“So you’re from Saint Lucia, Nicole!”
It was less a question than an attempt to confirm something hard to believe. As if Kent wanted to ensure he’d heard me right. “Yes, I am,” I said, half expecting to hear the usual story about a most wonderful vacation spent on my faraway island paradise. Not this time. What followed, despite the charming smile that attempted to sweeten it, was more an indictment than anything else. In my ears anyway. “You guys voted against us and sided with Argentina,” said Kent. His disappointment couldn’t have been more obvious.
I don’t mind admitting a sense of betrayal that I couldn’t explain, except that Kent seemed such a nice guy the last thing anyone would want to do is make him unhappy. “Well,” I said, truthfully. “these political decisions are supposed to be taken after consultation with the people, but you must know how that works.” He laughed out loud, then invited our little group to visit “the pride of Darwin Farm,” two all-black lambs born just 24 hours before our arrival. Thankfully the retired army man didn’t dwell on Saint Lucia’s decision. Instead he excitedly told me why he had decided to setttle down in the Falkland islands after arriving there in 1983. “Life was simple,” he said.
Of course Kent had not referred just to St Lucia but the Caribbean Community’s (Caricom) flip-flopping on the issue of the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, a British Overseas Territory located just miles off from South America in the South Atlantic. Most known throughout the world for the Falkland Islands war, these islands were in 1982 invaded by Argentina who claimed that they were a part of their territory. In May 1982, Argentina surrendered to the British after many lives had been lost. Since then the issue of the Falklands Islands sovereignty has been dominated by Argentina, with little said by the islanders themselves or by the British. Meanwhile, Argentina has lobbied for support from around the world on this issue. Enter Caricom.
In January 2010 Caricom countries agreed “to support the principle and the right to self-determination for all peoples, including the Falkland Islanders, recognizing the historical importance of self-determination in the political development of the Caribbean, and its core status as an internationally agreed principle under the United Nations Charter.” By all accounts this position by Caricom impressed the British and the Falkland Islands but was short-lived.
In February, something changed. Caricom members at a Mexico Summit that spawned the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), now decided to support Argentina’s legitimate rights in its sovereignty dispute with the United Kingdom over the ‘Malvinas’ and called on the two governments to renew “negotiations in order to find in the shortest time possible a just, peaceful and definitive solution to the dispute,” in accordance with relevant UN resolutions. At a meeting in Caracas in December last year, days after winning the general elections in St Lucia, Prime Minister Kenny Anthony and other Caricom leaders again endorsed this declaration. So, on the one hand Caricom endorsed the right to self-determination of the Falklands, then a month later sided with Argentina that they had a right to the islands. What exactly had swayed Caricom in that direction? The promise of cheap oil or some other form of aid from South America, perhaps?
More on the home front; St Lucia’s deepening ties with South America on this issue were even more evident with suggestions that Kenny Anthony was moving the country in the direction of joining a new grouping called ALBA that was established by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Dr Anthony has since come out to deny these claims. He said he had attended ALLBA strictly as an observer. No matter the ALBA grouping has also endorsed Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands.
The issue of the Falkland Islands has had little play in the regional press, concerned as we are with such as VAT and Hurricane Tomas and who has the answers to the world economy. Why should we care about these islands so far away? But then, as they say, you can run but you cannot hide. The Falkland Islands has in the last few years stepped up their game on the international stage. And no doubt in the coming months will be pressuring Caricom to make an unambiguous statement on the Argentina. Especially since the economic future of the Falkland Islands looks better than ever since their successful oil exploration activities. Already many are referring to it as “the game changer!”
Last weekend six Caribbean journalists travelled 18 hours over two days to discover just what the approximately 3000 people of the Falkland Islands are about, what they want and how they feel about Britain, Argentina—Caricom !—and other countries trying to decide the fate of the Falklands. Will their official language be Spanish or English? Are they really just a British colony taking orders from Old Blighty? Or are they an established society operating independently of Britain? And of course, most important, what will be done with the revenue from oil exploration and development? Over the next few weeks I hope to share with readers what I have learned along the long, long way.
This visit has been facilitated by the British High Commission and includes Carol Martindale of Barbados Nation, Lisbeth Ayuso of Belize’s The Reporter Newspaper, Nicole Best of the Caribbean Media Corporation, Adam Harris of Guyana’s Kaieter News, Alyssa Dunkley of the Jamaica Observer and yours truly of the Saint Lucia STAR. Also accompanying us is the Second Secretary at the British High Commission Dan Carruthers. We met up in Miami and made the eight-hour flight to Chile, then three hours to Punta Arenas and the one hour to the Falklands. None knew what to expect but the excitement built as we descended on this flat land that Charles Darwin had once described as “a wretched place.” That was in 1834 and Darwin might not say the same today.
The British High Commission representative went to great pains to explain that we were free on the trip to speak with locals and write in any direction we would like.
“If you were to ask most people in the Caribbean what they know about the Falkland Islands it is safe to say that most of them only know about it because of the 1982 conflict,” said Dan Curruthers in a sit-down interview with the six journalists at Darwin House, located in the countryside of East Falkland.
“Many people don’t know that the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands is still a very live issue and still disputed by Argentina,” said Curruthers. “Part of the aim of this trip is to raise awareness about the islands and the people that live here and to encourage people from the Caribbean to be more conscious of what the real issues are.”
Among the main issues is that Argentina disputes Britain sovereignty over the islands and that the islands are part of Argentina. Britain has taken the position that it is for the people of the Falkland Islands to decide their own fate, whether they remain British, become Argentinian or choose Independence, like most of the Caribbean islands have done.
