By Andres Oppenheimer

On the 30th anniversary of Argentina's ill-fated invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas islands, one thing seems clear: Argentina's government is pursuing the worse possible course to recover the British-controlled South Atlantic islands.

Before we get into President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's disastrous policy regarding the islands, let's state that Argentina's historical claims to the Falklands-Malvinas are legitimate.

Great Britain's position that there can be no negotiations on sovereignty as long as the estimated 3,200 islanders wish to remain British doesn't hold up, most international law experts say.

Columbia University law professor Julius Goebel's 1927 book The Struggle for the Falklands, and a 1983 sequel by Yale University international law professor Michael W. Reisman leave little doubt that Great Britain's occupation of the islands in illegal.

To make a long story short, the only negotiated transfer of the Falklands/Malvinas sovereignty took place in 1767, when the French ceded them to the Spanish Crown. When Argentina became independent, it legally inherited all formerly Spanish territories. So when the British occupied the islands in 1833 and called them the Falklands, it was basically a land grab.

The Falkland/Malvinas made headlines world-wide on April 2, 1982, when Argentina's military dictatorship, in an obvious effort to boost its sagging popularity at home, invaded the islands. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent the British armada, and Britain regained the islands, after a war that left nearly 1,000 dead.

The fact that much of the world's public opinion sided with the British because of a generalized revulsion over Argentina's military junta's actions, does not change the basic premise that the islands belong to Argentina, Reisman wrote. In most legal systems, title goes to the proper owner, not to the nicest person, he argued.

Now, with Fernández de Kirchner's populist government facing growing public discontent at home, and with reports of huge oil and gas discoveries off the islands, the Argentine government is once again putting the Falkland/Malvinas dispute on the front burner.

Whether it's because it wants to divert attention from Argentina's rising inflation or because it is anticipating an oil bonanza in the South Atlantic, Fernández de Kirchner has launched a diplomatic offensive throughout Latin America to prevent ships flying Falkland Islands flags from stopping in their ports. According to press reports, this is already causing shortages of fresh fruits on the islands.

In addition, Argentina is threatening legal action against firms drilling gas and oil off the Falkland/Malvinas, which the islanders fear may keep the islands from substantially increasing their income.

Nigel Haywood, the British governor of the islands, told Argentina's daily El Cronista recently that "Argentina is constantly threatening to make our lives increasingly complicated." He added, "Every week brings new threats" from Argentina's government. An Argentine friend who has just visited the islands confirmed to me this week that the Kelpers, as the islanders are known, are not angry at the Argentine people, but they see the Fernández de Kirchner government as the enemy.

The Kelpers are, among other things, worried about the Argentine president's recent request to Chile to take over the Lan Chile airline-operated flights to the mainland, the only ones connecting the islands with South America. The islanders fear that if these flights are taken over by Argentina, they will be left at the mercy of the Argentine governments whims, he said.

One of the few voices of reason in this dispute has come from a group of 17 Argentine intellectuals who recently signed a document called "An alternative vision." They stated that Argentina can't keep ignoring the islanders' wishes . Argentina's current policy of demanding sovereignty over the islands without taking into account the islanders' desires weakens Argentina's justified demands for a negotiated solution, they said.

My opinion: Instead of scaring off the islanders with constant threats, Argentina should try to seduce them. It should offer them free medical airlifts and first-class medical treatment in Argentina for islanders with health emergencies, free shipments of whatever they need, and whatever cultural and sports exchanges they are willing to accept.

Given the islanders' misgivings about Argentine authorities, it won't be easy. The wounds will take time to heal.

But the Argentine government's current hard-line policy is more designed to win quick applause at home than to recover the islands. It may help shore up support for the government, but it hurts Argentina's own national interests.



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