COMMENT - Agreement - Side Letter - Press Conference Implementation

In November 1998, the detention of General Pinochet in Britain caused Chile to abandon its traditional friendship with Britain and actively side with Argentina over the Falklands dispute.  In March 1999, the Chilean government, in reprisal for the detention of General Pinochet, but also in close collaboration with the Argentine government, stopped all flights from Punta Arenas in Southern Chile to the Falklands.  Argentine pressure also prevented the opening of an already approved air-link with Uruguay and persuaded Uruguay to stop all but emergency medical flights between Uruguay and the Falklands.  This was all intended to force Islanders to restore communications with Argentina again which were broken off by the 1982 War, and to allow Argentine citizens to visit the Falklands.  In early 1999 very serious poaching of squid took place in Falklands waters, primarily by Taiwanese vessels.  British government delays over the delivery of a naval gun, with which to arrest violators, and over the use of armed boarding parties, made it difficult for the Falklands to prevent this.  

To get Argentine cooperation against the poaching and to negotiate their way out of the Argentine inspired blockade and in the belief that the continued British Parliamentary support depended on the abandonment of the Falklands policy of excluding Argentine citizens (other than the next of kin of Argentine war dead buried at the Darwin cemetery who had been permitted to visit for some years) - and with the broader aim of achieving good neighbourly relations and building on the goodwill engendered by the visits of President Menem to Britain and the Prince of Wales to Argentina - negotiations with the Argentines were begun by Falklands Councillors in May in conjunction with the British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.  These negotiations continued in New York in July.  Many Islanders felt that isolation would be better than reopening communications with Argentina.  Nevertheless, after careful consideration, the Council by a seven to one majority felt that what became known as the 1999 Agreement was in the best interests of the Falklands.  The agreement was signed in London on 14th July 1999. 

The Argentines see any step towards the normalisation of relations between Argentina and the Falklands as a step towards a transfer of sovereignty.  Indeed, after signing the agreement, their Foreign Minister Guido Di Tella said that negotiations on sovereignty would take place within eight years.  That is why many Islanders view the future with apprehension, and actively oppose the agreement.  However, the effect of the agreement is to normalise relations, without even the hint of a concession over sovereignty.  Argentine citizens, like anyone else visiting the Falklands including British citizens, are required upon entry to produce their passports for stamping by the Falklands Islands Government's Immigration Service.  The Argentine 1982 War Veterans' Federation have declared that their members will not visit the Falklands until they can do so without showing their passports.

One week after the agreement was signed, the Chilean ban on flights was lifted, although General Pinochet remained in detention.  Lan Chile flights began again on 7th August 1999.  The Chilean ban on flights from Punta Arenas had met with strong disapproval in Punta Arenas, where local politicians pointed out that bilateral trade with the Falklands was worth five million dollars.  Following the declaration by the British and Argentine governments on 8th October 1999 that the fisheries protection measures required under the agreement were in place, the go-ahead was given for Lan Chile flights from Punta Arenas to being monthly stop-overs at Rio Gallegos, Argentina.  These stopovers began on 16th October 1999 but are little utilised.

Before the first Argentine citizens arrived in the Falklands, the Argentine Foreign Minister Guido Di Tella appealed for restraint by Argentine visitors, warning against incidents which might cause the agreement to collapse.  He urged them to respect the ecology of the Falklands, and "not write anything on bathroom walls or elsewhere" (Islanders have bad memories of how Argentine troops violated their homes in 1982).  A similar appeal came from Governor Lamont, who said it was necessary to "open the door in a smooth and controlled manner", warning that "the treatment given Argentine visitors will largely depend on the visitors' attitude."  These appeals went unheeded by many of the Argentine press who initially flooded into the Falklands, and a young Argentine lawyer, Martin Matzkin, angered Islanders by displaying an Argentine flag at the Darwin cemetery.  However, since these early visits, there has been little trouble, and indeed it would appear that few Argentines are interested in or can afford to visit the Falklands.

Nonetheless, the agreement received mixed reaction, both praise and strong criticism, in Britain, in Argentina, and in the Falklands.  Some Islanders were in tears at the result, which they considered went against the election promises of several Councillors.  Others, particularly some members of the business community, were in favour of it, in order to recover communications with Chile.  Several years on, the debate still rages amongst Islanders.  At the time Councillor Norma Edwards, the one Councillor who did not vote for the agreement, called for a comprehensive canvas of all Islander opinion before decisions were taken.  She criticised the Argentines for, as she put it, "teaching their children the wrong history, which they rewrite to suit themselves.  Once you can convince them that what they are teaching their children is wrong, you won't have generations of Argentines growing up believing all these silly things."

Amongst those who welcomed the agreement, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said "It marks a change from an era of confrontation to a new chapter of dialogue and cooperation" whilst Governor Donald Lamont said "It is very important that both sides make it work well so that it can enhance confidence and relations.  It is a very good agreement and a very important step forward for everyone.  There will be no discrimination against Argentines, but it is not easy for the Islanders who have many unpleasant memories of 1982."  The official statement from Councillors said "Access by Argentine passport holders is a very difficult pill to swallow, but we believe it is a necessary step to take in order to retain the support of the British Public and Parliament.  This agreement contains elements which are difficult, but there are significant elements too which are positive in developing the security of our economy and enhancing our rights.  We believe we have secured a good deal for the Falkland Islands.  However, this agreement will only work and the wider process will only prosper if the present and future governments of Argentina demonstrate, by full implementation of the whole package, that they too are willing to join in building a new relationship of confidence and mutual trust."

[With grateful thanks to the 75th edition of the Falkland Islands Newsletter published by the Falkland Islands Association in October 1999 which provided the source material for this article]


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