LI­BROS

Life un­der siege in Bri­tain’s last out­post

Patagon Journal - - CONTENTS - By Wayne Bern­hard­son

Fortress Falk­lands For­taleza Falk­lands

In early 1986, shortly af­ter ar­riv­ing in the Falk­land Is­lands for my dis­ser­ta­tion re­search un­der a Ful­bright-Hays fel­low­ship, my wife and I took a hike into the hills west of Stan­ley, the Is­lands' cap­i­tal and only town. Hop­ing for a panoramic view of Stan­ley Har­bour and the coun­try­side, we as­cended the flanks to­ward the sum­mit of the 1093-ft (333m) Mount Kent but, as we ap­proached, we found our way blocked by good-hu­mored Bri­tish squad­dies. Af­ter the 1982 con­flict in which Ar­gentina in­vaded the Falk­lands, only to be dis­lodged af­ter 74 days, the moun­tain had be­come home to a Royal Air Force radar sta­tion.

Whether the squad­dies might have been quite so jovial had they known my wife was an Ar­gen­tine – she trav­eled to the Is­lands on her US pass­port – I rather doubt. Still, I couldn't help think­ing of that when, as I read Gra­ham Bound's Fortress Falk­lands ( Pen and Sword, 236 pp., pa­per­back, $US 33), the au­thor re­peat­edly be­moaned his lack of ac­cess to the Bri­tish mil­i­tary com­mand and the RAF's Mount Pleas­ant fa­cil­i­ties, which also serve as the Is­lands' in­ter­na­tional air­port.

It's not as if Bound might be an Ar­gen­tine agent – Falk­lands-born, though he now lives in Lon­don, he's been a mil­i­tary cor­re­spon­dent for the BBC in far riskier en­vi­ron­ments, such as Afghanistan. Cer­tainly

he has the cred­i­bil­ity to make judg­ments on the Is­lands' de­fenses with­out giv­ing away con­fi­den­tial ma­te­rial but, as the sen­si­tive 30th an­niver­sary of the Ar­gen­tine in­va­sion ap­proached, he ap­par­ently got stonewalled and had to rely on re­tired mil­i­tary and his own on­line re­search for that spe­cific topic.

That's un­for­tu­nate, but it barely de­tracts from a book which, de­spite its rather sen­sa­tion­al­ist sub­ti­tle fo­cuses as much or more on a dis­tinc­tive people who have in­hab­ited their in­su­lar home­land for up to nine gen­er­a­tions. In fact, he is one of them, de­scended from a fam­ily that ar­rived in the 1840s; he founded Pen­guin News, the Is­lands' only news­pa­per, and there's prob­a­bly no­body bet­ter qual­i­fied to present an in­sider's view­point while si­mul­ta­ne­ously pro­vid­ing an out­sider's crit­i­cal ob­ser­va­tions.

Since the 1982 war, the Falk­lands have be­come a pros­per­ous place, thanks to fish­ing, tourism and (po­ten­tially) oil, but Ar­gen­tine pres­i­dent Cristina Fernán­dez de Kirch­ner's ir­re­den­tist jin­go­ism continues to trou­ble a pop­u­la­tion that would wel­come con­struc­tive en­gage­ment with a coun­try that, among other mea­sures, has pro­hib­ited char­ter flights over its airspace, ha­rassed Is­lands-bound cruise ships and fish­ing ves­sels, and with­drawn from ma­rine con­ser­va­tion ef­forts that were mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial.

At the same time, the au­thor even-hand­edly dis­cusses lo­cal so­ci­ety's achieve­ments and weak­nesses. The stan­dard of liv­ing has risen dra­mat­i­cally since the 1980s but, while some lo­cal en­trepreneurs have earned pre­vi­ously un­think­able for­tunes and un­em­ploy­ment is vir­tu­ally non-ex­is­tent, there is grow­ing eco­nomic in­equal­ity. As the tra­di­tional ru­ral life on sheep sta­tions has de­clined, the life­style has be­come more seden­tary, and health prob­lems such as obe­sity are be­com­ing a con­cern. The oil in­dus­try is a po­ten­tial threat to the abun­dant wildlife and mar­itime re­sources, but the Ar­gen­tine govern­ment's with­drawal from fish­ing agree­ments men­aces the mi­gra­tory Illex squid stocks on which the Is­lands' pros­per­ity de­pends.

Un­til the re­cent se­lec­tion of Pope Fran­cis I in Rome, the re­cent Falk­lands ref­er­en­dum in which Is­lan­ders over­whelm­ingly af­firmed their de­sire to con­tinue as a “self-gov­ern­ing Bri­tish ter­ri­tory” made huge head­lines in Ar­gentina, where pres­i­dent Fernán­dez and her ad­min­is­tra­tion went out of their way to dis­miss its le­git­i­macy – even declar­ing that Falk­land Is­lan­ders did not ex­ist. In his book, Bound stresses Is­lan­ders' con­cerns that Ar­gentina will more­over con­tinue to make things dif­fi­cult and could even take mil­i­tary ac­tion.

It's not just sol­i­dar­ity un­der oc­cu­pa­tion by Ar­gentina's bru­tal mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship that sug­gests the Is­lan­ders are a people. In one chap­ter, Bound posits a “soul of the Falk­lands” to de­scribe an hos­pitable life­style that, de­spite dra­matic changes since the 1980s, still sur­vives. That be­gan to change when I lived there, as some farm­houses be­came guest­houses for tourists in­trigued by pen­guins, ele­phant seals and other wildlife - un­til then, it would never have oc­curred to any­one to charge a guest for room and board.

I would have liked to see him an­a­lyze ethno­graphic traits that char­ac­ter­ize the Is­lands such as their dis­tinct ac­cent. While not ev­ery­body speaks with a thick Falk­lands ac­cent, there's no doubt it's unique: one Is­lan­der who worked on ships around the world told me that people of­ten in­quired about his ac­cent, but no one was ever able to guess his ori­gins. Chal­leng­ing even for some na­tive English speak­ers from other coun­tries, it's prob­a­bly clos­est to New Zealand or Aus­tralian speech, but even that is mis­lead­ing, and there's a lo­cal vo­cab­u­lary that takes some learn­ing.

As it hap­pened, Is­lan­ders voted by a mar­gin of 1,513 to three to con­tinue their cur­rent po­lit­i­cal sta­tus. On the ba­sis of my own ex­pe­ri­ence, I would say this was no sur­prise and con­sider the near-unan­i­mous re­sults cred­i­ble. In fact, I can think of at least two Ar­gen­tine res­i­dents (with dual na­tion­al­ity) who I am al­most cer­tain voted “Yes.” The last time I was in Stan­ley, there was even one Ar­gen­tine woman in the lo­cal po­lice force.

And while some Is­lan­ders and Bound him­self con­sider Ar­gentina a mil­i­tary threat, I am less con­vinced. Pres­i­dent Fernán­dez mis­trusts the mil­i­tary and has re­duced the budget to a shoe­string, to the point where one moth­balled war­ship re­cently sank at the Bahía Blanca naval base. In a re­cent email, Bound agreed that he may have over­stated the prob­a­bil­ity of an­other in­va­sion. Ar­gentina will con­tinue to try to iso­late the Is­lands, though, per­haps even with­draw­ing per­mis­sion for the weekly LAN Air­lines flight from Chile.

Still, any rhetor­i­cal re­treat on Ar­gentina's part is un­likely, at least in the near fu­ture. As Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel might say, the vol­ume may go up to 11.

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