We spent the last two days getting from Torres del Paine, Chile, to the Falkland Islands, but we’ve arrived and are now checked in to our accommodations, the Malvinas House Hotel, overlooking Stanley harbor.
Yesterday, Friday, we took the 5-hour shuttle ride to Punta Arenas, Chile, from Torres del Paine. The day turned cloudy, windy and rainy and has remained that way ever since – there’s a low pressure system covering much of Southern Patagonia and the Falkland Islands that looks like it might last a couple days.
The weather prevented us from seeing Punta Arenas, other than the inside of our hotel and a nearby restaurant, and this morning we took a taxi to the airport in the continuing rain.
We had to fly from Chile to the Falkland Islands because Argentina does not permit any transit to the Falklands – not by air nor by sea (cruise ships that visit the Falklands are denied access to Argentine ports). And, there is only one flight each week from Chile, the one we were on which leaves and returns every Saturday.
The antagonistic relationship between Argentina and the Falklands is the result of the 1982 Falklands War in which the Argentinian military invaded and occupied the Islands until the British came to the aid of their protectorate and repulsed the invasion.
Here we are, 30+ years later, and the Argentine government is again getting aggressive about its claim to the Falklands (hmmm, could Argentine President Cristina Kirchner’s 8% approval ratings or the fact that oil has recently been discovered in the Falklands have anything to do with that?).
We landed at the primarily military airport here in the Falklands around 4:00 p.m., where we were picked up by Patrick Watts, a third generation Falkland native that has graciously helped Dale arrange our stay here in the Islands. He was here during the war in 1982 and was a local radio announcer at the time and he is very knowledgeable about the history of the Islands and the conflict; he’ll be giving us a history tour later in the week.
During the 45 mile drive into the main town, Stanley, from Mount Pleasant airport, Patrick pointed out some of the battlefields of the Falkland War. This hill saw heavy fighting. The Argentines had occupied the hill early in the fighting, but the British charged uphill and took it in the night.
A little further along the road, Patrick pointed out a field (photo, below), marked with a fence, that was mined by the Argentinians. There are still unexploded mines here from the war, although the Falkland government is actively clearing this mine field and others like it.
As in Argentina, memories of the Falklands War are still fresh on people’s minds, not only because of the memorials to the fallen soldiers that we saw in several places in Buenos Aires and are also seeing here, like this one in the town center,…
…but because modern-day politics has forced the people to focus again on the old wounds.
As it turns out, we have arrived in the Falklands at an historic moment. Tomorrow morning begins the two-day voting on a special referendum, the question being put to the entire permanent population being: “Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?”
The Islanders do not doubt that the answer to this question is “Yes;” the only question in people’s minds here is what kind of voter turnout will they have of the 2,500+/- registered voters. They want a strong turnout as a public statement for self-determination and as a defense in the court of world opinion against the arguments being made by the current Argentinian administration.
So, we have seen the Falkland Island flag being paraded around town as we entered.
And across Stanley harbor, it looks like about 100 cars have formed themselves into a gigantic “YES” on the side of the hill, in between the names of two ships carved there years ago by British sailors.
Our hotel is filled with journalists from all around the world, here to report on the vote and, undoubtedly, the Argentine reaction to it.
Dale picked up the Press Briefing Package in the hotel that has been left by the Islands’ government for the reporters and at dinner with Patrick and his wife we discussed the history, causes and results of the conflict and the vote. It’s a lot to absorb, but I’ll be reading about it over the next couple days when I have the time.
This is a topic that is very dear to Patrick and, undoubtedly, all Falkland Islanders. Patrick was running the local radio station at the time of the invasion in 1982 and gave an on-air blow-by-blow for the first 10 hours of the Argentine attack. Here’s the street that runs in front of our hotel. The radio station was just down the road on the left and Patrick was living in the house on the right at the time; the building on the left was occupied by Argentine military personnel once the troops made their way into town.
It’s hard to imagine an invasion, occupation and liberation in such recent times between two modern societies, though I do remember following the war while I was in law school, amazed that it was happening.
We’ll learn lots more about the conflict over the next week, but our main focus here in the Falklands will be on the wildlife. We’ll be staying on a couple remote islands for the next several days, probably without electricity and definitely without internet, miles from the nearest humans, but in close proximity to thousands of penguins.
It should be very interesting and I’ll be writing about it the whole time, but I won’t be able to post anything, nor will we have any communication with the world, for the next 5 or 6 days.
In the meantime, read the paper and see how the vote turns out!