“Often the calls for sovereignty negotiations that are put forward by Argentina are for negotiations between Britain and Argentina. This goes over the heads of the Falkland Islanders as if they don’t exist,” explained Curruthers.
They certainly do exist. And during the trip we were reminded by some that their families dated back over nine generations. At every turn we have met islanders who are proud of the Falkland Islands heritage and explained that the 1982 war only strengthened their resolve to prove they belonged there.
“This is their home and it is a vital issue that they have a say in their future. This is something that resonates with the Caribbean islands, who are former British territories. Most of them became independent and the principle that allowed them to do that is the principle of self-determination,” explained Curruthers.
With the trip the British hope to forge links between the Falkland Islands and the Caribbean.
“We want you to talk to the people and share their stories so they have a voice,” said Curruthers who added that “St Lucia became an independent nation because the people wanted it and now it manages its own affairs. That principle that St Lucia had the opportunity to take advantage of is being disputed by Argentina in relation to the Falkland Islands.”
As for Caricom’s decision early this year Curruther’s explained why Britain was none too happy with the grouping endorsing Argentina’s declaration.
“That sounds like quite an innocuous thing to agree to sovereignty negotiations… Peace negotiations always sound like a good thing. It is not our policy because it removes the people that live here from the negotiations. It is something that takes place over their heads. They want to have a say in any negotiations about their country. Our position is to encourage Caribbean countries to refer to the Falkland Islands themselves and recognize their right to have a say in their future.”
In order to show the world exactly what they want the Falkland Islands government will be holding a referendum on the issue of their sovereignty next year. The actual questions for the referendum are still being developed but each islander will be able to vote on this and other issues.
The Falkland Islands are nothing like what we have been told. We first landed at a military airport called Mount Pleasant and were taken by locals to the countryside dwelling of Darwin. For the first few days we were informed about the 1982 conflict, visited the resting places of Argentinian and British soldiers and introduced to the amazing wildlife that can be found here, including the fascinating penguins. The climate is certainly unique and can change in a second. In fact it is a running joke on the island, (told to us by almost everyone) that if you don’t like the weather, wait an hour and it will change. Mostly the Falkland Islands are windy and with the wind comes the cold breezes. The country has its own government, the head of which is the Governor, who we had the opportunity to speak with a few days into our week-long trip.
We met at Government House and with the customary tea and biscuits out of the way got down to business. Governor Nigel Haywood, originally from Britain, wanted to stress that the Falkland Islands run their own government except for foreign affairs and military. Haywood explained that the islands had stepped up their publicity efforts in the past two years and since the beginning of the year hundreds of journalists had visited the islands.
“We have been under Argentine media and pressure, and for a long time our response to that was to rest assured that the islanders had wished to be a British Overseas territory and they had a every right to be and they had the right to self-determination under the U.N. Charter,” explained Governor Haywood. “We didn’t feel we needed to make a noise about that. But it became clear that Argentine misrepresentations were getting currency in the rest of the world. While we were completely clear of our position we thought we needed to tell people about the islands and correct Argentine misrepresentations like the fact that some people think these are Spanish speaking islands under British occupation.”
As part of the publicity effort the country has sent out members of the Legislative Assembly to different countries around the world to meet with leaders and state their case.
Exciting new ground for the Falkland Islands is the recent discovery of oil offshore. The country has so far been dependent on its fisheries, agriculture and tourism industry for revenue. In the next five years the country hopes to begin extracting oil and shipping it overseas. The Falkland Islands will then become an oil exporting nation. The oil find sets up a whole dynamic for the islands, and the government’s main focus appears to be on maintaining the authenticity of the islands even with the prospected billions of pounds that will flow from the industry. And what about the influence that comes with it?
This reporter questioned Governor Haywood about the motivations for Caribbean islands siding with South America on certain issues. Chief among them being Venezuelan oil.
Speaking to the issue of the Caribbean and other governments Haywood said, “I simply cannot see how any of your countries rationally could accept Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands as it makes no sense. There may be other reasons why you would want to agree with Argentina but even a position you may see as neutral is going to be used by Argentina as a sign of support and that is one of the cases we have to make to your governments. Our focus is not just governments because they will have discussions and people may be motivated by Venezuelan oil supplies or whatever . . . what we want to do is get the faces of the islanders out there. The only way to get out to people what Falkland Islanders are like is to be Falkland Islanders.”
Haywood reiterated that the Falkland Islands is a small economy and would not be able to match Venezuelan oil offers to the Caribbean at the moment.
“I am certainly not criticizing any of these governments for their approach,” said Haywood. “We live in the real world. To your governments the Falkland Islands are not necessarily important. This is a global issue; the right of a small people to not be bullied by 40 million and have a right to self-determination. What can we offer in the future [to the Caribbean]? Who knows what is going to happen with our hydro carbons industry? It could be huge. We are expecting production to happen from 2017 onwards in the northern oil field and the southern oil field is ten times the size of the northern oil field. How will the world then view a set of islands with a multi-billion dollar oil economy? I don’t know. It could be a bit of a game changer though in international relations.” A game changer indeed.
Stay tuned for much more to come in the Falkland Island series!
NEXT WEEK: THE FALKLAND ISLANDS: A MODEL SOCIETY?
and IS ARGENTINA TRYING TO SABOTAGE DEVELOPMENT IN THE FALKLAND ISLANDS?