The thirtieth anniversary of the beginning of the Malvinas/Falklands War was last month, and there were a slew of stories about the Islands and Argentina in 1982 and today that accompanied that anniversary. And while most general narratives/discussions of the war have focused strictly on the Argentine-English dynamics (something for which I’m as guilty as any others), it’s important to remember that the war took place in and was shaped by the particular geopolitical context of the late-Cold War era. A recent reminder of that fact became apparent in new documents recently uncovered that revealed Brazil’s involvement with the war.
In April 1982, Argentina attempted to seize the islands, which it claimed rightfully belonged to it, suspecting that England would not interfere. However, conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was facing political opposition at home, decided to use the invasion to drum up nationalism and reduce domestic criticisms of her government. Argentina had not expected such a swift response from England, nor had it expected Reagan to take sides in the dispute. Given that both England and Argentina were allies in the US’s global ideological struggle against leftism in the world, Argentina (erroneously) imagined the US would stay out of a dispute between two allies. When it became clear that that would not be the case and that England would not take the seizure lightly, the Argentine military regime found itself in a diplomatic and geopolitical situation it had not planned for.
It was into this context that the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Brazil entered into the equation. While both Argentina and England used the war to try to drum up nationalist support and reduce criticisms of the military regime and Thatcher government, respectively, they were not the only ones who saw the war as serving national and global geopolitical interests. With the US supporting England, the Soviet Union saw an opportunity. Throughout the Cold War, both the USSR and the US had supported causes that represented their interests and fought against groups representing the other’s interests (though it should be stressed that this was not a case of these countries serving as “pawns” for the super-powers; Latin America alone is rife with examples of countries and factions using these struggles for their own political and economic interests, and having Cold War politics really just be a peripheral part of domestic struggles between different social and political groups). Continuing this practice, the USSR saw an opportunity to supply Argentina with materiel against England, whom the US supported. Thus it was that, in a particularly ironic twist, the Soviet Union sent weapons and other goods to Cuba to transfer them to the fiercely-anti-Communist Argentine military government, a government that over the previous five years had murdered tens of thousands of “subversives” and tortured tens of thousands more.
Brazil, which by this point was in the final years of its own anti-leftist military regime (the final military leader left office in 1985), had officially remained neutral in the Malvinas/Falklands War. However, clandestinely, new documents reveal that Brazil had played a role in the war after all. The Brazilian and Argentine military regimes had collaborated via Operation Condor, and were sometimes-allies in the continental fight of authoritarian regimes against anything that smelled of “leftism.” Additionally, trade relations between the two countries were important, so while Brazil may have maintained an official stance of neutrality in the Malvinas/Falklands War, it did have its own regional diplomatic interests to protect.
And that is where its clandestine support comes into play. With no easy way to get weapons directly from the Soviet Union to Argentina without attracting a lot of attention, the USSR ended up receiving aid from Peru, Cuba, and Angola to ship weapons. In yet another twist of irony, the right-wing Brazilian dictatorship allowed these countries to use the cities of Recife in the northeastern Brazil and Rio de Janeiro in southeastern Brazil to serve as “land bridges” to Argentina. Thus it was, that, while officially neutral, a right-wing bureaucratic authoritarian regime allowed Soviet weapons to pass through Brazil on their way towards another fiercely right-wing authoritarian regime.
Ultimately, of course, Argentina handily lost the war; indeed, the defeat was so total that it completely discredited the military, which by 1983 had fallen and been replaced by Raul Alfonsin’s civilian government, which opened investigations into and prosecutions of military leaders for torture and “disappearances.” To the day, diplomatic tensions over the Malvinas/Falklands continue, as do prosecutions of Argentine military officials and torturers.
However, Brazil’s clandestine involvement in the Malvinas/Falklands War is important in helping us understand the war itself and the Cold War more generally in a number of ways. First of all, as mentioned above, the “Cold War” was not some simple chess game with the US and USSR using other countries as “pawns” in a global game; local, domestic, and regional politics could and did play a very direct role in individual countries’ decision-making processes in the global context. In other words, the war (and other wars, be they “direct” as in Vietnam or Afghanistan, or “indirect” as in Nicaragua or the Congo) meant one thing from the US’s or USSR’s vision of a global ideological and political struggle, but that did not mean local politics and the national interests of other countries were absent from the scene. Brazil’s role in the USSR’s aid to Argentina only reinforces that fact; if one were to look at the Cold War in a strictly-ideological US/USSR struggle, Argentina’s right-wing anti-communist government accepting weapons from the socialist USSR via aid from Brazil’s right-wing government would make no sense. It’s only by moving beyond simple ideological narratives to consider domestic politics and societies and regional struggles that were not so strictly dogmatic do the complexities of the Malvinas/Falklands War specifically, and the geopolitics of the Cold War more generally, become fully apparent.