Island Sickness

Tom Hennigan

The Islands, by Carlos Gamerro, And Other Stories, £7.95, ISBN: 978-1908276087

“We’re infected,” writes Carlos Gamerro, the Argentine writer who dared for his first novel a satire about the aftermath of the Falklands conflict as a means of exploring his country’s Malvinas obsession.

In The Islands, translated into English fourteen years after its publication in Spanish announced a major new chronicler of Argentina’s traumatic recent past, the characters return obsessively to the events of 1982. Gamerro’s novel centres on the war’s losers, a demi-world of veterans, some of whom dream of going back to the islands to reverse the shame of their defeat, some who have emotionally never managed to leave them. As one puts it: “There are two bits torn out of the hearts of every one of us, and they’re the exact shape of the Islands.”

A decade after the war ended, the novel’s computer hacking anti-hero Felipe Félix still carries a piece of shrapnel in his head as a permanent reminder of his time on the islands. His former commander, a sadistic military torturer, is consumed by a computer game of the war which allows him to defeat the British task force while another vet works on a book titled A Thousand Different Outcomes to the Malvinas War.

The plot is set in motion when a crazed villain, son of a Nazi fugitive who was raised in a death camp and who rules his business empire from a tower of mirrors overlooking the River Plate, hires Félix to track down the witnesses to a murder committed by his wastrel son. This propels him on a journey through a city populated by torturers, rapists, murderers and their victims in a sprawling work that is part crime thriller, part dystopian fantasy, by turns comic and, in its frequent moments of outrageous bad taste, repellent.

As Félix makes his way through the city seeking out the witnesses, the novel reveals itself as a savage political satire on Argentine nationalism and its doleful consequences as refracted through the war which Félix realises has never ended and still continues to be fought just below the surface of a society apparently at peace.

In one of Gamerro’s most dramatic passages a giant hand descends from the sky “and lifting up one corner, like someone getting ready to pull off a plaster, it tore off the skin of the city to reveal the desolate heath beneath: the windswept pastures, the streams of stone, the rocks and mud and bogs of the Islands”.

Gamerro never deals explicitly with the legitimacy of Argentina’s claim to the islands though he does parody its more unhinged advocates. One defeated veteran even consoles himself by composing a fantasy encounter with of a group of gauchos, the original inhabitants of the islands, living unmolested by the British, direct descendants of Homo argentines, and proof that man has his origins in Argentina, on the Islas Malvinas, where: “Uncontaminated by immigration or foreign influence, they had distilled the essence of the Argentinian race and maintained its purity to the present day.”

The real target of his sarcasm however is the chauvinism that found its maximum expression in the reckless invasion of islands held by a far more powerful nation on the orders of a military dictatorship which staffed its officer corps with murderers. Gamerro is interested in the point at which nationalism and violence, especially state violence, intersects. That this chauvinism found its maximum expression in Argentina’s Malvinas delirium is historically curious. Why is the continued British presence on the Malvinas such an affront to Argentines when Brazilians do not give a second’s thought to the existence of a French colony on their own land border?

The basis for Argentina’s claim goes back to the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 between Spain and Portugal, more than a century before the first confirmed sighting of the archipelago. Its central argument though is that the nascent republic held them between 1820 and 1833. But Britain controlled them for a time in the eighteenth century and says its occupation of the small settlement in 1833 was nothing more than the reassertion of its prior claim. Today its main argument in favour of preserving the status quo is that the Falkland Islanders want to remain British and in an age of self-determination their wishes must be respected, a stance rejected by Argentina which dismisses the inhabitants of the179-year-old colony as a group of illegitimate squatters without the right to be consulted over their future.

It is not the intention here to decide whose claim is stronger, but considering the opprobrium in which colonialism is widely and correctly held today (Niall Ferguson’s efforts notwithstanding) several observations should be made.

Firstly, the islands had no native population when discovered. All settlement efforts – French, British, Spanish and Argentine – were colonising projects. When Argentina tried to establish a presence on the deserted islands in the 1820s it was a new republic still decades away from settling into its current borders. It would formally claim Paraguay until 1852 and its constant meddling in the affairs of Uruguay showed a deep reluctance to respect that country’s (British-guaranteed) independence.

