Kirchner's Perfect Timing
(International Relations and Security Network, 04/05/2007)
Leading up to the 25th anniversary of the Falkland Islands War between the UK and Argentina, President Nestor Kirchner has stoked nationalist sentiments by canceling an agreement with Britain to explore for oil and gas in the South Atlantic Islands. Kirchner followed up this move by proclaiming that the islands would always be Argentine.
It is more a well-timed effort to maintain high levels of popularity ahead of October presidential elections than any real geopolitical maneuver to install Argentine sovereignty over the islands.
This populist tactic aims to redirect national and media attention away from growing unease with inflation and wages, two specters from Argentina's past that Kirchner would prefer to deal with after he has been re-elected.
Since the end of the 74-day conflict in 1984, during which Argentina lost 1,000 troops, the UK has given citizenship to the islands' inhabitants, known as "kelpers," and has installed a significant military presence on the Falklands.
But Argentina does not recognize the Falklands as UK territory, preferring to call the South Atlantic islands the "Malvinas." Kirchner, understanding the nationalist sentiment stirred by taking issue with the UK's control of the islands, has maintained constant diplomatic pressure on London since his inauguration.
During his inaugural speech in May 2003, Kirchner proclaimed he was a "presidente malvino," meaning his would push to bring the Falkland Islands back under Argentine control.
By December 2003, the issue captured Argentine national attention when Kirchner demanded an apology from London for using naval vessels armed with nuclear warheads during the Falklands War. Some weeks later, a Russian official proclaimed support for Argentina's claim to the Falklands while on a diplomatic trip in Buenos Aires.
During a 15 June 2006 speech to the UN decolonization committee, Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana said the UK should return to sovereignty talks with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.
Such statements and posturing are designed to boost popular support for Kirchner but mean little in terms of Argentina's actual intentions to exercise sovereignty over the Falklands.
Kirchner's government has employed some annoying tactics, however. Flights from Chile to the Falklands that fly through Argentine airspace have been limited to one a week, a limitation that is more annoying to the Chileans that work in the South Atlantic islands than the islanders themselves, or the British.
Many in Chile believe that Chilean shipping and air traffic between their country and the Falklands is closely monitored by Argentine intelligence. It is unclear why.
Kirchner has reportedly urged Argentine fishermen to focus their efforts on the boundary waters Argentina shares with the Falklands, a practice leaders there claim depletes the stock for commercial fishing vessels from Russia, Korea and Spain. These boats pay licensing fees that make up two-thirds of Falklands government revenue, according a 1 April article in the New York Times.
In May 2005, London boosted its military presence on the Falklands by 5,000 troops in a response to alleged Argentine night flight operations into no-fly security zones around the Falklands.
But Argentina's military remains weakened and under pressure from the Kirchner government to come to terms with those Argentines "disappeared" during the country's Dirty War in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For now, Kirchner's overtures remain limited to diplomatic pressure and taking advantage of memorable dates, such as the Falklands anniversary, to stir national sentiment.
The Argentine economy has grown by some 8 percent during the past three years. Yet more and more Argentines are feeling the creeping pressure inflation has had on prices, especially those who live on wages.
Labor strikes in Buenos Aires to demand higher wages have been a constant thorn in Kirchner's side since his inauguration. On 27 March, the government office of Statistics and Census announced it would organize a 24-hour strike in April. The Argentine fuel-trade union arranged a 48-hour strike at gas stations on 28 March to protest price-fixing. On the same day, farm trade organizations threatened to organize protests against the government price "suggestions."
Rather than rein in spending to control inflation, Kirchner's administration has chosen to bully certain sectors into controlling prices at the retail level, squeezing earnings for producers. These tactics work in the short-term, but over time do very little to combat inflation.
Even with his postulating over the Falklands, Kirchner decided not to attend a commemoration ceremony on 2 April, the day of the 25th anniversary of the Falkland Islands War. The president was scheduled to deliver a rousing nationalist speech claiming the "Malvinas" as Argentine sovereign territory. His decision not to attend and to instead send his vice president perhaps signaled Kirchner's unwillingness to push Britain too far. But the speech itself was enough to deliver his message to Argentina.
"The Malvinas are and always will be Argentine," Vice President Daniel Scioli said during the ceremony, also attended by the defense minister, the interior minister and the foreign minister.
Six months ahead of the presidential elections, it would appear as if Kirchner has an excellent chance of winning a second mandate. Yet it remains unclear if his troubles with inflation will be taken under control before October, given the recent rise in civil unrest.
The passing of a significant date in Argentine history together with London's preoccupation with matters in the Middle East created an ideal opportunity to maximize on popular support with limited international repercussion. Such perfect timing, however, is unlikely to happen again.