NEAL CONAN, HOST:
If the dispute between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands sounds like very old news, consider that a British warship set sail for the South Atlantic this week as Argentina's president called for boycotts of British goods and protesters threw firebombs at the British embassy in Buenos Aires. All this as we mark 30 years since Argentine troops invaded the remote island, starting a war that ended with their surrender after 74 days and nearly a thousand dead. Jackson Diehl covered the Falklands War for the Washington Post back in 1982. He's now the deputy editorial page editor at that newspaper and joins us from its office here in Washington. Nice to have you back on the program.
JACKSON DIEHL: Oh, my pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: And a few facts to guard those younger than you and me. Britain seized the Falklands in 1833, illegal then and illegal now, according to Argentina, which calls them the Malvinas. Every Argentine school child learns Islas Malvinas son Argentinas, but the roughly 3,200 residents adamantly insist they and the Falklands are and will always be British. But Jackson Diehl, none of that has changed since the end of the war three decades ago. Why has this dispute reemerge now?
DIEHL: I think it has to do with Argentine politics more than anything else. The reason the Argentine junta in 1982, military generals in charge at the time, invaded the Falklands, was they were desperate to distract popular attention from the fact that the economy was tanking and that they were losing their legitimacy. Now we have a civilian government in power, which, to its credit, doesn't want to invade the Falklands, but it has the same difficult economic problems again and it has the same problems with potentially losing legitimacy at home. And this is a very easy way to distract people.
CONAN: This time, though, there is no hint of military action.
DIEHL: There isn't. And I think the interesting thing about this government is they have cut the Argentine military budget so severely in the last few years that even if Argentina wanted to invade the Falklands, they would be incapable of doing so. So that's one good thing.
CONAN: So what does this campaign amount to then besides words?
DIEHL: Well, they're trying to put economic pressure on Britain. And I think actually the British are a little bit worried about it. They are stopping cruise ships that come from the Falklands, not allowing them to dock in Argentina. They are pressuring the Chileans to cut off the one air link between Chile and the Falkland Islands. They are calling on Argentine manufacturers to cut down on the import of British goods. And I think the worry is that they will make this into a regional campaign, that they will try and persuade the Brazilians, the Peruvians and others to start putting economic pressure on Britain as well.
CONAN: And the rallying cry of anti-colonialism has a lot of residents in South America.
DIEHL: It does, although what we learned in 1982 was that the rest of South America is willing to verbally support Argentina on this but not much more, because I think they, like the rest of the world, are kind of puzzled by this Argentine claim and by the claim of the de-colonialization of a place that has 3,000 residents, all of whom wish to remain British.
CONAN: And that is the opposite claim - the Brits say no one Argentinian has lived there for, what, 180 years now, and this is self-determination. The people who live on the islands get to vote who they want to stay with.
That's right. The irony here is that before the war in 1982, the British were thinking about handing it over against the wishes of the people on the island. They were basically prepared to sell them out because it was too expensive to hang onto the place. But the war has stiffened their spine so much that I think it would never politically be considered, at least not in our lifetime, again, for the British to hand it back, unless the islanders say they want to.
Unless the islanders say they want to. More about that in just a minute. But there's another calculation that has changed - the discovery of oil and gas off the coast of South America and indeed off the coast of the Falkland Islands.
DIEHL: That's right. And of course we don' know yet how commercially exploitable it's going to be. But there has been a strike, and it could be something quite substantial. And I think that gives the Argentines actually a more tangible reason than just populism to pursue this because they're potentially out a lot of oil if they lose their sovereignty claim.
CONAN: So there is oil - the Argentines have also threatened to make life difficult for any of the companies that rush in to try to develop the fields around the Falklands.
DIEHL: That's right. And the curious thing about this is a little bit self-defeating because, you know, the Argentines have their own large coast, which - for oil, which has not really been explored. They also have very large shale deposits on land, some of the largest in the world, which are going to require about $25 billion to exploit and which Argentine companies don't have the capital before. So you would think that Argentina would want to be attracting foreign companies to come and explore in its waters to develop its own shale deposits. But this kind of hostility that was happening in the Falklands, I think, tends to do just opposite to drive investors away.
CONAN: And you mentioned that unless the islanders vote themselves to change their status, nothing much is going to happen. And the same is true - Britain, in some ways, might prefer to turn Gibraltar over to the Spanish. In some ways, it might prefer to turn Northern Ireland over to Ireland. But like the Falkland Islands, nothing is going to change unless the people there want it to change.
DIEHL: That's right. They could give us Bermuda for that matter, which is just similar to the Falkland Islands in some ways. But, of course, then, yes. Then the Falkland Islanders are never going to decide on union with Argentina unless they're somehow persuaded by the Argentines. And the interesting thing about this is before the war in 1982, the Argentines are pursuing a much smarter policy. They created a lot of links with the Falkland Islanders. They invited them to come to Argentina. They sold them goods. They let their kids come to school in Buenos Aires. And you could see a process where, over time, the Islanders might decide it was in their interest to be part of a country that was only a few hundred miles away instead of a country that was 8,000 miles away. And with this whole policy of boycott and hostility, they're just driving them away.
CONAN: And is this, to some degree, a byproduct also of that teaching in every Argentine classroom that this is a grievance that goes back nearly 200 years?
DIEHL: Yes, exactly. And - well, it makes it easy for the government to play on this because, you know, one of the things I found astounding when I was there as a correspondent 30 years ago is that public opinion turns so suddenly on this issue. People who are absolutely angry with the military government couldn't wait to throw them out the minute the invasion happened, turned into passionate defenders of the government. There really is, and as odd as it seems, very powerful, strong, emotional feeling about this in Argentina.
