March 1982, Argentina. Tens of thousands of people were ‘disappeared’ by anonymous men in the hours of darkness. Suspected communists were being taken away, tortured then thrown out of military aircraft over the south Atlantic. Soldiers with assault rifles stood outside all important buildings. All a bit different to life in the bucolic yet decaying English industrial town of Telford, where we lived.
Argentina was at the time, like most of South America during the 80s, under right-wing military rule. But it wasn’t going well. The leader of the Argentine military junta, General Galtieri, was grappling with 130% inflation, paranoia about communist takeovers, riots on the streets and waves of crippling strikes. Not exactly the place for a holiday.
But, strangely, events had led us and our children away from torpid Telford to Buenos Aires, to visit my wife’s relatives who lived there. We were collected at Buenos Aires airport by a smiling Auntie Mavis. Then, the Argentina we had come to see revealed itself.
We visited elegant open plazas and watched languid tango dancers bend and sigh, ate inch-thick steaks cooked on braziers over roadside woodfires, marvelled at lilting beggar-singers on the metro, saw gauchos in string sandals lassoo one-tonne raging bulls at full gallop, were wooed by the astonishing elegance of the buildings and people all around us, gasped at the vast flatness of the pampas, and travelled cross-country on trains made in Birmingham in 1926. It was utterly wonderful, and completely enjoyable. Country in meltdown? We never saw it. We were living la vida latina.
The only thing was, everywhere we went we felt like a curiosity show. We were stared at because of the paleness of our skins; our children were stopped and touched by strangers who couldn’t believe their red hair and blue eyes; absolutely everybody asked us where we were from, even though they didn’t understand our answers. “Que linda, que linda,” they murmured as they pressed sweets and little gifts into the childrens’ hands.
After a side trip up the Andes to visit the conquistador-cobbled streets of Mendoza, we returned to Buenos Aires to catch a ferry across the Rio Plata to Uruguay. We were going to visit some distant relations who lived outside Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital. We caught a taxi to the ferry dock, and were un-nerved to hear on the car radio that Argentine mercenaries had just landed on South Georgia — and had raised the Argentine flag there. It sounded like a declaration of war; that’s when the wobbles started.
South Georgia, for the geographically untutored, is a speck of rock in the South Atlantic close to the Falkland Islands, off Argentina. Although belonging politically to England, it and the Falklands had been supplied, supported and provisioned by Argentina for decades.
But it seemed Galtieri was applying the time-tested tactic of diverting public attention from his problems at home by finding a scapegoat. His solution? Let’s claim another territory, and blame the previous owners for abandoning it! Nationalism will pull us together!
We eventually arrived in Uruguay, spent an idyllic few days riding horses on the estancia, watching huge flocks of estuarine birds wheel over the marshes and being completely cut off from the outside world. When we returned to Buenos Aires, things had gone from wobbly to shit hitting the fan.
Galtieri’s Army was now talking up the possibility of extending its South Georgian flag-raising exploits and retaking the entire Falkland Island chain, which they knew as the Malvinas, even though it was British territory. Martial music was being played on street corners, Recuperados Malvinas stickers were plastered on lamp-posts, and Argentine flags waved from car windows and apartment windows.
We began to feel truly nervous. In the UK, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (who was likewise being accused of rubbish government) was following Galtieri’s diversion strategy — blame the Argies for everything including a potential war in the Falklands, so unemployed Brits in their millions could be distracted from their dismal, strike-spattered lives.
We still had a few days left in Argentina, but were wary of moving too far from Buenas Aires’ airport. We spent our time walking the local streets, sightseeing.
After a while the anxiety waned, we chatted to locals, took tea at the club, shopped for souvenirs in dusty haberdasheries and were surprised that so many people, when they realised we were English, apologised for Galtieri’s sabre-rattling.
“It’s just politicians playing soldiers,” they smiled. “It’s just Galtieri and Thatcher fighting, not us. Have a nice holiday.” We told them that likewise, the British people had no animosity towards Argentina; it was merely Thatcher finger wagging, we assured them.
We were wrong. When we eventually got back to England, after navigating a maze of newly imposed border restrictions and barriers, we were shocked by sentiment on the street.
“You must be so glad to be back,” everybody said. “Were the children scared over there at what was going on?” people demanded. “You must have been petrified,” they gasped. “Did you get caught up in the anti-British marches and riots?”
We tried in vain to say that we had a lovely time, that we had been walking freely about in several cities, had left and re-crossed the Argentine border with nary a raised eyebrow, that there were no major riots on the streets and no massive chanting crowds demanding Death to the British. What they had been told and read in the papers was just not true. It was propaganda.
“But we read it in the Daily Telegraph and heard it on the news,” came the responses, “You must have it wrong! We need to send our troops to the Falklands to kick them out by force! They are just a bunch of banana republic jerks that need teaching a lesson.”
Dazed by all the vitriol, we realised it was our responsibility to tell the truth. We had seen that Argentines were ordinary people, just like us. That they were floundering under an incompetent government, just like us. That most Argentines saw through Galtieri’s bluster and propaganda, and understood it was just part of his bid to stay in control; they didn’t want a war. All we needed to do was to explain it.
We called the local paper and arranged an interview. We said we had just come back from Argentina; we said the mass of Argentine people didn’t want a fight. We said it was surely best to negotiate; better anyway than sending the gunboats in to kill people. We suggested it probably wouldn’t be politicians that would suffer if a war was declared, but people on the streets of London and Buenos Aires whose lives would be shattered. The reporter wrote it all down.
The next day’s letters pages were full of short sharp advice suggesting we should piss off back to Argentina on the next boat if that’s the way we thought. People we knew and respected started to avoid talking to us. People that still talked to us told us we had it wrong, Argentina was bad — and war was inevitable. It was on the telly, every night. And in the papers. The Argentines were on the warpath.
That we had just come back from Argentina and had personally experienced a very different reality didn’t matter. Good, honest, well-meaning and kindly neighbours had been persuaded into beating the drums of war — because England was a democracy, and deceiving the people in pursuit of political ends could never happen there, could it?
The next few weeks were harrowing. By the end of the Falklands war, England had regained control of the Falklands. 258 British and 649 Argentine soldiers and sailors were dead. Nearly 2000 were badly wounded, and countless families wrecked. Two major ships and a submarine were sunk with the loss and disfigurement of hundreds of young men and women. Galtieri was eventually overthrown for losing the Malvinas. Margaret Thatcher, previously teetering on election defeat, was resoundingly re-elected, surrounded by cheering crowds and men in uniform.
I went back to work, and astonishingly, met a new employee who had evacuated to Telford from the Falklands, where she had been born and raised.
“What a waste,” she said. “England never cared about us before.”