autonomous state with the right to self-determination, so that one day we’ll agree that the Falklands belong to the Falklanders.