Jan 052013

Friday afternoon, I was visited by Dr. Pedro “Pete” Tontogrande Chupacerdo y Boludo del Alcantarilla, former Juan Perón Professor of International Peace, Tolerance and Diplomacy at the University of Buenos Aries and current Primary Counselor for Political and Economic Policy at the Embassy of Argentina here in Washington, DC.  As regular readers of this Web log know, Dr. Pete called me at home on a Saturday last February, all worked up into a lather about the British, their sea vessels, and, of course, the Falkland Islands, which the Argentines insist on calling “Las Malvinas.”  So the subjects he wished to discuss yesterday were hardly surprising – the British, their sea vessels and the Falkland Islands.  The only difference was the sea vessels.  In February, they had been nuclear powered submarines armed with heinous weapons.  Yesterday, they were cruise ships filled with British tourists.  Oh, and of course, this time, Dr. Pete had the decency to make an appointment with me during regular business hours.
“Tom,” he fumed as he placed his attaché case on the chair to the left of my desk and began pacing back and forth, needlessly wearing down the hand made, nineteenth century silk Persian rug, “this time, I fear the damned English have gone too far!”
“Certainly,” I sought to confirm, “you’re not saying that the Fernández de Kirchner government is contemplating… renewed hostilities?”
“Nothing,” Dr. Pete declared in a belligerent tone, “can be ruled out!  Not given the current circumstances!”
“Do the current circumstances,” I wondered, “include the International Monetary Fund auditors catching you cooking the books on inflation and unemployment figures and the resulting threat of impending expulsion of Argentina from IMF loan programs, as well as the G-20?”
Dr. Pete stopped pacing and glared intently out the picture window at the Bank of America, which is presently ensconced in the Gilded Age grandeur of the old Riggs National Bank building across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Treasury Department.  “Baseless claims made by the IMF’s lackeys of Wall Street – and the City in London, too, I might add – can never diminish the determination of the Argentine people for the return of Las Malvinas!”
“In other words,” I japed, “making a huge fuss about the Falk… ah… the Malvinas provides a convenient distraction from twenty-five percent unemployment and thirty-five percent inflation.”
Dr. Pete’s head snapped around as his nostrils flared and his penetrating gaze met mine.  “The Argentine economy is as strong, viable, robust, vigorous… and solvent – as it has ever been!”
“Precisely my point,” I confirmed.
“Look, Tom,” he insisted as he seated himself in the chair directly in front of me, leaning slightly forward for emphasis, “this is not about money!  Or tourism, or fish, or wool, or… oil, either!  It is about Argentine sovereignty!  It is about Argentine dignity!  And it is about Argentine history!  The Malvinas belong to Argentina!  They were discovered by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520!”
“Actually,” I pointed out with a somewhat strange feeling of déjà vu, “it was one of Magellan’s captains, Estaban Gomez, who sighted, but never actually landed on, some islands that may or may not have been the Malvinas.  They might well have been the Jason Islands; in fact, many historians and geographers believe that’s what Gomez really saw.”
“But the Jason Islands are part of the Malvinas!” Dr. Pete argued.
“Only because Argentina says so,” I observed.  “Besides, Gomez never landed there, wherever it was.  The English, on the other hand, did in fact land on the Malvinas, in 1592.”
“After a storm,” Dr. Pete vehemently objected.  “They shipwrecked there!  It’s not like they were looking for them or anything!”
“Well now,” I countered, “Queen Elizabeth I sent Sir Thomas Cavendish out discover new lands and claim them for the English Crown, and I don’t believe she specified how he was supposed to do it, either.  When one of his ships became separated from his flotilla, got caught in a storm and washed up in the Falk… I mean, in the Malvinas, its captain, John Davis of Sandridge, had every right to claim them for England.  And that claim was made all the more valid by virtue of the fact that the entire archipelago was completely uninhabited, with no indigenous population whatsoever.  What’s more, Admiral Richard Hawkins’ flotilla visited the islands again – in style, as it were – during 1594.  He raised the flag, said a few words and named the islands ‘Hawkins’ Maidenland’ after himself and Queen Elizabeth I.  Now really, what else were the English supposed to do – build a fort and start buying the place with glass beads?  There wasn’t even anybody there to steal the land from.  And if it hadn’t been for the whale oil and seal fur trades, nobody, not the English, the Spanish, the French or the Dutch would have ever cared a rat’s patoot about those islands.”
“The Malvinas,” Dr. Pete asserted, “are, geologically speaking, part of South America.”
