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Argentina cruise ships caught in diplomatic storm

By Robin Oakley, For CNN
updated 10:21 AM EST, Thu March 1, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Argentina bars entry to two Bermuda-flagged ships after they visit Falklands
  • CNN's Robin Oakley aboard the 750-passenger Adonia on 87-day journey around South America
  • Territorial dispute between Britain and Argentina over control of Falklands intensifying in recent months

(CNN) -- You don't expect while lecturing about politics on a ship to become a political pawn in a two hundred year-old territorial dispute, but that is what has happened to me and several thousand other passengers who cruised into the middle of the renewed spat between Britain and Argentina over who should control the Falkland Islands.

This week two cruise liners flying British colony flags -- the 750-passenger Adonia and 2,600 passenger Star Princess -- were denied permission to dock in the Argentinean port of Ushuia because the ships had previously called in at Stanley in the Falkland Islands.

Both vessels had visited Port Stanley in the Falklands on Saturday, February 25 as part of their widely advertised and published schedules. The Adonia left the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires late at night on February 20, later than was intended as the result of what was explained as industrial action by tugmen.

Prince William posted to Falkland Islands

I joined the Adonia at the Rio de la Plata terminal in Buenos Aires with an almost total absence of customs and immigration formalities. I'd flown into town the day before without incident, so there was no advance warning of any potential threat or the action to come.

We were due to proceed from Port Stanley in the Falklands to the world's southernmost city, the Argentine port of Ushuaia, on February 27, having passed Cape Horn on the way. But early that morning, at around 6:00 a.m., the Adonia's commanding office Captain David Perkins announced to passengers that he and the Chilean pilots already on board the vessel to help chart it through the Tierra del Fuego archipelago had been informed that the mayor of Ushuaia was refusing to allow the Adonia into port. We would therefore be carrying on earlier than had been intended to the Chilean port of Punta Arenas.

The explanation given from Ushuaia was that the ban was being imposed because the Adonia had previously called at the Falklands, which Argentina refers to as Las Malvinas. No advance warning had been given that such action would be taken if the Adonia did call at the Falklands, as around 20 cruise ships a month do in this summer season in the southern hemisphere.

The vast majority of the passengers on the Adonia are British. The Adonia left Southampton on January 13 on an 87-day journey around South America. It was only after the vessel left Southampton that the latest Anglo-Argentinean spat over the Falklands hotted up with news that the Duke of Cambridge -- or Flight Lieutenant Wales as he is known in his role as a Royal Air Force helicopter pilot -- was undertaking a six-week tour of duty in the Falklands on what the Ministry of Defence insists is a routine deployment.

This triggered protests from the Argentine government, as did the news that Britain was dispatching to the South Atlantic HMS Dauntless, a Type 45 destroyer, which is its most sophisticated warship armed with missiles which could if required take out much of the Argentinean air force. Argentina has protested at what it calls a militarization of the area.

It has to be said that the mayor of Ushuaia's action, which would have cost his city dearly as the spending power of some 3,000 cruise passengers on the two ships was not unleashed, has been taken phlegmatically by the Adonia's passengers. The only thing that people had to check themselves from saying was "Oh well, it isn't the end of the world" because it is precisely that which Ushuaia advertises itself as being. Many passengers were looking forward to acquiring souvenirs which proclaimed that that was where they had been.

Cruise ship passengers with any company are accustomed to schedules being changed at short notice, whether it is as a result of storms, fogs, strikes or political events. On the current voyage the Adonia had to spend an extra day in Barbados to await delayed supplies and it missed one scheduled call in Brazil because of a local police strike which might have made it risky for passengers to go ashore.

From the explanation given by Argentine embassy personnel in some countries it seems that the mayor of Ushuaia may have somewhat over-interpreted his brief. The Argentine government, they confirmed, had banned the refuelling and bunkering in Argentine ports of oil exploration vessels and other commercial shipping which has previously visited the Falklands.

According to those embassy sources there was allegedly no ban affecting individuals who had been to the Falklands visiting Argentina, but that rather begs the question of how the individuals would get to and from Port Stanley. Precious few of us can walk on water.

Argentina's Peronist President Christina Kirchner has been largely responsible for raising the temperature over the Falklands as the 30th anniversary of the successful war undertaken by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government to regain the islands after the invasion by Argentina's military junta approaches.

Voted back into office with 54% support only three months ago, President Kirchner dismisses Britain as "a coarse and decadent colonial power" and is appealing to other South American countries to join her in isolating the Falklands while they remain under British control.

Her latest action, now supplemented by calls for a boycott of British goods by Argentineans, will raise an intriguing dilemma for tour companies. A visit to the Falklands is one of the biggest draws for Britons booking cruises around South America. But if a call at Port Stanley is going to lead to the cruise ships being banned from Argentinean ports, and perhaps eventually ports in other South American countries, how long will they keep Port Stanley on their itineraries?

Intriguingly, as I was wandering around Buenos Aires the other day I came across the memorial to the Argentineans who lost their lives in what they call the Malvinas War. In English a tour guide was giving his version of the events 30 years ago.

"The generals were in charge here," he said, "and they told us that we were a strong and well-armed nation. They lied to us. We weren't. The British had a lot more practice than us at fighting wars—and we lost."

The Falklands, he said, belonged to Argentina "geographically," an argument I suppose which could be used to claim that Cuba "belonged" to the United States.

So what about the Falklanders themselves, said one of his listeners, wasn't it up to them to decide who they wanted to belong to? That didn't appeal to the guide. "Ah well," he replied, "if you had a choice between voting to be rich and voting to be poor, which way would you vote?"

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