The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Malvinas:
The Junta’s War Becomes Imperialism’s Warning

Jul 30, 1982

In the war over the Malvinas, the U.S. government left no doubt on which side it stood. The Reagan administration gave very direct and unqualified support to England against Argentina. The fact that U.S. imperialism would identify its interests on the side of England is not very surprising. Certainly there was never a question of the U.S. supporting Argentina’s claim against England’s dying colonial empire. But the fact that the U.S. government would so openly oppose the Argentine regime, to the extent of fully backing Thatcher’s military intervention into the South Atlantic, does raise some questions.

After all, the military junta in Argentina has been a loyal supporter of U.S. policy in Latin America. First of all, it has served imperialism in Argentina itself by keeping a repressive lid on a country with a long history of broad-based and strong nationalist movements. Second, outside of Argentina, the junta has been willing to openly carry out the dirty work of imperialism in its own name. It was this regime that had called for a Latin American military force to stop the alleged expansion of the Sandinistas into Central America. It was this regime that had already sent troops to Honduras to carry out border raids into Nicaragua and against the guerillas in El Salvador.

So why did the U.S. government take such a strong stance against Argentina in the war, knowing that by doing so it could very well be helping to undermine Galtieri’s rule? What was at stake in the Malvinas conflict?

The Junta’s Calculations

Argentina’s adventure into the Malvinas cannot be understood outside of the context of the domestic policy and the internal problems of the Argentine regime.

The military junta, which rules Argentina, came to power in 1976 in a military coup against the Peronistas – a coup which had the blessings of the U.S. government. Since that time, the junta has maintained its rule by means of bloody repression. Between 1976 and 1978, some 20,000 people "disappeared" at the hands of the junta. The junta outlawed all civilian political organizations and all trade union organizations. But despite this repression, the regime has been unable to stabilize the political situation for itself. This was reflected in the number of times the junta shuffled around its personnel, trying to find a strong man. The most recent change was in December of 1981 when Galtieri replaced Roberto Viola.

The Argentine economy, like that of other Latin American countries, has faced increasing difficulties in recent years as a result of the world economic crisis. The Argentine foreign debt has climbed to over 32 billion dollars, up significantly in the last two years, while foreign reserves to pay this debt dropped to only 2.5 billion. The peso has collapsed to 1/5 of its former value against the U.S. dollar, one indication of the worsening economic situation. Inside Argentina, inflation remains high, at 130 percent last year. Unemployment, which has never officially been recognized, is now admitted to be 6 percent.

At the beginning of this year, the junta put into effect harsher measures that attempt to force the working class and the poor to pay the cost of the faltering economic situation. Public works funding was drastically cut, and a 6-month wage freeze was introduced. Galtieri tried to divert any opposition to these policies by promising to continue a process of "slow political liberalization".

Nonetheless, opposition to the junta continued to grow, reaching a new height in March of this year. On March 21 in the city of Parana, there was an illegal rally of 5000 people demanding civilian elections. On March 30, only 3 days before the intervention into Malvinas, there were demonstrations, the largest since 1976. The demonstrations were called by the Peronista trade unions, the General Labor Confederation (CGT). Battles broke out in the streets of Buenos Aires and other cities when the cops ferociously attacked the protesters. Demonstrators called for the downfall of the military dictatorship. A few people were killed, and many more were wounded. Some 2000 people were put in jail, including the secretary of the CGT.

On April 2, confronted by all these problems, the junta ordered Argentine troops to take the Malvinas. It spoke in the name of patriotism and national pride, and called on the population to line up behind the nation’s military. It tried to turn the population’s concern away from the economic and political problems it faced.

For the military junta, the Malvinas seemed like a good solution, and one with little risk. After all, the Malvinas had little value to England. There had been negotiations in the United Nations to arrange for their separation from England. Undoubtedly England did not expect to hand over control so abruptly to Argentine troops who came in to take the islands. Consequently certain diplomatic consequences could have been expected. But the junta did not expect that Britain would go to war to take back the islands. Galtieri and others have since admitted this.

The junta undoubtedly did not expect the response it got from the U.S., either. After all, the U.S. had every interest to see the military regime reinforce itself. If for no other reason, a strengthened regime inside Argentina would leave the junta freer to carry out U.S. policy throughout Latin America.

