Residents of the British-controlled Falkland Islands will vote in a referendum Sunday on whether to remain a British territory. Britain hopes the vote will end a diplomatic dispute with Argentina.
On Sunday, about 1,800 eligible islanders – who are legally British citizens – will vote on their political status, the result of which Britain hopes will send a strong message of ownership to the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Argentina has repeatedly refused to recognize the Falklanders as it pushes its claim to the British-controlled archipelago, which its calls Las Malvinas. Now, for the first time in two decades, the people of the islands are being given a voice. They will be asked if they want to remain a British overseas territory.
“Nobody I know would ever vote ‘no’,” says islander Emily Hancox, a young scientist.
In a 1986 referendum – four years after the Falklands War that claimed the lives of almost 1,000 British and Argentine men – islanders voted overwhelmingly in favor of British sovereignty.
“We have our own way of life, our own culture,” says Jan Cheek, a member of the Falkland Islands’ eight-person legislative assembly. “Argentina has always been separate.”
Close to 100 percent of islanders are expected to reaffirm their desire to remain under British control. But Argentina insists the referendum is “illegal.”
Its claim to the Falklands – which President Kirchner has pursued with vigor since 2010, when British companies began drilling for oil in the South Atlantic – is based on a version of history that islanders say is insincere.
According to the Argentine account, Spain took control of the Falklands in 1767 and the islands became a part of its territory after independence from the Spanish Crown in 1816. But, it continues, the people living there were ousted by a British occupation in 1833.
Today Argentina says the current population is “implanted” and has no right to self-determination granted under the United Nations Charter. “The islanders are not a third party; they’re British,” says Argentine war veteran Miguel Savage. “They cannot be part of the discussion. The referendum is a joke.”
“The near absence of Argentines in the islands gives the vote little political weight,” says Julio Burdman, head of international relations at the University of Belgrano.
The historical and political arguments are complemented by a legal one, says Marcelo Kohen, an Argentine professor of international law at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. Mr. Kohen appeared alongside Alicia Castro, Argentina’s ambassador to Britain, this week as she insisted that a "British-implanted population" in the islands cannot be used to solve the dispute.
“The referendum has no legal impact,” Kohen says, adding that, according to international law, it is for the UN to decide how to put an "end to the colonial situation" in the Falklands since they are a non-self-governing territory – “but this is not a UN referendum, it is being implemented by the British government.”
Britain, meanwhile, insists the islanders have the right to self-determination and has rejected Buenos Aires’ requests that it abide by several UN declarations calling on the two countries to negotiate.
It says a British expedition took formal possession of the Falklands in the 1770s and that the Spanish settlement in East Falkland – the largest island – was abandoned in 1811.
Documents uncovered last year, however, revealed that in 1974 Britain proposed shared sovereignty to former president Juan Domingo Perón. But just three weeks after a key meeting on the issue, Mr. Perón died, and with him the Argentine dream of reclaiming the islands.
That dream became even more distant after the conflict in 1982. Argentina’s military government invaded the islands in an attempt to whip up nationalist pride as the economy crumbled. The defeat ultimately led to the return of democracy in 1983, after seven years of dictatorship.
But it also led to a great resentment among islanders toward Argentina. “The barriers that are there are ones that Argentina have built,” says Mrs. Cheek, who also criticizes recent governments for having “unilaterally withdrawn” from negotiations to jointly exploit fish stocks and oil.
While a majority of Argentines firmly believe the Falklands belong to them – the fight for sovereignty is written into the country’s constitution – many also say the current Kirchner regime is using the islands as a tool to gain popular support.
“I couldn’t care less about the Falklands,” says Sergio Vega, a Buenos Aires taxi driver. “The government is insisting, but the people are not.”
“It’s all part of a larger nationalist strategy that will end up harming the country,” says Belén López, a university student.
Last year Kirchner expropriated a major oil company. Her hostile rhetoric and self-proclaimed “national and popular” model, including extensive welfare programs, have alienated much of the middle class. They complain she is not dealing with problems such as inflation, reported to be around 25 percent.
The Falklands have become a cornerstone of Kirchner's foreign policy. She made a passionate speech last year before the UN’s decolonization committee and confronted British Prime Minister David Cameron at a G20 summit in Mexico with envelopes containing the resolutions that call for talks. There were other symbolic acts, too, like the sanctioning of a TV commercial showing an Argentine athlete training for the London Olympics in the Falklands, described as “Argentine soil.”
But, insists Jorge Lanata, Argentina’s best-known journalist and a leading critic of the government, the aggression will lead to nothing. “It's crazy to argue for the islands without thinking about the people that live there,” he says.
“The referendum is our chance to show the international community what we want,” says Samantha Marsh, who was brought up on a farm in West Falkland. “And we do not want to be Argentine.”