In the years that Argentina held the islands they were in fact a distant outpost facing a mainland still inhabited by native Americans, with the nearest Argentine settlement to the far north. It would be more than four decades after Argentina lost control of the islands before it launched the genocidal military campaign to conquer Patagonia, wiping out the region’s indigenous peoples. Britain’s seizure of the islands was an act typical of a country at the peak of its imperial powers. But Argentina’s seizure of Patagonia was the culmination of another imperial project – Spanish – carried out by the descendants of the conquistadores after they had shaken off the shackles of the motherland.

Much of the international respect for Argentina’s claim rests on the fact that it is a successor republic to a former empire, whereas the Falkland Islanders because of their remoteness, small population and distinctive culture have decided to remain under the imperial umbrella. As Europe’s empires retreated several such enclaves were, for a variety of reasons, left behind in the New World – Dutch Aruba in the Caribbean, French St Pierre and Miquelon in the St Lawrence estuary and the British in the South Atlantic. That these colonies still exist might seem anachronistic in the twenty-first century. But the world abounds in anachronism. Europe is still littered with remnants of its medieval polity. In none of the colonial enclaves of the Americas does the population hunger for liberation.

The Old World’s conquest and settlement of the New consisted of a series of violent competing imperial projects, which were only concluded by the independent successor states. It was never pretty and rarely neat or tidy. Argentina played its role in this process and there is an irony now in Argentine denunciations of the British colonial presence in the region. The curiosity is that Argentina should focus on the loss of a relatively insignificant group of islands rather than the conquest by a people who had been on the periphery of the Spanish empire of the infinitely more strategic pampa and Patagonia to create one of the world’s largest states.

The violent formation of states in South America is now consigned to history. It is seventeen years since the last border dispute erupted in violence – the Cenepa War between Peru and Ecuador. But it is not just Argentina that maintains grievances about the process’s outcome. Bolivia is still demanding back its outlet to the sea, seized from it by Chile in the War of the Pacific in the 1880s. Argentina’s push to redraw boundaries has been seized on by Bolivia, whose president, Evo Morales, recently told a gathering of the Organisation of American States: “If the Malvinas are for Argentina, then the sea outlet is for Bolivia.” Reopening border disputes, especially in a manner that pays no regard to the wishes of the inhabitants living in disputed regions, risks the continent’s peace.

Regardless, Argentina is determined to press its case with increasing firmness. The determination to do so as shown over the last eighty years is in marked contrast to its approach in the century following the British seizure in 1833. Then it was an obscure dispute which was of interest only to a handful of diplomats and jurists. The caudillo Juan Manuel Rosas – today celebrated for his resistance to an Anglo-French fleet that sought to force passage of the Paraná River in 1845 – even offered to renounce his country’s claim if London forgave Argentina’s debt. But the breakdown of the global system following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 called into question the model that had provided more than half a century of spectacular Argentine development and which had depended on an umbilical relationship with British capital and markets. This relationship entered a period of turbulence just as the British liberal model was falling out of favour in an age marked by increasing nationalism. This intellectual sea change occurred after the coup of 1930 brought the military into Argentine public life. They sought out and promoted those who could intellectually buttress their anti-democratic rule. Anti-liberal and anti-imperial Argentine nationalist thought flourished and its various currents – reactionary, Catholic, fascist - would over the next half century heavily influence the military, Peronism and even the left-wing guerrilla movements.

It is at this very moment that there is the first movement to elevate the Malvinas issue into a national cause. In 1939 La Junta de Recuperación de Las Malvinas was formed; one of its first activities was to organise a song contest to popularise its goals. Soon the diplomatic position Las Malvinas Son Argentinas became a tenet of national faith and was being taught to all primary schoolchildren. Argentine nationalism had been provided with its irredentist cause and this genie was let loose just as the country was entering an era of increasing militarisation of public life.

This Malvinas delirium reached its climax in the weeks after April 2nd, 1982 and the stunning news that the military junta had invaded the islands, defeating its small garrison of British royal marines and taking prisoner the colony’s governor, Rex Hunt (who died just over a week ago). Just days before, crowds had filled the Plaza de Mayo to protest at the junta’s disastrous management of the economy. But now the previously beleaguered General Leopoldo Galtieri appeared on the balcony of the Casa Rosada as liberator, receiving the acclaim of many of the same workers whose voices were still hoarse from shouting only days previously for him to quit. Abroad, the exiled leadership of the country’s two main guerrilla groups also voiced their support, offering to go as volunteers to defend the patria alongside the officer corps that had so systematically exterminated their comrades-in-arms in the Dirty War. Union leaders, Peronist and Radical politicians and intellectuals all previously critical of the regime flew to the islands for the swearing in of General Mario Benjamin Menéndez as governor. In Buenos Aires some of the country’s best known rock acts played a festival to celebrate the “recovery” of the islands. A Gallup opinion poll showed support for the invasion at 90 per cent, with only eight per cent saying they opposed the action. Argentines, for decades viciously divided among themselves, had found a national unity under the leadership of the continent’s most murderous regime. As the writer Ernesto Sabato ‑ who would later preside over the country’s truth commission into the dictatorship’s crimes – told a Spanish radio station: “It is not the dictatorship that is fighting; it is the entire people.”

