“The absolutely vital point is that we are clear that the future of the Falkland Islands is a matter for the people themselves,” Cameron told Parliament this year. “And as long as they want to remain part of the United Kingdom and be British, they should be able to do so.”
Cameron’s position has played well in Britain, where a recent poll published in the Guardian newspaper showed that 61 percent of respondents believed Britain should defend the Falkland Islands “no matter the cost.”
It’s a lot of attention for a string of islands, hundreds of them in all, more than 8,000 miles from London.
But the windswept archipelago, a self-governing British overseas territory, is not inconsequential. The islands are a gateway to the Antarctic Peninsula, where Britain conducts scientific studies, and the waters around them are rich in sea life.
And recently, oil has been discovered, drawing five small companies looking for the big strike. British exploration firm Rockhopper Exploration believes that it has found a cache of 450 million barrels, but there could be much more.
If the costs of extraction make the reserves economically viable, oil would alleviate British defense spending that totals $320 million annually. It would also lure immigrants drawn by the economic prospects, creating yet another obstacle to Argentina’s pretensions.
“If there is commercial oil,” said David Hudd, chairman of Falkland Islands Holdings, which invests on the islands, “it could also lead to an increase in population in one of the world’s least-populated places.”
‘Las Malvinas are ours’
In Argentina, though, it is prevailing wisdom that the islands — briefly held by an Argentine garrison until 1833 — will one day be successfully resettled. Passions run high here, with polls showing that the vast majority of Argentines support the government’s campaign to pressure Britain over Las Malvinas, as the islands are called here.
“Las Malvinas are Argentine, by geography and history,” said retired naval Capt. Juan Carlos Ianuzzo, a veteran of the failed invasion. “Spain gave them to us. The English usurped them and threw out the governor that we had put there. We are much closer to them, too.”
Julian Vincent, 27, who works in the import-export department of a multinational, said recuperating the islands “marks us from the time we are born until we die.”
“We finish every day, from the time we wake up until we fall asleep, with the certainty that Las Malvinas are ours,” he said.
Vicente Palermo, a history professor here who wrote “Salt in the Wounds: Las Malvinas in Contemporary Argentine Culture,” agrees with his countrymen.
But he said that the government, facing a slip in its popularity and growing economic difficulties, appears to be using the dispute with Britain to divert attention. Palermo also said he believes Fernandez’s tactics have been ham-fisted and counterproductive.
“Any sensible person would know that winning the confidence of the islanders or trying to would be best,” he said.
Still, despite the deep divide between Argentina and Britain, there have been small acts of civility.
Recently, one involved Neil Wilkinson, a Briton who had been a gunner on the HMS Intrepid during the war and downed an Argentine fighter plane.
Feeling an inexplicably strong tug to meet the man he thought he had killed, Wilkinson recently returned to Argentina and met the pilot, Mariano Velasco. “I had a lovely meal with his family,” Wilkinson said. “It brought me such an uplifting feeling.”
And yet, when asked about the future of the Falkland Islands, Wilkinson clearly adheres to the British position. “The people on the islands are British subjects, and you defend your people, don’t you?” he said. “You look after your own.”
Faiola reported from London.