Thursday, June 14, 2007

Two blasts from the past

I was watching the news on Al Jazeera this afternoon, and saw two stories that took me back to the 1980's: Austrian President and U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim died, and Argentina has been quietly stepping up economic pressure against the British territory of the Falkland Islands.

Kurt Waldheim was born in 1918, just after World War I. In 1941, at the age of 22, he was drafted into the Nazi German armed forces, the Wehrmacht. He claimed to have been given a medical discharge later that same year, but in fact he served until very near the end of World War II, deserting his post and surrendering to British forces in 1945. He consistently denied claims that he was actively involved in war crimes committed by his unit, including the deportation of 40,000 Jews from Greece and the brutal suppression of insurgents in Yugoslavia. However, since he had for many years lied about even being in the army at the time of the war crimes, his denials carry little weight.

After World War II, Waldheim completed his university education and entered the diplomatic corps. By 1956, he had risen to the post of Ambassador to Canada, and in 1964 he became the Austrian representative to the United Nations. In 1971, after losing the Austrian presidential election, he became Secretary General of the U.N., a post he held until 1981, when China vetoed his bid for a third term. In 1986, he was elected president of Austria, but it was during that campaign that many details of his Nazi past came to light, resulting in his ostracism in international circles. In 1987, he was placed on a list of persons forbidden entry to the United States. His distinguished career as a diplomat was completely overshadowed by the shame of his Nazi past.

The other news is from the Falkland Islands, or the Islas Malvinas, as they are called by Argentina, which has claimed them as part of its national territory since independence from Spain in 1816. However, the only periods during which Argentina exercised effective control of the islands were 1816–1833 and 1982-04-02 to 1982-06-14, twenty-five years ago today. In 1833, the British invaded and seized the islands, settling them with a few thousand people, but Argentina shook its fists in the air for 149 years, taking up the issue with the United Nations at its inception in 1945. In 1976, a military junta took power in Argentina, ushering in a period of economic decline and runaway inflation. To distract the people, the junta made an appeal to nationalistic fervor by "wagging the dog" with a military invasion of the Falklands. The sparsely populated islands had minimal defenses at the time, so the Argentinians easily took control, but the British navy responded in full force, removing Argentina in a mere 73 days. In spite of the decisive military defeat, and more importantly the near-unanimous will of the residents to remain British, Argentina still claims the Falklands to this day.

Argentina has little hope of ever retaking the Falklands by force, and is unlikely to try, given the humiliating trouncing they suffered in 1982. Furthermore, the period of Argentine control of the Malvinas in the early 19th century was tenuous at best. Spain and Britain had clashed over their claims from 1765, when Spain purchased the islands from France, until 1790, when Britain renounced its claim. (Britain retained the right to fish in the waters around the Falklands, though.) Spain abandoned the islands in 1811, and the newly independent Argentina claimed them in 1816, since the Spanish territory had been administered from Buenos Aires. However, Argentina did not build a permanent settlement until 1826, and it lasted only five years, largely as a penal colony. In 1831, the Argentinian settlement was destroyed by the U.S. Navy in retaliation for Argentinian interference with American seal hunters. Argentina tried unsuccessfully to re-establish control in 1832, but in 1833, the British navy retook the Falklands.

Since the 1982 invasion, the Falklands economy has involved increasing international tourism, and recently exploration for possible offshore oil deposits. Argentina has begun interfering with both industries, denying permission for Chilean charter flights to the Falklands to cross Argentinian airspace and threatening retaliation against any company that does business with the Falklands oil explorers. Two months ago, on 2007-04-02, the 25th anniversary of Argentina's invasion of the Falklands, the president of Argentina again asserted sovereignty over the islands. It seems some people just don't know when to give up; the islands are British, and have been British for more than 170 years. (It is for that reason that I refuse to use the name Malvinas, even though Argentina considers the use of Falklands to be offensive. Don't cry for the Falklands, Argentina.) The people are British, with full U.K. citizenship since 1983. The people have no interest in even discussing becoming part of Argentina.

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