Friday, June 27, 2008

War and Peace in Tierra del Fuego

In late 1978, only a couple months before I first traveled to Chile and Argentina, the two countries nearly went to war over the possession of three small islands in the Beagle Channel, east of Isla Navarino, in Chilean Tierra del Fuego (directly opposite the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, which is divided between the two). At the time, both countries were under notorious military dictatorships, and only a handful of foreign visitors came to enjoy one of the planet's most stunning combinations of sea, sky, land and ice (Navarino is the island in the background of this photograph, which was taken from the mountains behind the Argentine city of Ushuaia).

Fortunately - it was a close call - the two countries agreed to a papal mediation that averted war, but that did not mean all was well. When I first saw Ushuaia in April 1979, shop windows were full of posters with the uncompromising slogan ¡Nunca Cederemos lo Nuestro! ("We Will Never Give Up What is Ours!"). Later that month, as I hitchhiked from Bariloche back to Chile, the Argentines had not yet dismantled gun emplacements on what is the second most important border crossing between the two countries (no military preparations of any sort were apparent on the Chilean side).

It's a tangible measure of progress, in what is now one of the world's most peaceful regions, that the Chilean Senate has invited Pope Benedict XVI to celebrate the successful mediation later this year. According to Senator Carlos Bianchi of Punta Arenas, "The idea is to get Argentine and Chilean members of Parliament together both in Patagonia and Antarctica to commemorate thirty years of peace.” Near the Santa Cruz province town of El Chaltén, at Lago del Desierto, where a Chilean policemen died in a firefight with Argentine gendarmes (border guards) in 1965, the Argentines have erected a respectful memorial to their former enemy.

Perhaps the delegations can meet in the hamlet of Puerto Williams, on scenic Navarino, where the Chilean navy still maintains a base - though it's much smaller than the Argentine base in Ushuaia. For any on-board ceremony, though, they'll have to requisition a bigger vessel than the one I found anchored on my last visit there. Despite a reputation for military bellicosity, South America's defense spending is world's smallest, as a percentage of GDP.

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