“Geologically speaking,” I disagreed, “the Malvinas are part of Africa.”
“Well, in any case,” Dr. Pete persisted, “Spanish maps have shown the Malvinas as part of Argentina for centuries.”
“The first maps to accurately show the shape and position of the Malvinas were, in fact, Dutch.  Sebald de Weert, who put the islands on the map, so to speak, in 1600, actually named them after himself, by the way.  It wasn’t until ninety years later that the English captain John Strong named them – you will pardon the expression – the Falkland Islands, after the Fifth Viscount of Falkland, who had put up the money for Strong’s exploration expedition.  Just think – all those thousands of pounds Sterling the Viscount put into it, and all he got was a bunch of desolate, treeless, cold, windswept, rocky mountain tops sticking up out of the sea named after him.”
“And none of the English,” Dr. Pete acidly observed, “ever deigned to live there.  So when the French came and began inhabiting the islands in 1764, that gave them the first genuine rights to the Malvinas – rights which conveyed to the Crown of Spain in 1767, when the French sold the Malvinas to His Majesty, Charles III, who placed the Malvinas under the jurisdiction of the Spanish Colonial government in Buenos Aires.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “but then the Spanish attacked the British settlement on the island, one that had been there since 1766, which precipitated treaty talks that concluded with the English being allowed to stay.”
“However,” Dr. Pete objected, “in 1774, the British packed up and left, didn’t they?  They physically abandoned the Malvinas, and thus legally abandoned their claim to them.”
“But,” I noted, “didn’t the Spanish themselves pack up and leave, as you put it, in 1806, and weren’t the islands completely deserted and devoid of all human inhabitants by 1811?”
“Only for nine years!” Dr. Pete exclaimed.  “In 1820, Captain David Jewett raised the flag of the Provincias Unidas del Río de la Plata – the original government of free Argentina – over the Malvinas.  And besides, if, as you said, the islands had been completely abandoned by the British and the Spanish, weren’t they as you Americans put it, ‘up for grabs’ and fair game for anyone to claim?  And thus, in 1828, the great Argentine hero, Luis Vernet, established an Argentine settlement in the Malvinas.”
“Maybe he’s a hero in Argentina,” I reminded him, “but the Americans thought he was a pirate, and the Malvinas the home of his pirate bay.”
“Such is the fate,” he shrugged, “of all great historical figures.  Anyway, claiming that Vernet was a pirate provided a very convenient excuse for the Americans to take over the islands in 1831, didn’t it?”
“Only to abandon them,” I noted, “in 1832.  There wasn’t a whole lot of incentive to actually live in the Fal… in the Malvinas, apparently.”
“But the Argentine Confederation,” Dr. Pete observed, “nevertheless returned in 1833!”
“As did the British,” I replied, “that same year.  After which, both they and the Argentines once again quit the archipelago completely, leaving it uninhabited until 1834, when the British came back and established a settlement, followed by the formation of a colonial administrative government in 1842.  Which, notwithstanding a few tweaks to the islands’ status with respect to Britain, a couple of dubious peace treaties between Britain and Argentina, the added spice of the South Sandwich, South Orkney and Graham Islands, and a soupçon of Antarctic territorial disputes, is where things stood until the Argentines took it upon themselves to mount an invasion in April of 1982.”
“A war of liberation,” Dr. Pete corrected.  “And you seem to have overlooked the United Nations proclamation of the urgent need for ‘bringing to an end colonialism in all its forms and manifestations.’  Furthermore, it seems you have also forgotten that in 1965 the General Assembly adopted a resolution designating the Malvinas Islands a colonial case.”
“Since the open letter to Prime Minister Cameron which your government published as advertisements in the Guardian and the Independent this week mentioned each of those points,” I told him, “I more or less assumed both of us took them as presented and considered.”
“Very well,” he sighed, “as long as that means we both agree with Argentina’s assertion that British occupation of the Malvinas is a case of unchecked, unbridled, naked, unapologetic, aggressive colonial imperialism.”
“Actually,” I opined, “it’s more like a second-rate military power that history has forgotten engaging in a pathetic display of nostalgia for its former glory.”
“Tom!” Dr. Pete admonished with an air of disappointment.  “How could you say such a thing about my beloved Argentina?”
“Argentina?” I exclaimed.  “I was talking about Britain.”
“Oh,” Dr. Pete smiled, “in that case, yes, of course.”
“No way I could have been referring to Argentina,” I assured him.  “Argentina’s a third-rate military power, at best.”