CONAN: The Argentine military did not fight badly but was severely outclassed. In a way, I don't think Argentina expected Britain to fight for the Falkland Islands. There was a fight. It was decisive in the end. And the junta crumbled after that as people looked at the debacle of these invasion troops surrendering to the British.
DIEHL: Yeah. It was a wonderful silver lining for Argentina because the - not only that juntas crumbled but the whole tradition of military rule in Argentina crumbled. For 30 years in Argentina, you had had a military coup approximately every two years, and you had never had a civilian government managed to finish its term for 30 years. And now, we've had 30 years in which Argentina has basically been a democracy. No military interventions and no prospect of one ever again.
CONAN: Because, as you mentioned, in part, the military is considerably smaller than it used to be.
CONAN: As you - I'm sorry. Go ahead.
DIEHL: They just simply don't have the resources, and they don't have the will.
CONAN: As you look ahead, though, is there any prospect that this, well, niceness campaign could begin to bear fruit, that this might seem possible to the Argentine government?
DIEHL: I don't think it's possible for this Argentine government. They have really committed themselves to this nationalist stance. They get, you know, they get a cheaper turn on it now, and I think they think short term. They're not thinking about long term. They're not really - I doubt they really are that invested in actually trying to recover the Falklands. It's easier just to use it domestically at home than to embark on a long and patient campaign as the Chinese would do, for example, with Taiwan.
CONAN: So if it did happen, though, if Argentine companies said, wait a minute. If you're going to develop these oil fields, we have nearby sources of all this equipment and expertise that may be able to help you. People could make a lot of money.
DIEHL: Oh, it could be a boon for them. And, again, you could probably start to attract the same oil companies that are drilling in the Falklands to move over a couple hundred miles and start drilling off the coast of Argentina as well, where there could as well also be supplies of oil. After all, there's oil off the coast of Brazil. There's oil off the coast of the Falklands. Why not Argentina?
CONAN: Now, we have this email from John in Madrid in Spain: Since 2006, at least it's been assumed that Argentina has misreported inflation and GDP statistics to the IMF in order to hide increasingly dire economic situations. This current conflict over the Falklands just seems to be the Fernandez administration's way of distracting from their real problem.
DIEHL: Yeah, that's right. I was actually meeting with an Argentine journalist this morning. You know, journalists in Argentina are prosecuted now if they try and report the real inflation rate, which is about 10 or 20 percent higher than the rate that the government wants to report.
CONAN: Yet, there was real economic progress after a debacle of default several years ago.
DIEHL: Well, that - yes, some economic progress. They managed their domestic economy managed to recover because they were able to devalue after that default. But they've been struggling - starting to struggle now because Argentina has a very severe balance of payments problem. They do not get foreign financing. They have never made peace with the world's financial markets, never made peace with the Paris Club, never made peace with the IMF, and so they cannot obtain external financing for their economy. And so it makes it more and more difficult to import and makes it more and more difficult to invest. They can't get foreign investment in their oil fields. And so they have some problems that have been building up that would have been very difficult to contain in the next couple of years.
CONAN: You also mentioned that this was seen as an economic drain for Britain 30 years ago before the invasion. Since then, they've had to spend a lot of money. The place was essentially defenseless in 1982. It's no longer so. There are, what, four fighters jets based there? And there was considerable controversy when - was it Prince Andrew who was based there for a bit?
DIEHL: Well, Prince William was there.
CONAN: Prince William, forgive me. Yes. Yeah.
DIEHL: You know, Prince Andrew was there - Prince Andrew was there during the war, I believe. And, now, Prince William was there recently doing a little stint there, I believe.
CONAN: I get my princes confused. Forgive me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DIEHL: But, you know, the British are spending $300 million a year on defense there, so it's a very substantial investment. They're going to - they're having to make on behalf of 3,000 people.
CONAN: And the dispatch of this warship, again, the British say, routine to send a ship like this. They don't - the Royal Navy is not what it once was either to the South Atlantic and the Argentine's (unintelligible) militarization.
DIEHL: Well, I think it is relatively routine in the sense the British usually do have a ship there just as a deterrence. Now, whether or not they decided to dispatch a new one just to send a message to the Argentines that they were still committed to the defense of the place or not, I don't know. But, you know, when you have all this - the campaign going on, the British were taken totally by surprise in April 1982, and I think they want to make sure that doesn't happen again.
CONAN: And I wonder how the anniversary has played into this, listening to various BBC broadcasts of British soldiers meeting up with their Argentine counterparts in refighting the Battle of Goose Green and various other things. Has that played into this at all?
DIEHL: Well, perhaps, a little bit. You know, there is some sort of lobby in Argentina of soldiers who fought in the war and felt very much betrayed by the junta at the time, and they - I think, that to some extent, they'd been a positive influence in which they are anti-militarist. But they also helped to keep the cause alive and helped to keep the country focused on this problem that really shouldn't be a problem.
CONAN: So a lost cause like other lost causes can have an effect long after a defeat?
CONAN: As you look ahead to the - it doesn't seem that this is going to resolve. Again, as you say, the British government cannot politically do anything but what it's doing.
DIEHL: No. I think that having fought this war, I think, it'll be generations before they can consider again making a change in the status of the place. Unless, very unlikely, there's a change in the opinion of people on the island. So they're pretty much stuck with it. I think the silver lining for them is the oil strike, which is if it turns out to be commercial will at least make the place not as much of a drain on their budget as it has been.
CONAN: Jackson Diehl, thanks very much for your time.
DIEHL: Oh, my pleasure.
CONAN: Jackson Diehl covered the Falklands War for The Washington Post back in 1982. He's now deputy editorial page editor at that newspaper, writes some columns as well from time to time and joined us from its office here in Washington, D.C. This is the TALK OF THE NATION, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.