Oil war in South Atlantic: Great Britain vs. Latin America

By IndepthAfrica
In Middle East
Feb 7th, 2012
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Nil NIKANDROV
Buenos-Aires and other cities of Argentina have many monuments dedicated to the officers and men, who died on the Malvinas Islands. Hundreds of shields along the Argentinean roads carry a single line: Las Malvinas son Argentinas (Las Malvinas belong to Argentina). All the participants of that war of a long ago are regarded as national heroes…

At present a new escalation of tension between Argentina and Great Britain is being intensively discussed in the media. Does it mean that Las Malvinas (the Folkland Islands for Great Britain) may become the theater of war again? In the current situation a new war may become even fiercer – the reserves of the oil and gas fields which were discovered on the shelf of the archipelago are comparable with the reserves of the oil fields in the North Sea. The British experts, who estimate the reserves at 60 billion barrels, are probably lowering the real figure in order not to tease Argentine people.

Since it won independence in the early 19th century Argentina has always considered the Malvinas to be its territory. The archipelago’s geographical location close to Argentina, the history of economic development, the fight for keeping it an integral part of the country all these factors linked with the unsolved Malvinas dispute strengthen patriotism of Argentine people. Argentina has always seen Great Britain’s capture of the archipelago in 1833 as an act of colonial plunder. Winning back its sovereignty over the Malvinas has always been a crucial for Argentina’s foreign policy. When signing of the UN Charter in 1945 Argentina’s delegate said that his country would retain the right to own the Malvinas and the right to win them back.

General Leopoldo Galtieri, who headed the military junta in Argentina in September 1981, was ready to win back the sovereignty over the Malvinas Islands by means of weapon. Decades of fruitless diplomatic efforts prompted the Argentinean military to act more aggressively. London ping-ponged any attempts to resolve the dispute peacefully and ignored the mediating efforts of the UN, OAS and other international organizations. And the generals decided to play it tough.

In early April of 1982, the Argentinean army conducted Operation Rosario mounting an amphibious landing on the islands. Galtieri had no doubts that the US would be on the fence, as he had been assured by his sources in Washington. The success of the campaign was guaranteed: without Washington’s support Brits would have to put up with the loss of their “territories” in South America and refrain from repression in the region, which is 8,000 km away from the mother country.

But the Argentinean generals were wrong – US President Ronald Reagan supported his strategic ally. London broke up diplomatic relations with Argentina. The British government headed by “the Iron lady” Margaret Thatcher managed to put together and to send its “vengeance fleet” (of more than 100 ships, including three nuclear submarines, the Invisible and Hermes aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships. Not only the British fleet but also the British air forces were superior to Argentina’s. The US special services accounted for most of the intelligence date which was delivered in time and informed the British command about the line-up and deployment of the Argentinean troops on the islands, combat ships’ coordinates, types of weapons etc. The US also hampered the replenishment of the Argentinean munitions first of all with France’s high accuracy anti-ship Exocet missiles. In the end the Argentinean army had to capitulate. The war lasted 74 days and ended on June 20. It took lives of 258 British and 649 Argentinean people.

The diplomatic relations between the two countries were fully restored only in February 1990. Five more years passed before the countries signed an agreement on joint exploration of oil and gas fields at the shelf of the Malvinas islands. The Argentinean-British commission was to supervise this cooperation. However the parties failed to establish a mutually beneficial partnership on production and sale of hydrocarbons. Brits were trying to take advantage of themselves accusing Argentineans of “selfishness and intractability”. The information on Britain’s plans to unilaterally give permission to its companies to start oil explorations in the area of the Malvinas caused a negative reaction of Buenos Aires.

In April 2007, at the first Energy summit of South America’s countries Argentina announced that it was to stop its cooperation with the UK on prospecting and exploitation of hydrocarbon reserves. In February 2010, President Cristina Fernandez approved the law, which obliged all foreign states to apply for license to enter a 500 km sea zone of Argentina. This zone includes the Malvinas islands, which are located 480 km away from the Argentinean coast.

