- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
Residents of the Falklands Islands in the South Atlantic went to the polls over the past two days to deliver a resounding rejection of Argentina’s bullying campaign to assert a historically dubious claim to sovereignty over the archipelago. With turnout over 90 percent, some 99.8 percent of islanders voted in favor of remaining an overseas territory of Britain.
The referendum comes thirty years after Argentina’s disastrous military invasion of the islands was repelled by British forces at the cost of some 1,000 lives. Reasonable people can be forgiven for thinking that skirmish should have ended for the foreseeable future any dispute regarding sovereignty over the islands.
But reasonableness is not a quality in abundant supply among today’s Latin American populists. It seems the government of Cristina Kirchner has dusted off the Falklands chestnut just as the country’s economic fortunes — and her popularity ratings — are going even further south than the Falklands.
After riding the commodities boom for most of the past decade, the global recession has depressed demand and Argentina is now feeling the pain of President Kirchner’s brand of populist economic policies. Economic growth has dropped from 9 percent to 2.2 percent, inflation has increased to approximately 24 percent, and unemployment stands at 7.6 percent. So, what is a good populist leader to do? Try to distract the populace’s attention by resurrecting historical grievances. But speechifying from the balcony for domestic consumption is one thing. As the Heritage Foundation points out in a recent paper, the Kirchner government is also waging an intimidation campaign against the islanders, with its navy interfering in shipping and fishing activities, pressuring other countries to deny entry to Falkland-flagged ships, and threatening a vital air supply link to Chile.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration has had no comment on this kind of aberrant behavior, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the referendum, and adopted no position on either side’s sovereignty claims, simply saying the two should "negotiate."
The problem with the administration’s position is that it legitimizes and elevates Argentina’s spurious claim to the same moral plane as that of the Great Britain’s — as if there some sort of equivalence — despite the fact that the latter’s position has more than two hundred years of history behind it and the overwhelming wishes of the very same people whose lives will be most affected by any change in the status quo.
And … to what purpose? Merely to provide succor to the expedient political interests of a government, Argentina’s, that is no friend of the United States? And, moreover, at the expense of the interests of our closest and most trusted ally in the world?
U.S. policy on the issue of the Falklands should be that there is no issue. This is not Kashmir. We should be supporting our real friends in defending their interests whenever and wherever needed — just as President Reagan did when he provided key U.S. logistical support to Great Britain during the 1982 war. It is regrettable that today we opt instead to enable the bad behavior of Latin American populist governments with whom we have no common interests or goals.