Such a reaction was exactly what the junta wanted and, in a damning criticism of Argentine society, exactly what it expected. It understood well those it was brutalising. But there were enough fanatical nationalists within the military to mean that the decision to invade was not merely a desperate last throw of the dice to stay in power. For many it was undoubtedly the realisation of an ambition carefully nurtured over the previous decades. The armed forces had shown clear signs since seizing power in March 1976 that it saw any war as a means of legitimising the dictatorship. Its aggressive, militarised nationalism was directed not just against the colonial relic in the South Atlantic; indeed its first option was to foment a war with Chile over disputed islands in the Beagle Channel.

Its planning towards this end was well advanced and even involved trying to coax Chile’s historical enemy Peru into a pincer attack that would have sparked the largest conflagration on the continent since the War of the Triple Alliance in the 1860s. Rebuffed by Lima, the junta in Buenos Aires proceeded alone and by December 1978 was on the verge of launching Operation Sovereignty – an invasion of Chile ‑ only for a weather delay to provide enough time for Pope John Paul II to intervene to prevent all-out hostilities between two fanatically Catholic regimes. But the generals were not to be denied and they got their war. Its conduct revealed that the militarists were incompetents. They found every way to discard their advantages and play to their weaknesses. Jorge Luis Borges famously compared the Falklands conflict to “two bald men fighting over a comb”, but even this much quoted analysis was too generous to Argentina.

Britain may no longer have been the imperial power it was or the preeminent outside influence in Argentina’s economy. But it was still considerably richer, further advanced technologically, of greater strategic relevance and – perhaps most importantly ‑ more competent than Argentina, then clattering down the rankings of wealthy nations. The corrosive nationalism of the previous half-century, however, blinded Argentines to this reality. This was amply illustrated by the performance of Nicanor Costa Méndez, foreign minister at the time of the conflict. As a lawyer he circulated through many of the Catholic nationalist groups that proliferated from the 1930s on and which left him with a world view that exaggerated out of all proportions Argentina’s global relevance. The junta’s top diplomat was thus taken by surprise when the United States stood by its principal ally in Nato at a time when the Soviet Union was far from defeated. Méndez had assumed that the junta’s role in keeping the Southern Cone free of communism made it indispensable to the superpower, apparently unable to understand that Washington might rate the threat posed by the Soviets’ positioning of SS-20s in Europe somewhat more highly than that of the Montoneros guerrillas. The aggressive posturing against Chile meant that this neighbour provided covert but valuable assistance to the British. This lingering antagonism kept many of Argentina’s best troops stationed on the mainland lest Pinochet take advantage of the situation to seize territory in Patagonia. If militarist nationalism had a role in causing the conflict it also played a part in ensuring Argentina would lose it.

The greatest tragedy of the war is that 907 people lost their lives during it. These must be counted along with the other victims of the dictatorship. But though it is difficult for Argentines to admit it, and perhaps constitutes a risky foray into counterfactual history, Argentine society was lucky that Thatcher stood up to Galtieri. Had she not, the junta could very well have regained its slipping grip on power and, with crowds cheering in the Plaza de Mayo, continued on for years rather than months refashioning society to conform to its murderous far-right fantasies.

As well as their dead, for Argentines there is also the bitter knowledge that in the years before the invasion London was pushing the islanders kicking and screaming into an accommodation with them. Today nationalists in Buenos Aires who might have strolled out of Gamerro’s novel spin fantasies about how the United States and Britain engineered the war, luring Argentina into a trap so as to justify their militarisation of the region with its strategic access to Antarctica and Cape Horn. The islanders however know that if Galtieri had not invaded they would today most likely be living under some form of Argentine sovereignty. Even Thatcher demanded it over their objections. The war and its British dead put an end to that. Galtieri saved the islanders from Argentina for several generations. The invasion was a strategic blunder of historic proportions.