“Hmph, I see,” he grunted.
“So what can I do for you today?” I inquired.
“Right, yes, sure…” Dr. Pete muttered, leaning back in his seat and puffing out his cheeks, exhaling.  “Whew!  Okay, it’s like this, Tom – for months, we Argentines been doing no more and no less than exercising our rights as a sovereign nation to deny foreign ships engaged in activities detrimental to our interests access to our port facilities in non-emergency circumstances.  After all, if we believe the British occupation of the Malvinas is illegal, why would we allow ships carrying British citizens there to use Argentinian port facilities?  And as a matter of fact, to start with we were rather polite about it – we allowed the ships carrying British tourists to dock and refuel, take on supplies and so forth, nothing vindictive about it, you see – the only thing we did was not allow the British tourists to get off the boat, that’s all.  When that didn’t have any noticeable effect on British policy, however, we got tough and started refusing to allow ships flying British or the Falkland Island occupier government flags docking privileges at Argentine ports, too.”
“So now,” I reminded him, “hardly any of the cruise ship lines, no matter what flag they fly, travel to the Falk… um… Malvinas anymore, and consequently, you’ve wrecked the tourist trade there, where it provides fully one quarter of the jobs.”
“Sure,” he acknowledged in a satisfied tone.  “And I hope this temporary situation teaches the islanders something.”
“Most probably,” I speculated, “this temporary situation teaches them what life would be like if you and President Fernández got your way and they became part of Argentina and had to live with a permanent twenty-five percent unemployment rate.”
“As I said before,” he quietly huffed, “that’s an exaggeration.  The unemployment rate is not twenty-five percent in Argentina, any more than the unemployment rate in the United States is fifteen percent, okay?”
“Actually,” I objected, “if you count the people who sincerely want a job but have given up and quit searching for one, then…”
“Be that as it may,” Dr. Pete interrupted, “just look at what happened next.  President Fernández writes an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron about the situation and yes, I know, she doesn’t make a secret of it, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon gets a copy and she has it published as an advertisement in a couple of big British newspapers, too.  It states the facts as we Argentines see them, including what those UN resolutions say, and we ask that the British government abide by them.  And what happens, huh?  Do we get a response from the British government?  No, they ignore us, officially, anyway, just issuing a press release and making statements to the British public, while rejecting all calls for talks with us over these issues.  So instead of substantive discussions at the executive level, what do we get?  The Sun tabloid buys an advertisement in the Buenos Aires Herald that calls Argentina a ‘banana republic’ and basically tells Argentina to go straight to Hell.”
“And you’re telling me,” I sought to verify, “that you didn’t see any of that coming?”
“Uh… well… no,” he sheepishly admitted, “I guess we didn’t.  And now, Argentines are rioting in the streets, burning the Union Jack – as well as copies of the Sun newspaper I might add, when they can get them – and generally raising Hell all over Argentina.”
“Quite a kettle of fish,” I assessed.
“I… I suppose so,” Dr. Pete concurred.  “Um… what… are your… ah… thoughts?”
“The first thing President Fernández should do,” I advised, “is fire the knucklehead who came up with that stupid letter.”
At that, long silence ensued.  Finally, Dr. Pete spoke.  “That…  that… knucklehead,” he slowly choked out, “was… me.”
“And the cruise ship port boycott?” I cautiously asked.
“Also me,” he sobbed softly as he stared down at the carpet. 
“Well,” I averred, “It wouldn’t be very professional to change my advice just because we’re buddies, now would it?” 
“No,” Dr. Pete whimpered, “I guess it wouldn’t.”
“But if a bill for this consultation arrives at the Embassy of Argentina,” I reasoned, “they will want to know what they got for their money, won’t they?”
“True,” he slowly nodded while dabbing at his eyes with his handkerchief, “they will.” 
“So,” I concluded, “the best thing that could happen now is for me to forget to send that bill, and for you to come up with an excuse as to why you never made it to this meeting.”
“What,” he tearfully implored, “should I say, Tom?”
“Tell them,” I suggested, “that after lunch, you double parked your BMW 740 with diplomatic plates outside a bordello in Adams Morgan for some siesta action, where you got blasted before, overdid it during, and passed out afterward; and when you came back outside, somebody had slashed your tires.”
“Thanks, my friend, that’s a pretty good story,” Dr. Pete remarked as he gathered up his attaché case and shuffled dejectedly toward the heavy oak doors that lead from my office to the reception area.  “Nobody will have any trouble believing it.”