When their mobiles ring, the inhabitants of Port Stanley are learning to check caller ID carefully before answering. If it displays a "long number," meaning it might be from Argentina, they don't pick up. "It's intimidating to be woken in the night to someone shouting at you in Spanish," says Lisa Watson, editor of The Penguin News, the main and only newspaper of the Falkland Islands, the British Overseas Territory claimed by Argentina as Las Malvinas.
The angry calls are coming with the advent of the 30th anniversary of the 1982 war with Great Britain that started with the occupation of the islands by Argentine military forces on April 2 that year. That 74-day military engagement left more than 900 dead and some 1,800 wounded. Argentina lost the war but it has not forgotten it's historic claim to the islands that lie a tantalizingly close 300 miles off its coast. The islands have been under British control since 1833 when a British naval squadron arrived to oust the Argentine authorities there. Argentina claims that it inherited the islands from Spain after it gained independence in 1816 but Britain says it had prior jurisdiction through an 18th century settlement.
Now, the verbal crossfire between London and Buenos Aires like the email and phone calls in the islands has started turning ugly with the coming anniversary. Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner has accused Britain of acting like "a coarse and decadent colonial power" because it refuses to accept a United Nations resolution urging Argentina and Britain to negotiate a solution. British Prime Minister David Cameron retorted saying that: "What the Argentinians have been saying recently I would argue is actually far more like colonialism." That was said after Argentina and its South American neighbors, including new international heavyweight Brazil, agreed to close their ports to ships flying the Falklands flag.
London fears that Argentina's next move might be to suspend permission for the weekly flights that cross its airspace from Chile to the islands, thus imposing a full economic blockade on their inhabitants. Kirchner vows to continue demanding talks over Malvinas as long as necessary: "We will say it tirelessly, as will those who come after me and the children of our children."
The arrival of Britain's Prince William to Port Stanley on Thursday on a six-week tour of duty as a Royal Air Force search and rescue helicopter pilot has only increased Argentina's anger. "The Argentine people regret that the royal heir will arrive on national soil in the uniform of the conqueror and not with the wisdom of the statesman who works in the service of peace and dialogue among nations," said a statement put out by Argentina's Foreign Ministry. (William's uncle, Prince Andrew the Queen's second son had also served as a rescue helicopter pilot during the war, assigned to H.M.S. Invincible, which came under Argentine missile attack.)
But it is the islands' inhabitants, about 3,000 people of mainly British descent, who are feeling increasingly distraught by the rising tension. "I receive threats and insults via our work email address and on Twitter," says Watson. "Die you decadence [sic] whore," said one email that held a chilling echo of President Kirchner's statement about "decadent" Britain. Another read: "I am coming to the Malvinas so walk softy because I will find you."
Watson tries to take the threats lightly. "How many times must I tell you, insult me in English I don't speak Spanish," she tweeted in response to one this week. "I assume it is simply people momentarily angry because they have read something in their newspaper," she says. "We all feel like that sometimes but threatening to kill me seems a little extreme. Mainly I am referred to as a prostitute, liar, thief and pirate, and other words I really wouldn't like to mention."
What Watson finds really disturbing are the random abusive phone calls. "My friend's seven-year-old daughter has a mobile phone just for when she goes to play at the park with her pals. Even she has received abusive calls. My friend has had to tell her not to answer phone calls that have a long number."
Watson's family arrived in 1840 as servants to a rich family and have been farm workers since. The unwanted attention she has been getting is in total disproportion to the tiny weekly paper she edits. The Penguin News tends to the tiny community of farmers who inhabit the cold, wind-swept islands. The job qualifications include "knowing the name of every sheep breed and being able to dig a bogged Land Rover out of a peat bank," she likes to quip.
But her job description should now be expanded to include the fascinating dialogue she has developed with other much friendlier, and extremely curious, Argentines following her on Twitter (@Lisafalklands). "We not province of UK nor want to be province of Argentina. Are overseas territory with relationship with UK," she tweeted in response to Hernán Adastra, an Argentine who suggested not much would change if Argentina gained sovereignty.
To Dario Romero, a student who sent Watson a link to a song by the Irish rebel band The Wolfe Tones that mentions the "Islas Malvinas Argentinas", she amicably replied: "Well done getting Irish folk band on side. Won't help."
"I have no objection to chatting and debating with Argentines," Watson says. "My reason for doing so is in the hope they will see us as a people with our own culture and our own thoughts. I live in hope that they will understand we are not 'British imperialists' but a population that has struggled to develop this little country and deserve to be allowed to live in peace. I should say that I also receive many messages of support from Argentines or messages from people who do not agree with my point of view but want to offer kind thoughts anyway."
Many of the islanders (or "Islanders" with a capital I, as they describe themselves in the Penguin News) are trying to maintain calm despite harrowing memories of the 1982 war. "These big anniversaries seem to bring out the most extreme demonstrations of jingoism and hysteria from both sides most particularly from people who were not involved in 1982," says John Fowler, the deputy editor of the Penguin News, who saw three friends killed in his own home by misdirected British fire 30 years ago. "Those of us who were here do not need a special day to remember what happened, though, like me, I suspect that many prefer to keep the most painful memories hidden deep inside as far as possible."
Although patriotic fervor over Malvinas has remained high since the war, even intensified with the new diplomatic confrontation, a few Argentines are starting to question their country's traditional hard-line attitude regarding the islands' inhabitants. In the past this has ranged from affirming that they are actually Argentines to suggestions they should be evicted post-haste to Britain. "We have to move away from the old sloganeering," says Gustavo Arballo, 36, a law professor at the University of La Pampa in central Argentina who recently penned a column in the left-wing daily Pagina/12 suggesting the islands should be granted wide autonomy in any future arrangement. "We're a nation of 40 million against islands with only a few thousand inhabitants, that's like an 18-wheeler bearing down on a bicycle."
Despite the email threats and abusive calls, Watson bravely keeps the channel with Argentina open, in the hope that she can somehow lower the level of confrontation. "My parents have a sheep farm on East Falklands and I often assist them on the weekends along with my two brothers. I'm described by my friends as horse-obsessed another reason I wish the Falklands and Argentina could get along happily, Argentina has the best horses in the world."