Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Malvinas Museum of Argentina

In April of 1982, an Argentine military dictatorship under General Leopoldo Galtieri invaded the British-governed Falkland Islands (known to Argentines as the Malvinas), in pursuit of a longstanding irredentist claim (perhaps more accurately, a grudge). After seventy-four days of global headlines, Argentine forces surrendered to the British counter-invasion in mid-June of that year.

Since then, relations between the two countries over the Islands – whose 3,000 or so residents overwhelmingly prefer the status quo – have ranged from hostile under Argentina’s struggling junta to relatively cordial to contentious under successive civilian governments. At the moment, matters are at the contentious end of the spectrum, as Argentina has applied political pressure on Uruguay to prohibit the entrance of Falklands-flagged vessels into Montevideo and boarded Spanish-flagged vessels fishing under Falklands-issued licenses. Since declaration of an exclusive fishing zone in 1986, fishing royalties have made the Islands a prosperous place.
Meanwhile, as the 30th anniversary of the invasion approaches, Argentina has decided to create a Malvinas war museum at the site of the former Escuela Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA, pictured above), the naval mechanics’ school that saw some of the dictatorship’s most grotesque “Dirty War” crimes. Part of the sprawling ESMA campus, in the Buenos Aires barrio of Núñez, is presently dedicated to an Espacio Para La Memoria detailing the crimes of that regime.

According to reports, however, the museum will not glorify the invasion or even mention Galtieri or any other military official. Rather, it will focus on the experience of the 10,000 soldiers – many of them teen-age conscripts from the subtropical northern provinces – who suffered in the South Atlantic cold under officers who were far more cruel than the weather. The abuse of rank-and-file combatants by their own officers got a vivid depiction in the in the outstanding movie Iluminados por el Fuego, some scenes of which were filmed in the Islands.
That’s good as far as it goes, but it would be even more convincing if the museum if it acknowledged the psychological impact on the Islanders, who were outnumbered five-to-one by Argentine forces – roughly equivalent to a theoretical occupation of Argentina by the entire population of Brazil. The Argentine army laid down land mines that they failed to map accurately and, even today, anti-ordnance units have been unable to remove them entirely.

As I learned from my own experience living in the Islands during 1986-7, the Islanders bitterly resented the Argentine officers, who often threatened them. At the same time, the locals often sympathized with the poorly clad and ill-fed foot soldiers unprepared to resist the weather – and the British. In fact, one Islander even supplied us a diary written by a miserable and barely literate provincial conscript who spent days suffering in a cold, damp rock overhang with little food.

On the other hand, some could make patronizingly inaccurate judgments of those same soldiers – one told me, for instance, that they were kids as young as age 15. In reality, the age of conscription was 18 in Argentina, and not everyone of that age went – my own brother-in-law, who was a 22-year-old conscript in 1982, never left his hometown of Olavarría. In fact, he continued to live with his parents for the duration.

Certainly these facts are part of the story that ought to appear in any museum of the conflict. So should the fact that, when General Galtieri announced the successful invasion of the Islands, hundreds of thousands of cheering Argentines filled Buenos Aires’s Plaza de Mayo – only to turn on him after his ultimate failure to hold onto them.


New from Southern Cone Travel – The iPhone App!
Over the past couple months, I have been working with Sutro Travel of San Francisco to create a new Argentina iPhone app, which also works on the iPod and iPad. For more details, please visit Argentina Travel Adventures at the iTunes Store. At just $2.99, it’s a true bargain.

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