Falklanders aim to send message with referendum
Argentina declares the plebiscite on ownership of 'Las Malvinas' illegal, but residents of the archipelago seek to send a message to the world
Agence France-Presse in London
Falkland Islanders were to hold a referendum yesterday and today to send a message to the world that they want to stay British, although Argentina has already dismissed the vote as illegal.
Residents of the archipelago in the South Atlantic hoisted British and Falklands flags and even created a giant "YES" made of SUVs ahead of the vote.
In a move instigated by residents themselves, 1,672 eligible voters are being asked whether they want the Falklands to remain an internally self-governing British overseas territory.
Britain has held the barren islands since 1833 but Buenos Aires claims what it calls Las Malvinas are occupied Argentinian territory.
"We would be deluding ourselves if we thought that Argentina would change overnight, but we hope it'll be a strong message to them and to others," said legislative assembly member Jan Cheek, a sixth-generation Falkland Islander.
Falklanders hope the outcome - and ideally a big turnout - will provide a slap in the face to an increasingly bellicose Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
They also hope the referendum result will arm them with an unambiguous message to take to other capitals when pressing their case for acceptance on the international stage.
The United States, for example, has studiously avoided taking sides on the issue despite its close ties with Britain.
In the Falklands capital Stanley, television showed islanders busy on the eve of the vote hanging bunting with the British Union flag and the Falklands flag.
"I'm quite proud to be a British overseas territory," sheep farmer Ailsa Heathman told Britain's ITV news.
At least 30 Land Rovers were lined up to spell "YES" on a patch of land opposite Stanley.
The Penguin News, the local newspaper named after the flightless birds that are native to the Falklands, urged residents to take part in "grass roots" events for the vote. "When you pass journalists, open your window, smile, wave or give the thumbs-up. Face-painting, especially with children, is encouraged. Please bring your flags."
Argentina has branded the referendum illegal because, it claims, the islanders are "implanted" and thus do not have the right to self-determination. Its Foreign Ministry said the vote was "a British attempt to manipulate" the status of the archipelago. The "attempt will not alter the essence of the Falklands or put an end to the sovereignty dispute", it insisted.
London says it will not discuss sovereignty issues with Buenos Aires unless the islanders expressly wish it.
Opinion polls show that attitudes in both Britain and Argentina have been hardening.
A YouGov poll for Sky News published on Saturday found that 24 per cent of Argentinians surveyed said the Falkands were the most important foreign-policy issue, against just one per cent of Britons.
But a ComRes poll for ITV news on Saturday showed that 77 per cent of Britons thought the Falklanders should decide the future of the islands, while 60 per cent said London should keep military options open against any threat to the Falklands.
On April 2, 1982, Argentina's then-ruling junta invaded the Falklands, sparking a 74-day war with Britain which cost the lives of 649 Argentinian and 255 British troops.
Diplomatic friction between Argentina and Britain has intensified since 2010, when London authorised oil prospecting in the waters around the islands.
FALKLAND ISLANDS FACTS
Capital: Stanley (2,121 residents).
Islanders' self-declared national identity: 59 per cent Falkland Islander; 29 per cent British; 9.8 per cent St Helenian; 5.4 per cent Chilean.
Main religion: Anglican.
Historically based on wool production, fishing has dominated since 1986 and contributes 50 to 60 per cent of total GDP. Tourism is now the second-most important sector, followed by agriculture. The first commercial oil discovery was made in 2010 and hydrocarbon exploration continues in the waters around the islands.
Tourism: 60,000 visitors by cruise ship and 1,600 by air.
The Falklands are an internally self-governing British Overseas Territory, with London responsible for foreign affairs and defence.
Governor: Nigel Haywood represents Queen Elizabeth in the Falklands.
Eight Legislative Assembly members are elected every four years.
British military: 1,300 service personnel; 50 Ministry of Defence civil servants.
Falkland Islands Defence Force: 100 volunteer infantry; 200 reserve volunteers.