- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2002

BUENOS AIRES In December, Argentina stopped payments on its national debt. But for Juan Mendicino, Argentina has a debt it hasn't paid for 20 years the one owed to its soldiers who fought, and in some cases died, in the 1982 war with Britain for control of the Falkland Islands, known to Argentines as the Malvinas.

"When the country needed us, we went. We were only kids. But then they forgot us," said Mr. Mendicino, a veteran of the Malvinas war and president of the Veteran's Home, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to helping veterans with everything from job-search assistance to medical care.

Today, many veterans here need all the help they can get. Then again, so do millions of Argentines, who are suffering under the country's worst economic and social crisis in a century. With so many just trying to get by, no one has time to think about the veterans or the conflict, even though today marks the 20th anniversary of the Argentine attempt to wrest control of the islands.

But society's indifference to the veterans is not just the result of today's economic hardship. Nor is it because Argentina lost the war. Rather, it is caused by the resentment many Argentines felt, and still do, toward the brutal military dictatorship that ruled the country at the time of the conflict.

"When the war ended, there was a negative reaction in Argentine society. A lot of people wanted to use the defeat to get rid of the military. We [the soldiers] were the innocent victims of that," said Daniel Gionco, a veteran who was stationed in the Falklands' capital, Port Stanley.

A thoughtful man with graying hair, Mr. Gionco added, "It's unfortunate there are so many problems now. This would be a good time to reflect on this issue."

That is unlikely to happen. Argentina is a virtual powder keg right now. Since December, the country has had five different presidents. Unemployment is at nearly 25 percent. Street protests are a daily occurrence in Buenos Aires, the nation's capital, and other major cities. And the country is coming dangerously close to slipping into the kind of hyperinflation that throughout the last century invariably led to large-scale political and social strife.

There are even rumors of a military coup, though for now those rumors are largely the product of overactive imaginations. But no one wants to revisit in such a volatile situation the failed military adventure that cost 655 Argentine lives.

Nonetheless, though few Argentines would support another attempt to take the Falklands by force, many still passionately claim those islands. Signs declaring "Las Malvinas Son Argentinas" ("The Malvinas Are Argentine") are a common sight in public buildings and along highways. Malvinas Argentinas is also a popular street name. And for years, schoolchildren have sung a song affirming Argentine sovereignty of the islands, which the British took control of in 1833.

For Argentines, there is something "mystical" about the islands, said Edgardo Esteban, a war veteran who has written two books on the conflict.

"The Malvinas are an icon for Argentines like Maradona, Evita and Gardel," he explained, referring to soccer great Diego Maradona, the wife of Juan Peron and Argentina's greatest tango singer, respectively.

But James Neilson, one of Argentina's most respected political analysts, says the Falklands are no longer the national cause they once were.

"Twenty years ago, it was one of the few things Argentines agreed on. Now, opinions are much more diverse. Most of the public doesn't care anymore," he said.

To the extent they do, most Argentines accept that the only way the issue can ever be resolved is through negotiations. That, at least, is how Hector Omar Cisneros feels. His brother died in the conflict.

Now president of the organization for families of soldiers killed in the conflict, Mr. Cisneros says he is pleased with the progress his group has made in discussions with the British government on building an island monument to Argentina's war dead.

"We are satisfied with the progress and spirit in which the discussions are being carried out. We are very close to building this thing," he said during a break in the group's weekly meeting in downtown Buenos Aires.

Mr. Cisneros said he was proud of his brother, Mario, who died in a firefight on Two Sisters Mountain, outside Port Stanley. Unlike most of the soldiers Argentina sent to the Falklands, who were, in the words of one veteran, "untrained teen-agers disguised as soldiers," Mario Cisneros was a professional soldier.

In a statement that reflects the general mood in Argentina today toward the country's ruling class, Hector Omar Cisneros added: "Unlike politicians, the soldiers who fought and died in the Malvinas didn't ask for anything."

Though Mr. Cisneros hopes the sovereignty issue will eventually be resolved through dialogue, it seems unlikely that progress will be made anytime soon. The Argentine government is too busy trying to avoid being swallowed up by the economic crisis to devote time to what, regardless of the political rhetoric, is a nonessential issue. And whatever inclination the island residents known as the "Kelpers" might have had for a closer relationship with Argentina, they are surely having second thoughts amid the mainland's current woes.

Nonetheless, there are good reasons to believe this conflict, unlike many around the world, is settled. One reason is the historical ties that bind Argentina and Britain.

For the last two centuries, the British have played a major role in Argentina's economic development, though the relationship has not always been an easy one. In the 19th century, British funds built the railroads that carried Argentina's prodigious agricultural output to port, from which tons of beef and grain were shipped to the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. By the early 20th century, there were an estimated 100,000 British citizens living in Argentina, and the country still boasts a sizable Anglo-Argentine community.

That community was torn by conflicting loyalties when the war came. Michael Savage, a veteran who was on Mount Longdon, where some of the fiercest fighting took place near the end of the war, admits he felt uneasy.

His grandfather had been in the Britain's Royal Air Force. The capital, Port Stanley, reminded him of villages in England he had seen. "It was very difficult for me," he said.

Another factor that makes it possible to envision a negotiated solution is that the war left little resentment between the two sides. Argentines who were adults at the time of the conflict generally love to hate Britain's former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and they still have not forgiven the United States for siding with Britain. But on the whole, they tend to accept the idea that the best army won. Most veterans certainly feel that way. And they feel the British treated them pretty well in victory.

Mr. Gionco, the Argentine veteran who was stationed at Port Stanley, said: "There wasn't the same kind of animosity you see in wars today. There were two defined armies. Unlike today, we knew who the enemy was."

Contacts between veterans on both sides have grown in recent years. Some veterans, like Mr. Esteban and Mr. Savage, whose grandfather served in the RAF, have even returned to the islands. Mr. Savage describes the return as a chance to "put some ghosts to rest."


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