In February 2010, the first drilling rig emerged on the Malvinas shelf. It was Britain’s Desire Petroleum company, which started its oil explorations. Buenos Aires did not hide its discontent: Britain is encroaching Argentina’s sovereignty, our combat ships will hamper the delivery of cargos which can be used for oil production. The words were followed by deeds: The Argentinean custom authorities started to ban the sail of “suspicious ships” carrying pipes and equipment oil production.

The Argentinean Navy and Air Forces intensified their exercises in the region. Gordon Brown, who was the British Prime Minister back then, knowing about unpredictability and emotionality of the Argentinean leadership warned it from spontaneous steps and using force saying that the islands were properly protected. The media reported on advanced alert status of the UK Navy and patrolling ships sent to South America. There were rumors in diplomatic circles on secret raids of the British submarines to the coast of Argentina.

Buenos-Aires took measures to offer rebuff to Britain’s “colonial ambitions”. It is promoting its interests in the UN. Argentina believes that the UN should interfere and make London follow the decisions of the General Assembly, the committee on decolonization and start negotiations. All the South American regional organizations such as Mercosur, Unasur, Selac, ALBA are supporting Argentina. Buenos Aires is trying to transform their solidarity into a kind of a resistance front against the “British colonialists”. One of the possible efficient measures which are being discussed is to restrict the entry of the ships with cargos for the British oil companies on the Malvinas to South American ports. Without support bases at the coast the oil operations of British companies won’t be so efficient. In response London announced plans to organize alternative sources of supply. At the same time it is also taking steps trying to divide the “South American Coalition”.

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez who had always been consistent in his pro-Argentinean evaluation of the situation at the Malvinas could not ignore the reports on intensification of Britain’s military presence in the South Atlantic. Two years ago he addressed the British Queen with an appeal “Leave the Malvinas alone, give up your ambitions for owning them. Hands off the Republic of Argentina!” In January, after the current British Prime Minister David Cameron had accused Argentina of “colonialism” Chavez showed his support to the government of Cristina Fernandez again. “Return the Malvinas to the Argentine people.” “No more empires!” “Doesn’t the UK government understand that it violates the norms of the International law?! He said that Britain violated basic principle of geography, history, time and space. The British fleet which was sent to the Malvinas in 1982 knew the goal of its mission – the islands have oil and gas reserves. Running short of oil reserves in the North Sea Brits are desperate. “Yankees”, who do not have hydrocarbons are desperate too”.

It should be mentioned that Chavez’ solidarity was taken by Western media as Venezuela’s readiness to protect Argentina if it is attacked by the UK. But Chavez is urging different actions: the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) should first of all have a sound plan of collective actions on how “to return the Malvinas to Argentina.

As for the US it is making very reserved statements about that conflict: we are going to keep a neutral position. The statement is so far admissible both for Argentina and the UK. But in case of the conflict’s escalation Washington won’t think long. It is to support its strategic ally! After all, Argentina represented by Cristina Fernandez is close to “populists” and is making advances to ALBA bloc (Bolivarian alliance for the Americas Америки). Her defeat would mean a serious defeat for the anti-American forces in the region. The US’ real position also came to the fore when Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, an oil and gas company from Texas, started drilling works at the Malvinas shelf.

One more thing – the British Queen definitively remembers how outrageously Chavez addressed to her. Prince William has arrived at Mount Pleasant base on the Malvinas where he is to train as a pilot of a rescue service helicopter. In Argentina officials took this as a new provocation by the colonial power. This also became a response of the British Crown to Chavez: the Folkland Islands are the territory of the UK. The oil fields there are ours and we are not going to leave.

As we see, the new dispute around the Malvinas Islands and its oil reserves is now at an early stage. Now Argentina has good chances for historical revenge. Sooner or later, voluntarily or forcefully the invaders will have to leave.

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