Today is the 30th anniversary of the start of the Falklands War. Appropriately, we’re in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We’ve been here for a few weeks of Spanish lessons, dancing and culture, and will soon be heading off to pastures new in the form of Bariloche in the mountains.
Yesterday I paid a visit to the war memorial here in BA. A continually lit flame stands beside the rolecall of the Argentinian dead on a grassy slope, with two cermonial soldiers standing guard motionless, apparently happy to appear in tourists’ posed photos much like those at Buckingham Palace back home.
The monument stands in a wide open square where curiously the other structure of significance is in fact a gift from the British, a large clock tower nicknamed ‘Big Ben’ but looking nothing like it. It’s perhaps somewhat symbolic of the mixed relations between the two countries – in spite of the increased right-wing rhetoric featured on the news in the build up to the anniversary, people here have been warm and friendly when we’ve mentioned we’re from the UK; there is a clear acceptance that Britan and Argentina can and should get along side by side.
However, that’s not to suggest that Las Malvinas (as they call them here) aren’t a hot topic and seen as the symbol of national identity. When we were going round the Casa Rosada, the Presidential Palace, one of the centrepieces was a large map on a wall depicting a collection of islands – we tilted our heads and tried to make out South America, or perhaps some alternate suspicion of the world. It was only later we realised what they were. I found it a little embarrassing given that I’d expect most folks in the UK (ourselves included until recently) couldn’t place them on a map, and it’s probably fair to say don’t know much about them. We’ve heard various views here: that they’re becoming a big issue because of oil drilling rights; the historic nature of Argentina’s claim to the islands; the nationalism whipped up at the time by a military dictatorship on the brink of collapse, and the Thatcher government with domestic troubles of its own; and of course the counterpoint that’s all over the news back home: the right of the islanders themselves to self determination – and that they want to be British.
It goes without saying that we’re keeping our heads down today – we decided to leave our matching Union Jack kazoos at home for once, and we won’t be visiting the ‘Malvinas’ empanada joint where we experienced the sole racist comment of our travels so far – the staff behind the counter repeating something along the lines of “The Malvinas are ours and we will take them back” believing that we couldn’t understand their Spanish.
It will be interesting to see where the debate goes on the Malvinas. Our Argentinian friend Javier pointed out today that the issue is deep rooted and has become fundamental to Argentine identity in its post-dictatorship democracy – but clearly the UK isn’t going to let go any time soon. Either way, we’ve decided Port Stanley (that would be Puerto Argentino to those here) will be one place left off our itinerary this time round.
PS. We’ve fallen a bit behind with the blog! I’ll be adding in some updates from the past month or shortly – we haven’t become hermits, and there’s much to talk about!