British battleship's visit to Chile revives painful Falklands memories
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British battleship's visit to Chile revives painful Falklands memories

Gordon Hoggan was 23, and part of a British battalion attacking Argentine positions in a fierce blizzard, when he killed 20-year-old Jose Luis Galarza.

The Scots Guard infantryman still has nightmares of stumbling across two enemy soldiers defending a cave, his rifle jamming, and plunging his bayonet into Galarza’s neck.

Now, 32 years after the war over the U.K.-owned Falkland Islands, a windswept south Atlantic archipelago claimed by Argentina and known in South America as Las Islas Malvinas, Hoggan is journeying to South America to meet the father and sisters of the man he killed and try to put his demons to rest, AFP reports.

“They may not want it,” says Hoggan. “They’d probably hate me.”

Still, he hopes to gain some closure and escape from the nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that have plagued him ever since the 1982 conflict, which claimed 258 British and 655 Argentinean lives.

But events last week offered another reminder that some in Argentina are unlikely to forget — much less forgive — anytime soon.

A ceremonial visit by a U.K. battleship to Chile — commemorating the nearby 1914 battle of El Coronel — was reported in Argentinean press as violating an agreement blocking British ships from regional ports. It threatened to spill into a diplomatic row drawing in Chile, Argentina, the U.K. and even Brazil.

Memories of wars past

The HMS Dragon — a British destroyer based in the South Atlantic — docked in Valparaíso on November 28, participating in the ExpoNaval 2014 maritime exhibition from December 2-5. The visit was soon picked up by Argentinean dailies Ámbito Financiero and La Nación. They cited a 2010 agreement brokered by regional blocs Mercosur and Unasur, at the urging of Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner, closing ports and military bases to British personnel.

The media further alleged that British naval ships and military aircraft making the 7,900-mile journey to the Falklands count on assistance from Brazil and Chile, in direct defiance of a blockade of the islands which Buenos Aires claims as rightfully Argentinean.

“There are different types of support,” La Nación quoted an anonymous senior figure in the Argentinean Ministry of Defense as saying.

According to the official, these include “joint training operations, port assistance to British units, high seas refueling and resupply operations, or continental bases camouflaged as ceremonial visits.”

The claims are also supported in a recent book by Andrés Cisneros, Argentina’s former deputy minister for foreign affairs, who argued that the U.K. Royal Navy collaborates with Brazil to protect offshore oil reserves, among other clandestine regional alliances. Brazil has acknowledged the existence of joint operations to protect its massive pre-salt offshore wells, but denies that this involves giving any logistic support to RN vessels.

The allegations, though regarded as an open secret in Argentina, are also officially rejected by the Argentinean government, as well as across the Andes in Chile. Mercosur sources further denied that the presence of the Type 45 destroyer in Valparaiso violated the terms of the 2010 treaty, claiming that Argentina had prior notification, and that no logistical support was given to the HMS Dragon, nor to any British ships, as regularly occurred prior to 2010.

Chilean Defense Minister Jorge Burgos was quoted as saying the visit was “duly discussed with Argentinean authorities, with whom we have…excellent relations.”

Grim ironies

The polemic has since died down, and a wider regional spat averted for the time being. But the incident is a reminder of how charged the legacy of the 1982 war remains. Successive Argentinean governments have called for the return of the Malvinas, some allege as a means of rallying public support and drawing attention away from pressing political and economic problems at home.

The U.K. government maintains that the ownership of the islands is non-negotiable, and a matter for the 3,000-person-strong British community on the islands, established in the 1840s, to decide.

In an unofficial 2013 referendum, 92 percent of the Falklands electorate of 1,650 voted in favor of remaining part of the U.K., with three people voting against. Some commentators have pointed to the possible existence of substantial offshore oil reserves 150 miles off the coast as being a decisive motive for both London and Buenos Aires.

Ironies abound in the islands’ history, as well as in the 1982 war. The British government was, in fact, moving toward surrendering the costly British presence two years prior to the invasion, a trend which the war firmly reversed.

But perhaps the biggest irony is that, while Argentinean leaders continue to agitate for the return of the islands, those Argentinean soldiers who fought bravely over three decades ago — many of them conscripts equipped with World War Two-era weaponry — are still demanding an adequate pension and healthcare.

Hundreds have taken their own lives since the war, while others beg on the street. In a shared fight for closure from the past, Gordon Hoggan may find even more in common with his former enemies in Argentina than he thought.