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Avoiding the sovereignty issue in the Falklands

UNTIL Oct. 29, when Britain announced the establishment of a 150-mile fishing conservation zone around the Falklands, the Argentine government still held hopes that negotiations to resolve the issue of its sovereignty claim over the islands would eventually start. This issue has lasted for more than 150 years, and in 1982 it got worse, because of a 74-day war for which no armistice has been signed to date. Sir Geoffrey Howe, the British foreign secretary, announcing the declaration of the conservation zone to the House of Commons, said it will take effect Feb. 1, 1987. But the reasons he cited for the measure, i.e., ``aggressive patrolling by Argentine boats'' and ``Argentina's failure to cooperate in reaching a fisheries agreement,'' only confirm the British refusal to reinitiate conversations that include the sovereignty issue.

Over four years after fighting a war that was not promoted by the present democratic government, and which Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher justified as an ``adequate answer to a military dictatorship's aggression,'' Argentine President Ra'ul Alfons'in's peace intentions have received yet another hard blow.

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Unsuccessful attempts to refinance the $55 billion external debt, along with an inflationary spiral that went from 6.8 percent last July to almost a double-digit figure in October, have put the International Monetary Fund in a doubtful position as to the results of the Argentine government's economic plan. The plan is also harried by a steady cost-of-living increase.

Furthermore, as a result of a confrontation with the Roman Catholic Church over a divorce bill, the legislators who voted for it have been denied holy communion. And, after the armed forces questioned the role that a new defense bill passed by the House would give them, the executive has stalled, sine die, its consideration of the bill by the Senate.

Hours before the British fishing prohibition was announced, the commander of the Chilean Navy, Adm. Jos'e T. Merino, added to Argentina's domestic conflict on the issue when he criticized agreements signed last July between Argentina and the governments of Bulgaria and the Soviet Union regarding fisheries in the South Atlantic. Argentina's armed forces called Admiral Merino's statement an interference in the country's internal affairs. The Argentine Foreign Ministry did not comment on it. After the British announcement, the Argentine armed forces, linking it to Merino's statement, viewed it as confirming the existence of the 1982 London-Santiago axis, when British aircraft refueled in Chile.

On Oct. 30 Mr. Alfons'in, in an attempt to appease the military, established a special advisory committee for the Malvinas (Falklands) that canceled all leaves in the three branches of the armed forces. The next day, before leaving for Uruguay to meet with Elliott Abrams, United States undersecretary of state for Latin American Affairs, the Argentine foreign minister, Dante Caputo, tried to calm the international community, saying that ``there is no reason for anguish nor worry,'' adding that ``there is no type of mobilization of troops, no alert.''

During the meeting, Mr. Caputo charged that British attitudes have a destabilizing effect on the democratic government, since any sign of external aggression immediately concerns the armed forces. He also requested, through Mr. Abrams, that the US intervene to prevent the new measure from taking effect, since it would allow Britain to enter into fishing agreements with military protection. Britain would also be able militarily to prevent fishing by boats from other nations that have agreements with Argentina.

During the last two weeks, the Argentine diplomatic offensive has been boosted by the visit to Buenos Aires of Peruvian President Alan Garc'ia, who delivered a declaration made by his country's parliament; by a telephone conversation, on Nov. 3, between Presidents Reagan and Alfons'in; and by the resolution, critical of the British action, passed by all 31 foreign ministers, including US Secretary of State George Shultz, at last month's Organization of American States meeting.

Beyond the goodwill of the two parties, however, it is difficult to find a solution unless one of them yields its position on the sovereignty issue. Should either do so, the resulting domestic situations would jeopardize government stability. Paradoxically, it was for a lack of stability that the war started in 1982. Similar domestic reasons blew the issue of reoccupation of the islands out of all proportion.

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The present situation, difficult to understand for those who demand immediate solutions, is an integral part of a fact that cannot be changed without an informal act. The Falklands military fortifications exist; they not only allow Britain to keep the islands, but also offer a solution to the security problem raised when boats from countries outside the Western bloc navigate in an extensive area comprising one of the two ocean passages between the Atlantic and the Pacific. It is also a fact that the Argentine government does not plan to use force in support of its sovereignty claim; neither does it intend to disturb British investments in Argentina or harass the businesses of the large British colony. On the contrary, it will continue listening to the industrialized countries. Whether this will lead to a solution is another matter.

Pablo D. Valle, an Argentine journalist, is a former staff editor at La Prensa of Buenos Aires and served as press secretary to Argentine President Arturo Illia. He is writing a book on ``Argentina and the United States during the Radical party governments: 1916-1930.''

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