In fact, the junta misjudged what the response of British imperialism would be, and it misjudged the U.S. response.

The Response of Imperialism

For British imperialism, the issue raised by Argentina’s action in the Malvinas was a very basic one: who decides what happens in the world. Even if the Malvinas were of little importance, the fact was that the junta had taken an action on its own which gave the appearance of challenging British imperialism. And this was something the British government could not tolerate.

From the beginning, Thatcher drew the line. She wanted to make it clear that British imperialism would not tolerate an underdeveloped country trying to dictate to Britain. Even the closest allies of the U.S. have no such right.

At this point, U.S. Secretary of State Haig tried to convince the junta to back down without facing an actual military battle. If it weren’t for the tragic conclusion, it would have been comic. Thatcher was hollering bellicose words in order to raise the electoral polls for her beleaguered party, while the estimated arrival time of the British armada in the Malvinas kept being postponed. England may have been willing to accommodate Haig by taking some 3 weeks time to sail its ships into battle position. But one way or another, Argentina was going to be made to back down.

When the Argentine junta found itself in a corner, it concluded that it would be worse for it to back down. In response, British imperialism engaged its military in battle.

In this situation, why didn’t the U.S. government take a more neutral position in the conflict, instead of lining up so openly behind England against Argentina? It might have taken a stance in this conflict in Latin America similar to what it has done, for example, in the Middle East today. There is no question that the U.S. is the central backer of Israel. It has given Israel all the means to invade Lebanon. Yet the U.S. government tries to appear as an arbiter trying to resolve the conflict, rather than as someone who takes one of the sides.

If U.S. imperialism could take this political position in the Mid-East, even in a situation where its military support for Israel is the determining factor in the battle, certainly it could have taken such a position in relation to the Malvinas conflict. And if we can at all believe Jeanne Kirkpatrick, there was at least some debate in the Reagan administration as to whether or not this was the best position to take.

But in the Malvinas, the U.S. government gave its full political endorsement to Britain. It was not the only government to do so. All the imperialist powers lined up behind Britain.

When Britain went to war against Argentina, it made a statement to all the underdeveloped countries of the world: imperialism still stands ready to use its military might whenever its prerogatives are interfered with. The regimes in all these countries, especially those open allies of the imperialist powers, were put on notice: if they enjoy imperialism’s support, that does not give them the right to call the shots.

Britain’s statement was made for itself. But as soon as the other imperialist powers endorsed Britain’s stand, Britain spoke and acted in their name also. The U.S. made a special point to reinforce Britain’s warning. That is, when it went out of its way to identify with England’s decision to go to war, when it turned its back on Galtieri, the U.S. announced it was willing to dump even the staunchest ally, if its right to regulate its empire is called in question.

The U.S. may even have been speaking indirectly to Cuba and Nicaragua, warning them to stay away from the struggles in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, if they don’t want any trouble with the U.S. After all, if the U.S. will dump its ally Galtieri for showing a little independence, what might it not do to Cuba or Nicaragua?

At any rate, the Malvinas war was an opportunity for U.S. imperialism to serve a firm and, virtually guaranteed, successful warning to the world that it intends to maintain its empire.

The Interest of the Working Class

The British government asked the British people to support its war in the Malvinas. It justified itself by claiming to be defending the rule of law, defending the right of self-determination for the Falklanders, and fighting against a dictatorial, even fascist, regime in Argentina.

Every indication is that this claim was accepted by the British people, including by the working class. Whether it was because the Labor Party gave its support to the war, we don’t know, but the British workers seemed to see the war as their war.

The British working class had no interest whatsoever to support this claim, and even more so, it had every reason to oppose it. When British imperialism served warning to the world of its readiness to use military force it was also serving warning to the British working class that it will be called to fight and die. The war in the Malvinas had the effect to help prepare the working class to accept future wars. As the British Economist weekly wrote on June 19:

Britain has long needed its own sort of cultural revolution. Its malaise, as that of America and other countries in the free world, has been that of the immediate postwar and Vietnam generation...

