On April 2, 1982, the Argentine military junta decided to land its troops on the Malvinas Islands. Thousands of soldiers, among them young outlaws with no military experience, arrived in the cold of some distant islands in the South Atlantic with a slogan: “We come to liberate you.” In the archipelago, a territory controlled by the United Kingdom, British radio recounted the horrors of the Argentine dictatorship. According to the testimony of war veterans, the islanders received them with suspicion: Is a country governed by a dictatorship coming to liberate us? Ten weeks later, British forces dislodged the Argentine troops. But the conflict, which turns 40 this Saturday, remained an indelible memory in the national conscience.
“If commemorations have a meaning, it is that the human experience has three temporal axes: the past, the present and the future. Argentine commemorations have more to do with the past than with the future, and that is a problem”, says historian Federico Lorenz (Buenos Aires, 51 years old). Author of more than a dozen books on the conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom, professor, curator and former director of the Malvinas and South Atlantic Islands Museum between 2016 and 2018, Lorenz is one of the most authoritative voices on combat marked by fire in the memory of the Argentines. A couple of days before the anniversary of the war, Lorenz meets with EL PAÍS to analyze why the conflict is a living claim in the country. “I think that one way to pay homage is to think about what country we want to make sense of what those young people who went to fight living in a dictatorship experienced,” says the historian. “Many did not choose him, but they ended up being the hope of a national regeneration. We have to take responsibility for that.”
Ask. What does the slogan ‘The Malvinas are Argentine’ mean 40 years after the war?
Answer. It is a possibility of decentralizing ourselves to think of ourselves as a nation. The Argentine coast, from the Malvinas to Tierra del Fuego, is a space that forces us to think about points of contact rather than borders. I believe that it is something that we do not do with the islands and that it serves to think about people’s lives beyond national disputes. One arrives in southern Argentina and realizes that the people have more things in common with the islanders than with the people of Buenos Aires. Without abandoning the slogans, which are not raised, it is necessary to propose a work of social education.
P. Why is it impossible to leave the slogans aside?
R. There are many elements. The first is anti-imperialist, although in practice, in the eighties, the imperialist power was the United States and not the United Kingdom. There is also an idea of an unfulfilled country, of a country with a manifest destiny that wanted to be the Europe of America and that cannot be completed until it achieves the islands. That is an idea that has been building since there is a modern State in Argentina.
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P. Are those flags an engine for something else?
R. Since now. The big problem is that since the fifties, since the overthrow of Juan Domingo Perón, Malvinas began to function in terms of internal politics. Today, when the situation is stagnant since the war, they are a very important banner. And it is also very important not to run from the rhetorical axis. The situation in fact has not changed because we have stopped thinking about how to change it.
P. What can be done to change it?
R. If the Argentines remain in a logic of ritually supporting certain ideas without thinking about concrete policies in the face of the conflict, in the long term the Malvinas will end up estranged from the country. Somehow we are talking about islands that no longer exist. Frozen in the trauma of war and claim, we stop thinking about how we link the islands to us.
P. How to think about the relationship in another way?
R. Perhaps from a regional logic. The southern tip of America is a transnational region. Links at the local level are closer than national ones. It happens on many frontiers and is a comfortable analytical exercise without the passionate element.
P. Is it possible to remove the passionate element?
R. Time does its job… At some point I think a certain intensity will drop and allow a certain rationality to think about the matter. From the Malvinas as from so many others. In the end, it is about that political logic in which arguing is actually waiting for you to finish saying yours to say mine. I respect that you speak, but what matters is what I am going to tell you now.
P. How does ignorance coexist with passion?
R. You can answer with a slogan: Malvinas is a feeling. If you ask any Argentine if the Falklands are Argentine, they will say yes. The answer to pay attention to is why. The islands are a tattoo in the heart of Argentines and it is not easy to deal with it. The record of convictions and passions do not necessarily coexist. That is why knowing little about the islands can be reconciled with knowing what is necessary: that they are Argentine.
P. What is Argentina’s relationship with the islanders?
R. It was very changeable, and that is also harmful in terms of foreign policy. You go from the policy of seduction to one of saying that they are occupiers. You go from bringing them fresh fruit, putting on weekly flights, building landing strips and student scholarships, to disembarking militarily 10 years later. From the point of view of the islanders, we are not trustworthy.
P. Would acknowledging that voice be a defeat?
R. I do not believe it. The idea of negotiation implies giving in, but to give in you must first listen. I think everything would be simpler starting here: what kind of society do we want to be, what economy do we want to have. And then see how the Falklands fit into that, not the other way around. I think that’s the point.
P. How is the claim for a war initiated by a dictatorship unleashed?
R. This country can be proud because it faced the return of democracy by prosecuting state terrorists. But what is built with it? The identifications of the soldiers on the islands were made by the Forensic Anthropology Team, created to identify the victims of the military government. It is not that the soldiers are victims of the dictatorship, but that an instrument that we built to review our past and get closer to the truth also serves so that the relatives of the dead of the Malvinas know where their children are, it is something that exalts you as a people . We don’t do everything wrong, but I think that Argentina is not used to the grays, the grays don’t call, they don’t serve on a platform.
P. How did your curiosity about the conflict begin?
R. When I was studying to be a teacher in the early 1990s, I started interviewing veterans. I used to ask what they remembered the most about the war, and it struck me that most of them chose to talk about the post-war period, the way they had come back. For me, the Malvinas war always had to be thought of alongside the dictatorship. At that time, researching this topic threw you into complicated questions. If you are investigating a war born in a dictatorship, the next question is how much of the logic of the war was in the political thought of contemporary society. That was in the repressive military who called their state terrorism war, but also in the armed organizations. The gray palette is monumental. That is why reducing the conflict to 1982 is unsatisfactory.
P. What do you remember about your interviews with ex-combatants?
R. I remember two moments very clearly. The first is one who told me: “I want you to remember me now, but they will remember us when we are dead.” Then another one who told me that he wore the medal under his jacket [abrigo]because he was embarrassed. Things have changed a lot since then, but there was something there.
R. A profound denial by society of its responsibility in having encouraged these young people and turned its back on them when the war ended. That is why it is comfortable to take refuge in slogans. No one likes to question what they did wrong.
P. How much of that responsibility comes from the narrative imposed by the dictatorship?
R. very much. The war coincided with what we later called the “horror show”. The prohibited magazines of the time featured on the cover a showgirl naked and inside the testimony of a survivor of military repression. She came all together. The revelations about the dictatorship ate up the specifics of the war. But the difference with Malvinas is that it was the most public event of the dictatorship, which is why it is more difficult to answer the question of where I was while this was happening with a “I didn’t know”.
P. You are a high school teacher, what should be the focus of the discussion in that environment?
R. The Falklands should be a year-round theme, not April 2. To a great extent, the recovery of democracy, as we know it, we owe to the Malvinas combatants. They clearly didn’t die for it and they didn’t go to war for it. But socially, that the military left power conditioned as they left, is due to Malvinas.
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