War propelled Falklands into a thriving outpost

STANLEY, Falkland Islands — Falkland Islanders are still bristling over the invasion by Argentina 30 years ago, but they're not complaining about its aftermath.

The April 2, 1982, invasion led by Argentina's dictators and the subsequent war with Britain launched a process that transformed the archipelago from a sleepy backwater of sheep farms into a prosperous outpost whose residents enjoy one of the highest per capita incomes in the Western Hemisphere.

"It took a war to make it better," said Sybie Summers, who runs a gift shop in Stanley. "Life really changed. When we were kids we played with sheep bones. Now it's a new iPad they have to have."

The key to jump-starting their economy, islanders say, was the British military muscle left in place after the invasion. The presence of 8,000 troops and a military fleet gave the Falklands the power to establish a fisheries licensing program, and collect fees off of the hundreds of rogue trawlers from Asia and Spain that had been overfishing the South Atlantic.

That fisheries revenue then paid for free educations in Britain for every Falklands teenager. About 80 percent of those kids have returned debt-free with university degrees and advanced skills.

Most islanders still have to work multiple jobs to provide all the necessary services among a population of just 3,000. But last year's government surplus was nearly $29.9 million, and the rainy-day fund now provides a nearly three-year cushion against economic crisis.

The revenue from the fishing industry also seeded offshore oil exploration, which paid off last year with the Sea Lion discovery, an oil strike some analysts estimate could deliver $3.9 billion in taxes and royalties.

Oil exploration is already generating more in revenues than the islands' government has ever seen.

If Rockhopper Exploration finds a $2 billion partner to fund crude production, "quite simply they'll become the richest people in the world" said John Foster, a managing director of the Falkland Islands Company, which runs an array of local businesses.

If not for Argentina's 74-day occupation, islanders say, the Falklands might still be stuck in reverse — a lonely and declining outpost with few job opportunities or creature comforts.

"This is a totally different situation here than there was 30 years ago," said Nick Pitaluga, a fifth-generation islander.

In London, many still believe islanders are subsidized by British taxpayers, when in fact the Falkland Islands Government runs a surplus and counts on Britain for only defense and foreign affairs.

The official view from Buenos Aires is that British forces usurped control of the islands 179 years ago and hold them today as a colonial enclave. "It is an anachronism in the 21st century to continue maintaining colonies," Argentine President Cristina Fernandez said recently.

In the islands, though, it is hard to find anyone who would like to see the Argentine flag flying above Stanley, and while Argentines are welcome for a visit, signs of allegiance to their homeland are not.

Jan Cheek, a legislative assembly member whose great-great-great-grandfather arrived here from England in 1842, favors maintaining the islands' tight immigration controls that require a seven-year residency to apply for islander status, which if accepted brings eligibility to vote. No more than 40 people may qualify each year

"Theoretically, 4,000 Argentines could come in and vote to become part of Argentina," Cheek said. "Our whole way of life could be swamped and changed by a massive influx over a short period."

When Argentine bombs started exploding around Stanley, many islanders wondered if London, some 8,000 miles away, cared for them at all.

"It seemed to us that we were an embarrassment to the United Kingdom's ambitions of reasserting themselves as an economic power in Latin America," recalled Fowler.

When the British soldiers did arrive, it seemed like a miracle to islanders who felt they were being controlled by Argentina even before the invasion.

"They had their chance back then and blew it. If they had waited a few more months, (British Prime Minister) Maggie Thatcher probably would have handed us over, but they couldn't wait and Thatcher got her knickers in a twist. We were very very lucky she had that kind of backbone," said Pitaluga, who still raises sheep on the land his great-great grandfather settled after arriving in 1840.

War propelled Falklands into a thriving outpost 03/09/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 9, 2012 3:30am]

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