Having just returned from two weeks in Argentina which, unintentionally I should add, coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War (or the attempted liberation of Las Malvinas, depending on your point of view), I felt I learned an interesting lesson or two.
In fact, the way my visit panned out I found myself in a hotel room feet away from President Christina Kirchner when she visited her (rather nice) family owned hotel in Patagonia and chose the region as the site of her anniversary day speech.
So what did I learn?
Not necessarily much about the geopolitics of the issue (although I do have a strong view about the way in which self determination should apply in any case of dispute, I won’t bore readers of the MHP blog with that today), but rather a valuable reminder about the gigantic pinch of salt with which most people take any pronouncements from a political leadership class. And also so, what that perhaps tells us about the shared state of the connection between voters and their elected leaders, in Argentina and the UK alike.
For at the start of my visit, when I saw graffiti about the ownership of Falklands in central Buenos Aires, I assumed that the issue must really be at the forefront of Argentine minds.
In fact, the thought even crossed my mind as to whether I would have to keep my head down about being British for the next couple of weeks, just to avoid unwanted argument.
But then I noticed a strange fact.
All the graffiti seemed to be in the same handwriting. And it also seemed been left strangely untouched by any attempt to clean it off, even when other graffiti had been wiped away.
So instead of being representative of an unbridled passion on the part of the man on the street, I started to wonder if the graffiti might actually be government sanctioned and that, as ever, it would take going much deeper beneath the surface to really understand the popular view.
So, many conversations later, it became clearer (to me anyway) that most people’s views are, unsurprisingly, more nuanced.
Undoubtedly most people genuinely believe that the islands should be a sovereign part of Argentina. And there is a mild accompanying sense that Britain doesn’t exactly have the historical moral high ground when it comes to territory around the world.
But then accompanying this view were three very interesting shades of thought.
The first, and most overwhelmingly expressed, was a clear view that President Kirchner was using the issue to wave a nationalist flag (hopefully) big enough to hide Argentina’s increasing economic problems.
In particular, increasingly rampant inflation (case in point, the price of a kilo of mate, Argentina’s omnipresent herbal drink, has risen by about 20% in just a few weeks – at least according to verbatim reports, if not the Argentine Government’s increasingly mistrusted official inflation figures). So a large number of people said to me that while they resented the UK’s “occupation” of the islands, they resented more their own Government’s attempt to use nationalism as a smokescreen for bigger, more important issues.
Second was a more nuanced view than I maybe expected on the islanders themselves. This one was especially expressed by Argentines living far from Buenos Aires, who maybe desired a bit more autonomy themselves from a highly dominant capital. So it was perhaps with that in mind that I heard views of some sympathy expressed towards the islanders having strong guarantees of autonomy, albeit within overall Argentine sovereignty.
And third, and one heard from almost everyone I spoke to, was a general weariness of politicians.
In fact, there was an assumption that the average Briton was as sceptical and generally unhappy with our political leadership as Argentines were of their leaders. So why not leave political leaders to shout at eachother, and certainly ordinary people shouldn’t let it get in the way of dealing with eachother normally.
Given Argentina is in the midst of a major influence peddling scandal involving Vice President Amado Boudou, I could have decided to be offended by this sense of shared disaffection with politicians. But then I read my British newspaper online and saw my own Government paralysed by its policy on pasties and then advising its own population to decant petroleum in kitchen sinks (OK not quite, but you know what I mean…)
And so I thought, regardless of my view on the Falklands, fair enough to say that maybe the two countries’ leaders deserved eachother.
So, the biggest lesson I learned (or if not a new lesson learned, then at least an old lesson reminded) was to treat all politicians’ nationalist speeches with a giant pinch of salt. Even politicians from my own country.
And on that note, I stopped thinking about politics and continued to enjoy Argentina’s incredibly hospitality, and a very nice glass or two of Malbec.