The raid of the Condors

July 24 2007

The Brazilians’ nationalism is ironic and light-hearted; the Argentinians’ nationalism is romantic and intense.


September 28 1966: Nineteen young, armed Argentine nationalists, led by Dardo Cabo and calling themselves Condors, hijacked an Aerolíneas Argentinas DC4 during an internal flight in Argentina and landed on Stanley Racecourse in the Malvinas. Their arrival was supposed to coincide with the start of the autumn session of the UN. The plane missed the grandstand, but hit some telegraph poles and sank into the mud. The invaders ran up the Argentinian flag, handed out leaflets, took four islanders hostage, and demanded to see the Governor. The Royal Marines and Falkland Islands Defence Force encircled the plane. The commandos vowed never to surrender, but after one night gave themselves up to the local priest. There was no loss of life.

They were housed in an annex of St Mary’s church until they could be handed over to an Argentinian naval ship and taken home. They received short prison sentences. Two other planes, with reinforcements and press, had been scheduled to follow Cabo’s, but were grounded when the President issued an order suspending all civilian flights. A plaque honouring the “Condors” was later unveiled in Buenos Aires.

I happened to be in Argentina, at Córdoba, at the moment when the “commando” forced the captive Argentinian plane to land in the Falklands, and when the news of this melodramatic performance was followed by the news of the attacks on the British embassy in Buenos Aires and on the British consulate in Rosario. As was to be expected, both the Argentine and the British Government have behaved with exemplary prudence and – what is even more important – with mutual understanding and good will. The Argentine Government’s anger at the misbehaviour of a handful of youthful Argentine citizens was natural enough. Under the cloak of pretendedly patriotic gestures, the participants in the “commando” escapade and the more serious offenders who fired the shots were actually seeking to embarrass their own Government, at the possible cost of sabotaging its attempt to arrive at an agreed settlement of the long-standing dispute over the islands. The saboteurs’ action was therefore severely censured, not only by the Government, but by the responsible newspapers. However, we in Britain should note that, in censuring the wrongheadedness of the offenders’ “direct action”, both the press and the Government also took pains to emphasize the point that all Argentinians are agreed in maintaining that the islands are lawfully theirs, that the British claim to them is invalid, and that the British occupation of them is consequently an illegitimate usurpation. In this the Argentine Government and people are unanimous, and this is not just an academic stand; the issue with Britain over the islands arouses deep and passionate feelings in Argentine hearts.

This psychological fact is unquestionable, and its political importance is obvious, but the cause of it is not self-evident. Why does the issue over the political status of these islands excite emotion on the Argentine side? The economic and strategic value of the islands is virtually nil, and they are remote from the Argentinian mainland, even in terms of the Argentinian scale of distances. The islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon lie much closer to Canada, and the Channel Islands much closer to France, yet the French and the Canadians do not react in the emotional Argentinian way to the presence of foreign flags on islands that are so much nearer to their coasts than the Falklands are to the nearest point in Continental Argentina.

The clue to this psychological puzzle may lie in a difference of psychological atmosphere which struck me when I passed into Argentina out of Brazil. These two Latin American peoples take their nationalism in a very different spirit from each other. Nationalism is, of course, an ideology that is to be found in every one of the 125 sovereign independent local states on the face of this planet, but the local strength of nationalism varies greatly from country to country, and, on this point, the contrast is particularly piquant as between the two biggest countries in Latin America. The Brazilians’ nationalism is ironic and light-hearted; the Argentinians’ nationalism is romantic and intense. What is the origin of this difference of emotional attitude? In part, maybe, it goes back to some difference between the Castilian and the Portuguese tradition, but I believe the main cause is the difference in the circumstances in which these two American countries parted company politically with their parent countries in Europe.

The Brazilians are fortunate in having parted company with Portugal peacefully. Actually, it was Portugal that had to disentangle herself from Brazil, not Brazil from Portugal; and Brazil let Portugal secede without bloodshed. Consequently it would be difficult, either in Portugal or in Brazil, to manufacture hero-liberators and to pose them on horseback in bronze, dressed in the uniforms of early-nineteenth-century general officers. Unfortunately for Argentina and for Spain, their parting, like the parting between the United States and Britain, cost a war; and the Argentine war of liberation has left an abiding mark on the Argentinian people’s national consciousness and national feeling. Look at the battle-pictures in the national museum at Buenos Aires; visit the shrine of San Martín in Buenos Aires cathedral, and the other shrine that has been made out of the house in Tucuman in which the first Argentinian national assembly promulgated its declaration of independence. Then you will begin to understand the intensity of Argentine feelings about the Malvinas, as the contested islands are called in Argentine parlance.

Brazil has no Bolívar, Santander, O’Higgins, San Martín or Sucre.

When Napoleon’s forces invaded Portugal in 1807, Queen Maria fled to Brazil with her family. The Viceroy, the Count of Arcos, died soon after her arrival. Her heir João succeeded him. In 1815 Brazil was elevated from a Viceroyalty to a Kingdom: part of a United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and Algarve. Maria was then Queen of Brazil, but João acted as her regent. She died in Rio in 1816. João succeeded her as João VI. He returned to Portugal in 1821, leaving his son Pedro behind as regent of Brazil. The young Pedro acceded to popular nationalist sentiment and in 1822 proclaimed Brazil’s independence – as an Empire. João VI continued to rule in Portugal and did not retaliate. Pedro, and then his son Pedro II, ruled as Bragança Emperors until Brazil became a republic in 1889.

Not only was Portugal’s withdrawal from Brazil peaceful, but the revolution of 1889 was bloodless. In fact, many Brazilians date the birth of their nation from neither of these events, but from the (peaceful, and very late) abolition of slavery there in 1888.

Every Argentinian feels genuine pain at the thought that the British flag flies over the islands. Few people in Britain would feel any comparable pain if the Argentine flag were to fly there instead. On the principle of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”, this is an argument for a transfer of the sovereignty over the islands. There is, however, a small number of people whose happiness is at stake to a far higher degree than the happiness of the inhabitants of the Argentine mainland and Britain. These are the actual inhabitants of the islands. If the islands do change hands, this will make no difference to the personal lives of either the people of Argentina or the people of Britain. On the other hand, the personal lives of the islanders will be deeply affected. This is the human aspect of the Falklands, alias Malvinas, question; and both the Argentine and the British people owe it to the islanders, as their fellow human beings, to make sure that the islanders do not suffer as a result of any change of sovereignty. This should not be difficult; there are only about 2,000 islanders; and there are a number of alternative options that could be offered to them. But their human rights must be secured, and this is a condition to which any settlement of the political question must be subject.

Between Maule and Amazon, OUP, 1967

3 Responses to “The raid of the Condors”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    It isn’t true to say that Brazilian independence was won entirely without bloodshed:

  2. […] says in Between Maule and Amazon that he was in Córdoba on September 28 1966 when (not his words) […]

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