Now a younger generation, in Britain and to a lesser extent elsewhere, has seen an affair of principle in which soldiers were willing to fight, were ready to take horrible casualties, took some, yet emerged justified...there will be no great rush to militarism, nor should there be. But from the recruiting offices to the committee rooms of the House of Commons an intangible extra ounce will have been added to the scale that pays good men to carry good arms.

And just who will be expected to pay the monetary costs of this militarization and these future wars, in addition to paying with their lives? Just as the British working class is being asked to pay the costs of the current economic crisis, just as it is being asked to pay the current cost of maintaining imperialism’s empire, it will certainly be called upon to pay the costs of any future wars as well.

To the extent that the British bourgeoisie binds the working class to its policies overseas, it can more easily enforce sacrifice on the working class at home.

For the British working class to accept a bigger role for the military in the political life of the country holds another type of danger. These same troops, which today may be used in a colonial expedition like the Malvinas, can tomorrow be used at home against the British working class. We saw one small indication of this recently when the troops arrived back in England from the Malvinas at the time of the railroad workers’ strike. On the side of the returning ship was hanging a sign which read: "Call off the rail strike or we’ll call an air strike."

The British working class, and therefore revolutionaries in Britain or in the U.S., had every reason to oppose the intervention of the British government.

For the working class of an underdeveloped country like Argentina, the issue is posed somewhat differently. The population of Argentina is right to be angry with and to be ready to fight against British imperialism. Imperialism has plundered Argentina for centuries. This doesn’t mean, however, that it was in the interest of the Argentine working class to line up behind the junta during this war.

The Argentine working class has no reason to accept the junta. The junta may have posed as the defender of the nation against imperialism. In fact, it is not. In reality, it is the chief defender of imperialism in Argentina. It finds its interests in common with those of the British and U.S. corporations that dominate the Argentine economy. When the junta banned the trade unions, at the same time it answered its own problems, as well as those of the British and U.S. corporations. And look what action the junta took during the war – rather what action it did not take. There are British and U.S. banks and factories throughout Argentina. If the junta had wanted to strike a blow against imperialism, it could have taken them. The junta was ready to take a few islands filled with sheep. It was ready to sacrifice Argentine lives to save face when its bluff was called. Bur for all its words against imperialism, it did not ever touch imperialism’s real holdings. If it had done so, it would not have been a proof of anything other than the fact that it wanted to win the war. Bur the fact that it did not do so, is the proof that it is not ready or able to carry out even the most minimal fight against imperialism.

There was no reason for the Argentine working class to accept this war, just because the junta presented it as a fight against imperialism. If the Argentine working class was ready to wage a fight against imperialism, it would have had to carry on this fight independently of, and in fact against, the junta.

But, even in the case that the junta might have carried on a real fight against imperialism, although this is hard to imagine, the Argentine working class would have no reason to line itself up behind the junta. In any case, if the working class is to engage a real fight against imperialism for its own interests, it must have its own independent organization, its own independent policy. And that means, above all, not to give political support to a bourgeois regime, like that of the junta. And it is the role of the revolutionaries in a country like Argentina to fight for the independent organization of the working class, to propose an independent policy to the working class.

The Results of the War

In Argentina today, it is hard to know what the results of the war have been on the working class. When the war ended, there were some demonstrations which denounced Galtieri and some of the generals. The junta put Galtieri out of office, and the new junta chief gave a promise of elections to a civilian government by 1984. Those things may indicate that the junta feels somewhat the pressure of the population.

On the other hand, this scapegoating of a few generals and the making of a few promises appears to have left the junta well situated. The situation is far from being resolved, and the information available to us outside of Argentina is very limited, but the junta may have been able to buy some time and perhaps could even stabilize its position. The junta has announced that by the beginning of August it expects to have replaced all the military hardware lost in the battle over the Malvinas – hardware that can be used by the junta against the Argentine population if need be.

U.S. imperialism has moved quickly to reinforce the junta. Reagan has withdrawn all economic sanctions against the regime.

What the results are of the stands taken by imperialism, both British and U.S., in the South Atlantic remains to be seen. Certainly imperialism won the battle, and it clearly made its point against all who dare to challenge its domination.

At the moment, the cost to imperialism of serving its warning to the world appears quite low. But in the longer run, the cost to imperialism will depend on the extent to which the working class – in Argentina, in England, in the U.S. – comes to understand the warnings made in the Malvinas.