Despite the war’s grim legacy there are ample signs that the Malvinas delirium has not lifted. There were reasons to hope it had done by the 1990s. Gamerro’s novel was first published in 1998, the year President Carlos Menem visited Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. He reaffirmed Argentina’s claim but stated it would only pursue peaceful means and this political schmoozer embarked on a sunshine policy of trying to seduce the islanders. The limits of such a strategy were obvious, especially with memories of the occupation still raw on the islands. But after 1982 no Argentine policy was likely to bring immediate or even medium-term success in advancing the country’s sovereignty claim. Menem seems to have grasped this and laid the groundwork for a long-term approach.

That has been abandoned since the Kirchner couple came to power in 2003. They have adopted far more aggressive tactics, which involve an economic blockade of the islands ‑ with lukewarm regional support. Menem’s policy of seducing the islanders has been ditched. Now Buenos Aires only wants to isolate them and negotiate over their heads directly with London, and then only on the mechanisms of sovereignty transfer. The chances of this policy succeeding are so limited that one must question whether it is designed with the objective of advancing the country’s sovereignty claim or reviving and then harnessing the country’s darker nationalist spirit for the administration’s own domestic political purposes. As with the generals, it is probably a mixture of both and its antagonistic and polarising nature looks as doomed to fail.

But that might not be of much concern for an administration that now styles itself “national and popular” ‑ by which it means nationalist and populist. It has been able to drape itself in the national flag by reviving some of the Malvinas delirium so brutally satirised by Gamerro. This is important for kirchnerismo, which is so paranoid and antagonistic in power that it keeps shedding its own allies, forcing it to reconstitute its governing coalition with dizzying frequency. Reviving an emotional national issue such as the islands has provided it with a useful tool with which to rally support to its banner. Thus despite her attacks on the legacy of the dictatorship, this year, for the conflict’s thirtieth anniversary, Mrs Kirchner did not commemorate the date of Argentina’s 1982 surrender, or the founding of Argentina’s settlement in 1820, or its seizure by Britain in 1833, or any other date but rather that of the invasion itself on April 2nd.

For this she travelled to Patagonia, from where she threw red roses into the South Atlantic, cementing the purest expression of the junta’s militarism and delusional nationalism as the day on which her country remembers the war. She has sought to pass off the nationalist myth built up around Antonio Rivero as history, turning this gaucho about whom very little exists in the historical record, into the first Argentine to resist British occupation back in 1833, even renaming the local football championship in his honour.

These gestures may be little more than harmless posturing for public consumption. But earlier this year rioters used Molotov cocktails outside the British embassy while a call by a group of intellectuals for a debate about the rights of the islanders was met by a tide of nationalist venom. Leading the attacks was a former Kirchner minister who now sits in the senate, who dismissed the group as apátridas –people lacking in patriotism, having no homeland – a slur that the military used against the guerrillas in the 1970s to justify their elimination.

None of this means that Argentina will reinvade the islands. Domestically that is unacceptable to the vast majority of Argentines, in part because they know that the strategic gap with Britain has grown since 1982 as domestic governments have starved the military of funds in punishment for its half-century of meddling in politics. The concern is rather for Argentina itself. What purpose is served by inflaming an issue that should be no more than a minor diplomatic dispute in a country with so many other pressing concerns and whose resolution would do nothing to resolve deep-seated problems in its political, economic and social life?

“Argentina is an erect prick ready to breed, and the Malvinas, its balls. When we recover them, fertility shall return to our lands and we shall become the great nation our founding fathers once dreamed of! A potent country!” says a hysterical nationalist historian to a group of Gamerro’s veterans. Argentina has a long tradition of blaming outsiders for thwarting its ambitions, and this applies to thinkers of both the left and right. But revanchism only serves to divert attention from the disastrous management of the country’s incredible bounty –forty million souls living in a clement land almost the size of India, rich in mineral resources and possessing some of the world’s finest soils ‑ and almost one in four of them mired in poverty.

Fertility has never been a problem for Argentina. But building a society based on respect for its own citizens’ rights has. Elevating the great cause of the patria over and above the wishes and rights of citizens, even if they are citizens of the British Overseas Territory of the Falkland Islands, is not ‑ given the country’s history – a direction Argentines should want to see their government headed in. Galtieri’s blunder means the islanders are safe from its consequences for the foreseeable future. The risk is that Argentines themselves might not be. Gamerro’s often vicious satire serves as a valuable warning of the dangers the Malvinas psychosis holds for them.

Tom Hennigan is the South America correspondent for The Irish Times and is based in São Paulo, Brazil.

19/11/12

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