Argentina’s Fernández Denounces Britain’s ‘Militarization’ of the Falkland Islands

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Juan Mabromata / AFP / Getty Images

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner delivers a speech in front of a backdrop displaying the Falkland Islands at the Government Palace in Buenos Aires on February 7, 2012

Argentina’s president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has worn black every day since her husband died in October 2010. Last night—as she delivered a speech amid rising tensions between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands—her dark blouse suggested she was still in mourning. Her words, however, implied it wasn’t merely over the loss of her beloved husband.

Speaking to MPs and veterans of her country’s 1982 war with Britain over the islands, Kirchner announced she would formally complain to the United Nations about the U.K.’s “militarization” of the archipelago, which London has controlled since 1833 and where Prince William was recently deployed as a search-and-rescue pilot. “I have instructed our chancellor to formally present before the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. General Assembly this militarization of the South Atlantic, which implies a grave risk for international safety,” she said in Buenos Aires. She stood before a map of the Falkland Islands, known in Argentina as Las Malvinas, which had been painted blue and white to resemble Argentina’s flag. Her black get-up could have been mistaken for war paint.

Argentine military forces invaded the Falklands on April 2, 1982. The 74-day military conflict left more than 900 people dead, and roughly 1,800 more wounded. Britain’s successful defense of its territory has remained a sore spot for Argentina ever since. But in recent weeks—in the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the conflict—the lingering tension has escalated dramatically, and Kirchner has adopted a steadily more belligerent tone.

The diplomatic and military posturing hotted up last February when Argentina accused the U.K. of breaking international law by sanctioning oil drilling off of the islands in disputed territory that Argentina claims as its own. Then, on Nov. 10, British officials revealed that Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, would be deployed to the Falkland Islands this spring on a tour of duty. The following day Argentina described the announcement as a “provocative act,” and Argentine newspaper La Nacion reported that the Argentine Foreign Ministry saw it as more evidence of London’s “aggressive attitude.” By December, Argentina had launched a naval campaign to isolate the Falklands. Crew on Argentine patrol vessels boarded boats flying the Falklands’ flag, claiming it was illegal for them to operate in disputed waters (thereby depriving locals of fresh supplies of fruit). And on Dec. 20, the Mercosur trade bloc—which includes Brazil and Uruguay—agreed to close its ports to those same ships.

The new year brought more of the same. On Jan. 31 Britain announced it would deploy the HMS Dauntless—one of its most modern navy warships—to the Falklands. And on Feb. 2 Prince William finally arrived in the Falklands for his six-week tour of duty. Cue President Fernández’s speech on Britain’s aggressive colonial impulses last night. “We cannot interpret in any other way the deployment of an ultra-modern destroyer accompanying the heir to the throne, who we would prefer to see in civilian attire,” she said.

In recent days Argentina’s government has threatened to block LAN—a Chilean airline—from making its weekly flight to Port Stanley on the Falklands. It’s the only air route from South America to the islands, and Falklanders’ main route to the rest of the world. Speaking to the Guardian, a senior diplomat said that if those flights were canceled, “it would be pretty difficult to resist the already credible thesis that there is an economic blockade of the civilian population of the Falklands.”

But Kirchner hasn’t canceled those flights, and she appears to be digging in for a long diplomatic fight. She knows going to the U.N. won’t have an immediate impact: the U.K. can veto any resolutions as a member of the security council. Her official protest, however, internationalizes the conflict. Besides coaxing members of the Mercosur trade bloc to ban Falklands ships from their ports, she has managed to secure support from Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez. “If it occurs to the British Empire to attack Argentina, Argentina won’t be alone this time,” he said at a meeting of the Bolivarian Alliance bloc earlier this week. Fernández appears to be courting Spain, too. Last night she reminded Madrid of Britain’s colonial exploits near its territory. “It is an anachronism in the 21st century to still have colonies,” she said. “There are only 16 cases in the world, of which 10 are British and we’ve seen in recent days how the Spanish claim regarding Gibraltar has been renewed.”

The potential discovery of oil in the Falkands will, no doubt, only escalate tensions and raise the question of who has the right to its spoils. A British super rig is currently exploring the southern coast of the islands. And a field located off the northern coast is already thought to contain 350 million barrels. Britain, which has rejected Argentina’s claims, seems confidant that oil revenues will stay within the Empire—and the coffers of British drilling firms. “The people of the Falkland Islands are British out of choice,” a Foreign Office spokesman said. “They are free to determine their own future and there will be no negotiations with Argentina over sovereignty unless the islanders wish it.”

Assuming the islanders stay loyal to the Crown, Fernández may need to invest in some more black blouses.

William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.