Did the Falklands War end the culture of military dictatorships in South America?

BAS editor Robin Wallis

A well-armed regional power attempts to change the political map by invading a smaller neighbouring territory, citing a century or more of its justifiable claims being ignored.  The invaded territory enlists international assistance and fights back.  

As with Russia/Ukraine now, so then in 1982 with Argentina/the Falkland Islands (also known as las Islas Malvinas).  In both cases the invading state was governed by a faction that held power by oppressing its political opponents, murdering many to secure its authority.

The similarities end there.  Few would expect Russia to be expelled from its newly seized territories in the way that Argentina was then.  Putin’s regime is expert in controlling its citizens; Argentina’s military junta wasn’t even good at running the military. 

Between 2003 and 2015 I guided a number of British Sixth Form students around Buenos Aires.  I made sure always to take them to the Monumento a los Caídos en Malvinas.  For most of my group, my potted history of the 1982 conflict was the first they had heard of it.  Yet it was a conflict that re-shaped both the UK and South America. 

The Falklands dispute is a bottomless pit that goes back to the claims and actions of various seafaring adventurers in the 18th and 19th centuries.  For some, it all comes down to whether three dozen Argentines left the Islands of their own accord in 1833, or were forcibly expelled by the British.

For me, that period is of scant relevance to present-day realities.  The Islands were British-administered since 1833, with only sporadic grumbling from Argentine governments before 1982.  Nonetheless, Argentine schoolchildren were taught that the Islands were a part of their country that had been ‘usurped’ by the British; Islander families of mostly British origin could trace their presence in the Islands back several generations, some to before Argentina existed. 

The mid-20th Century was a period of mass decolonisation.  By the time Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, with a remit to rationalise the UK, the Falklands looked like an anomaly.  Foreign Office Minister Nicholas Ridley was sent on a joyless expedition first to the Islands, then to Buenos Aires, peddling a ‘lease-back’ proposal partly inspired by Hong Kong (ie sovereignty to be transferred at an agreed date several generations in the future).

The Islanders hated it.  They just wanted to be British, with the attendant safeguards that implied.  The last thing they wanted was to be bound to a dysfunctional state run by a military regime, unprotected by the rule of law.  The Argentines weren’t impressed either: the time frames didn’t accord with the junta’s ambitions. 

Crucially, the House of Commons opposed a lease-back deal, with the opposition Labour Party – normally in favour of decolonisation – decrying the idea of leaving the Islanders’ fate in the hands of a military junta.  Their opposition, combined with a ‘Falklands lobby’ that held influence with a number of Conservative MPs, made the issue too hot to handle.  In December 1980 the proposal was dropped.

Watching from Buenos Aires, Rear Admiral Jorge Anaya – a member of the three-man ruling military junta – saw his moment.  He nurtured a life-long urge to right the historical wrong of British usurpation of Argentine territory (cf Putin/Ukraine).  At the end of March 1982 his invasion force set sail, convinced that the British Government would not fight back.  Other members of the junta supported the move as a way to neutralise increasing domestic opposition to their rule.

When the UK did fight back and sank the General Belgrano, Anaya’s navy ran for cover, leaving pitifully unprepared conscript soldiers and the Argentine air force to take heavy casualties.  The UK landed troops that by mid-June had crossed East Falkland to liberate the Islands’ capital, Port Stanley.

The Argentine surrender led to the resignation of the junta and an 18-month transition back to democracy.  Argentina’s military was scorned by its people, its capability allowed to wither as a result of successive economic crises and the absence of external threats. Former junta leaders were tried and imprisoned for human rights abuses.

This humiliating outcome had an exemplary effect on neighbouring states.  Juntas established in an era of Cold War anti-communism now found their credibility undermined: in 1985 Uruguay and Brazil transitioned to democracy, with Chile following suit from 1988-90.  The process was profound in that it not only ended the military regimes of that period; it seems to have brought about a culture change, discrediting the very notion of military rule that had become a recurrent part of Latin American political dysfunctionality.  After the 1980s the military stayed in their barracks: the last thing the generals wanted was to risk the kind of humiliation and punishment meted out to Argentine junta leaders Galtieri, Anaya, Videla and others. 

Yet it could all have been different.  Had the Argentines used the April 1982 invasion to make the point that only they, rather than the UK, could protect the Islands, and then withdrawn without a conflict, leaving only a political office (ie government in waiting) in the Islands, they would probably have won international support and made it impossible for the UK to delay further an agreement to transfer sovereignty.  Indeed, as the UK Task Force sailed south in April 1982, a proposal along these lines was sent from the UK government (still hoping to avoid fighting) to Buenos Aires.  There, Galtieri’s junta – too brain-fogged by militarism, machismo and, it has been said, alcohol – missed their chance. 

The botched invasion, rather than secure the Islands for Argentina, has justified a post-1982 Islander veto over contact with Argentina that has no prospect of changing in the foreseeable future.  Public opinion in the UK is equally entrenched: Argentina lost the War, British blood was spilt… there can be no weakening of the UK’s position.    

Since 1982 the Falklands has sprouted a military base and a thriving fishing industry.  The population has risen slightly, a Constitution has been enacted, and under the UK’s protection the Islanders see themselves as a self-governing territory rather than a colony (though some experts argue that the role of the Governor – appointed by London – means that the UK still has quasi-colonial control over the territory). 

The mantra which justifies UK rule is that the wishes of the Islanders should be paramount.  Argentine experts respond that the Islander population is not the result of a free migration of peoples (all migrants have to receive approval from the Island authorities before they can settle there).  It is therefore a transplanted rather than a natural population, which undermines the insistence on self-determination.

So did the 1982 conflict really change Latin American political culture? Yes, in that there have been no further seizures of power by the armed forces. Military take-overs of the past reflected the weak institutions of Latin American states since their independence from Spain in the early 1800s. Independence back then was mainly a way for the ruling classes to gain greater control of the state. From the 1820s to the 1980s the military could be manouevred into collaborating with the elite through corruption, co-option or ideology.

The end of the Cold War limited scope for ideological coups (‘protecting the state from communism’). Instead, Latin American democracy is now emperilled more by populists, the most effective of whom (the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela) frequently appeared in uniform as a former military officer. Such autocratic leaders need the army’s support to maintain their hold on power, and use generous pay-outs from state funds to buy its loyalty; but the generals these days stay clear of running the government.

I mentioned my view that the Falklands War also changed the course of UK history.  I have in mind here our party politics.  In 1981 British politics was polarised between a right-of-centre ‘monetarist’ Conservative government and a Labour Party opposition that was turning radically to socialism.  Labour moderates broke away to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP).  In the month before the Falklands War, SDP leader Roy Jenkins won an astonishing by-election victory for the new party, which in the opinion polls was ahead of both Labour and Conservatives. 

The War changed all that: Prime Minister Thatcher impressed the electorate with her leadership during the conflict and won by a landslide in the next two elections.  By the end of the 1980s the SDP and its leaders’ political careers were finished.

What of the future?  Brexit has given the Islanders a nasty shock about access to EU markets.  High energy prices may make oil exploration viable around the Islands, which could significantly change their nature.  Climate change may have an impact.

The least likely scenario appears to be another Argentine assault on the Islands.  Though I notice that the Argentine defence minister was recently lobbied regarding arms purchases by… the Russian Ambassador.

Robin Wallis was a UK diplomat in Argentina when relations were restored in 1990.  He has served as Hon Secretary of the South Atlantic Council, an organisation formed after the Falklands War to encourage understanding between Argentina, the Islands and the UK.