The Beagle, Two Dictatorships In A Sea Of Disputes Which The Pope Resolved

By Dialogo
December 04, 2008

Fuencis Rausell / EFE Thirty years ago, the military governments of Chile and Argentina were on the brink of military confrontation for the sovereignty of some islands in the Beagle Channel, which only the mediation of Pope John Paul II managed to contain. The presidents of Chile, Michelle Bachelet and Argentina, Cristina Fernandez will meet on Dec. 4-5 near the Strait of Magellan, 2,400 miles from Santiago, to put the first stone of a monument in honor of the Pope. The Beagle Channel, which takes its name from the brig that sailed who discovered it in 1830, stretches over 280 kilometers crossed by islands and continental land that stand in an icy horizon of water and ice. Its strategic location between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans began icy relations between Chile and Argentina throughout the twentieth century, but was a late'70s when the two countries ruled by dictatorships, were about to measure their strength . The Boundary Treaty of 1881 gave the Picton, Nueva and Lennox islands to Chile, but tensions began in 1888, when the first map of Argentina was published in which the disputed islands appear under Argentine sovereignty. Since the beginning of the twentieth century mediation was raised for by various parties, including the British Crown (1915) and the Office of the United States (1938), but an agreement was not reached until 1960 when it required arbitration from the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Meanwhile, improvements in navigation enabled both countries to explore this inhospitable area, unpopulated until Chile founded in 1953, in Navarino Island, Puerto Williams, the world's southernmost town, where about 2,000 people resist maximum temperatures of seven degrees in the summer. That process still wasn’t enough and in 1970 both countries agreed to tackle their differences in the UK through a court composed of seven international experts, who seven years later, issued the Arbitral Award, based on the Treaty of Limits of 1881. That ruling gave Chile the islands Picton, Nueva, Lennox and Snipe, gave Argentina the islands Bécasse and Gable, established in the canal a division allowing both countries free navigation to its ports and set a maritime boundary equidistant to Chilean and Argentine coasts. Chile accepted the award, but Argentina declared it " insanely null " and intensified military pressure on its neighbor and diplomatic support from Peru and Bolivia, countries which had to cede part of its territory to Chile after the Pacific War (1879 -- 1884) and to this day, are still seeking to revise those boundaries. Argentina had already rejected the mediation of King Juan Carlos of Spain, a country which was then coming out of the shadows of the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975), and the Organization of American States (OAS), then considered within the scope of influence of the United States, which had supported the Pinochet coup in Chile. The Argentine military regime (1976-1983) then planned the so-called Operation Sovereignty, which was to carried out during the night of 21 to Dec. 22, 1978, in order to occupy the islands awarded to Chile, but the papal mediation succeeded aborting a few hours before the clash of the two countries. The Pope's intervention was led by Italian Cardinal Antonio Samore, whose work was not a bed of roses. In 1979 he signed the Act of Montevideo, but in 1981, Argentina closed all border crossings with Chile, a step that is usually considered preamble to war, while the Pinochet regime was facing the first effects of the economic crisis which carried over through the following year and would lead to massive protests against him. The Falklands War, which between April and June 1982, Argentina fought with the UK, left the Argentine armed forces decomposed and the country prepared to venture into democracy, what took place in 1983. The dissent came in 1984 with the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two countries, which gave all the islands south of the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego to Chile and the islands of the north side of the canal to Argentina, who renounced its aspirations in the Strait of Magellan.