Falklands redux: Where there’s oil, Hugo Chavez and Sean Penn, will there be fire?

John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Rhetorical gales from Argentina are again battering the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. And while the presumably noble sentiments of Argentine sovereignty blows over the windswept islands, just under the adjacent waters may sit massive petroleum deposits which would change the geopolitical calculations both for Britain and Argentina.

Now in what appears to have strange parallels with the 1982 Falklands conflict, Argentina and Britain are floating claims and counterclaims over the fate and future of 3,000 islanders who have been British since 1765 and resolutely wish to remain so. The citizens of this British overseas territory are self-governing and have their own constitution.

Actor Sean Penn, seen here with Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, is taking Argentina's side in the Falkland Islands dispute. /AP

Just 300 miles off the Argentine coast, the Falkland islands are best known for their sheep and penguins. But now there may be oil.

Argentina invaded the undefended atoll in 1982, claimed sovereignty as the Malvinas, but after a few months, was sent reeling back when a British Naval task force sailed from 8,000 miles away to dislodge the invaders. This was conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s “finest hour” on the foreign policy front. In Buenos Aires, the ensuing debacle toppled the Argentine dictatorship.

Today Argentina is a democracy but the government has allowed tub-thumping nationalism to take stage and claim that Britain has militarized the islands. Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Marcos Timerman calls the situation a “last vestige of colonial empire” where “Britannia rules” only applies in the South Atlantic.

Flanked at the UN by the ambassadors of Cuba, Nicaragua and Brazil, Foreign Minister Timerman presented a show and tell outlining the British military presence with a new Dauntles destroyer, Typhoon jets, and Taurus missiles not to mention the Royal family’s own Prince William who is on active military service in the archipelago. The Argentines allege that the UK military forces shadow Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and southern Brazil, thus representing “unjustified defense of self-determination as an excuse for militarizing the South Atlantic.”

Britain’s UN delegate Mark Lyall called claims of a military buildup as “manifestly absurd.”

Echoes of 1982. I recall covering the diplomatic wrangling of the Falklands conflict; Argentina’s Foreign Minister Costa Mendez facing off in the Security Council with Britain’s Sir Anthony Parsons who amazingly finessed a draft resolution through the Security Council demanding an end to hostilities and calling for an immediate Argentine withdrawal.

In the first crisis, Argentina grossly underestimated the Thatcher government’s iron tenacity to retain British sovereignty over the islands through dispatching the naval Task Force to the South Atlantic. The conflict lasted from early April until the British recaptured the once-forgotten islands in June.

Fast-forward thirty years! Today the Falkland/Malvinas issue has again returned to the halls of the UN. The leftist Argentine government is mired in a deep economic crisis. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, playing on the traditional Peronist populism and high-octane nationalism, has decided to turn up the political heat on a long-simmering Anglo/Argentine dispute. She’s backed by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Cuba and many Latin American states with varying degrees of political enthusiasm.

In a bizarre twist, left-wing American actor Sean Penn has backed Argentina’s bid and accused the British of “ridiculous colonialism.”

Naturally the possibility of massive undersea petroleum reserves makes the Malvinas far more interesting to an Argentine government in fiscal and economic shambles. A bountiful and beautiful country, sadly Argentina has endured the bane of bad leadership. President Kirchner was quoted in the Buenos Aires Herald relating to the economy, “I’d like to ask every sector of the economy to touch ground and live in the real Argentina and not in a fantasy land. This is not Disneyland.”

But sober diplomacy is needed now as much as ever. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has voiced hope that Argentina and the United Kingdom can avoid escalating their dispute over the islands despite Buenos Aires bringing a formal complaint to the Security Council.

And U.S. State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland stated clearly; “We believe this is a bilateral issue that must be solved directly between Argentina and the UK, and that is what we are encouraging both sides, as we approach the thirtieth anniversary” of the Falklands/Malvinas conflict.

The Argentines seem willing allow diplomacy to take its course; at least for now. The crisis is brewing not boiling. But could events spiral into déjà vu 1982?

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.