As the first non-European pope in more than 1,000 years, and the first ever from Latin America, the decision will be much welcomed by the approximately 30 million Catholics in that country.
Meanwhile, the decision may come as some consolation to a government that might otherwise feel a sense of defeat this week after a referendum in the Falkland Islands pronounced the desire of its citizens to remain under British control rather than aligning with Argentina.
The Falklands, a small set of islands with a population of no more than 3,000, sit about 300 miles off the Argentine coast. Colonized by Britain in 1833, they have remained a British overseas territory to this day, with a predominantly British population, despite being located almost 8,000 miles from the motherland.
Argentina has never accepted Britain’s ownership of the Falklands, declaring its own control over the territory, which it refers to as the Malvinas. The dispute culminated in 1982 when Argentine troops invaded the islands, sparking the Falklands War. Britain, with its superior army and naval capacity, routed the Argentine forces and solidified its claim to the territory.
When Argentina rewrote its constitution in 1994, it emphatically declared its sovereignty over the islands, stating that the recovery of the territory would be “a permanent and unwavering goal of the Argentine people.” However, it wasn’t until 2012 that the dispute was rekindled when Argentine President Christina Fernandez ignited a war of words with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Claiming that Britain’s control over the Falklands was tantamount to modern-day colonialism, Fernandez’s words gave rise to fears of a second Falklands conflict; one that, perhaps, Britain would lack the resolve to win this time around.
However, throughout the dispute, Cameron has insisted that the people of the Falklands desire to remain under British control, and last week’s referendum has confirmed his statements. Of the 1,672 eligible voters, more than 90 percent turned out to cast their opinion, and of those participating, only three voted to oppose continued British rule. Some 99 percent affirmation in any vote, whether a referendum or an election, is virtually unheard of — at least in a liberal democracy — and sends a loud and clear message to the Argentine government that the people of the Falklands consider themselves British and wish to remain under British control.
Unfortunately, the vote has not been met with resounding acceptance in Argentina. Suggesting the residents of the Falklands constitute a “transplanted population,” the outcome of the vote is of little surprise or consequence to Fernandez and her colleagues. Their claim remains that the physical territory of the islands is under de facto Argentine control according to international law.
The importance of the referendum is that it shifts the focus of the dispute, which now effectively exists between Argentina and the people of the Falklands themselves. Having declared their desire to remain under British control, and in doing so exercising their collective right to self-determination, Argentina now finds itself opposing more than just a perceived European colonial power. Instead, any attempt to re-establish control of the Falklands would be seen as a violation of the desires of the very people who live there, and consequently a violation of international law and the principles of self-determination and human rights enshrined in the UN Charter.
In that sense, the vote of some 1,600 people probably has more force than the military strength and political clout of Great Britain, and is the avenue most likely to keep the Falklands under British control for the long term. Certainly Argentina will see this as only a minor setback in its longterm plan to reclaim the islands, but with last week’s vote, that goal moved a little further from becoming a reality.