Falklanders prepare for referendum vote

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News

media captionFalklands resident Kevin Kilmartin explains why he thinks the referendum is important

The windswept shores of the Falklands Islands may lie more than 6,000 miles from the UK, but they remain more British than the British.

Visitors on the cruise ships that dock here are greeted by scarlet-red pillar-boxes, and even a roof bearing the red, white and blue union flag.

Tourists are a vital part of the economy, as they come ashore to places like Bluff Cove lagoon to watch the Gentoo and King penguins, and enjoy a proper Falklands cream tea.

But Argentina has threatened cruise companies that dock here, as well as banning Falklands-registered ships from her ports, all measures which have affected businesses such as that of Kevin Kilmartin, who runs the penguin tours at Bluff Cove.

"Several cruise lines have refused to come here, as they don't want their passengers detained and harassed when they get to Argentinean ports, as has happened, and all the other nonsense that's going on. The Argentines are positively harming us and are continuing to do so," he says.

"They invaded us 30 years ago, and before that they were quite difficult, and we're too far away from the UK for the British to really know what it's like to have this daily nonsense flowing from Argentina towards us."

Worry and irritation

Many visitors, amongst them British veterans and their families, also come to pay their respects at the graves of some of the 255 British servicemen who gave their lives in 1982, defending the islanders' right to stay British.

There is a sense of worry and irritation, more than 30 years after the end of the war with Argentina, that the government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Buenos Aires is still laying claim to the Falklands.

image captionSome 255 British servicemen died in the Falklands War

The islanders are keen to send out a clear signal to Argentina and the rest of the world with their referendum this weekend, not least after Argentina's foreign minister recently declared that their voices didn't count, as the islanders were "British implants".

"We need to let Argentina know that none of us want to be Argentine, and we want to stay British," insists Charlene Rowland, as she guides a visitor around the immaculately-tended Blue Beach British military cemetery in San Carlos.

"There were too many lives lost here. We still appreciate what the British government did at that time and all the military that came down here to help us. It's a bit worrying that the UK are cutting the armed forces right down, but hopefully we'll be fine if it ever kicks off again.

"Which I hope it won't, as there's no money on the other side to do it."

'Proud to be British'

The referendum this Sunday and Monday asks the 1,672 eligible voters to say yes or no to the question of whether they want to remain a British Overseas Territory.

Despite the small numbers due to vote, several nations have sent official referendum observers, while more than 60 journalists from countries as far away as Japan and Sweden are arriving to report on the referendum.

image captionMany visit the islands to see the penguins

Inside the museum and shop at Bluff Cove, it is said that just a few days ago, one cruise ship faced demonstrations when it arrived in port in Argentina after stopping in the Falklands. All this has made Hattie Kilmartin, Kevin's wife, even more determined to vote.

"I think really, we want to get the Falkland Island people's voice out there in the whole wide world, because that's something Argentina don't want us to have. I hope just that we'll get more support, especially in America, in getting people to understand this is really truly how we feel and how we want to live our lives. We are British, and proud to be British."

It's clear the majority in this weekend's referendum will vote yes to remaining a British Overseas Territory. So why hold a referendum at all? The governor of the Falkland Islands, British diplomat Nigel Haywood, explains that the UK is supportive of the referendum, while taking a hands-off approach.

"It's not a referendum so the Falkland Islanders know what they think - it's pretty clear what they think. But there are parts of the world that have been subject to Argentine propaganda, if you like, who just don't know what the situation is like here," he says.

"This will give them a very clear answer, so they understand this is the islanders exercising their right to self-determination, and that this is what they decided."

'Thankful for support'

In the Argentine war cemetery not far from Goose Green, the rosaries wrapped around the crosses blow restlessly in the wind. Many of the young conscripts' graves are without names, marked "known only to God".

image captionOne Argentinean historian says the Falklands issue is used by the governments on both sides

Argentinian historian Federico Lorenz is visiting the Falklands - or what he calls Las Malvinas - to do more research about the 1982 war. He believes the tussle over the islands between the UK and Argentina today suits politicians on both sides.

"Both governments use the Malvinas/Falklands issue. It is not a coincidence that at a time in which economic crisis is reaching Europe and Latin America, the UK backs a referendum and at the same time in Argentina, we raise the flag of the islands that we haven't raised in years," he says.

At Bittersweet, the newest café and chocolate shop in Port Stanley, customers are already wearing their "Keep the Falklands British" T-shirts as they prepare to vote.

Across the road, at Karma hairdressing and beauty salon, 21-year-old Pam Davino and her business partner April have shown their own faith in the future of the Falklands by setting up the salon.

"The referendum is good to let the world know and Argentina know that as Falkland Islanders, we chose to be British, and we always want to be British," says Pam.

"We want to make clear that nobody is forcing us to make that decision - it is our choice. And hopefully, that will get Argentina to back off and stop giving us so much hassle, and let Britain know we want to be British - and that we're thankful for all their support."

image captionThe Falkland Islands and South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands are British Overseas Territories

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