Falkland Islanders vote with an eye on Argentina

Britain is hoping this weekend's referendum on the political status of the Falkland Islands will push the United States and other neutral governments off the fence in its territorial dispute with Argentina over the remote South Atlantic archipelago.

The local Falkland Islands Government has mobilized a major effort to get as many of its 1,650 registered voters as possible to cast their secret ballots Sunday and Monday, preparing to send off-road vehicles, boats and seaplanes to remote sheep farms across the lightly populated islands.

Elections observers from Canada, Mexico, the U.S., Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile and New Zealand also will be watching as islanders answer a simple yes-or-no question: "Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?"

Islanders expect the answer to be overwhelmingly in favor of British governance and protection, a result they hope will put their own self-determination at the center of any debate about their future in the face of Argentine claims to the islands. Britain wants the U.S. in particular to recognize the islanders' rights, but Secretary of State John Kerry refused to budge during his recent visit to London.

"I'm not going to comment, nor is the president, on a referendum that has yet to take place," Kerry said, punting the question until after the results are announced Monday night. "Our position on the Falklands has not changed. The United States recognizes de facto U.K. administration of the islands, but takes no position on the question of the parties' sovereignty claims."

"Sovereignty" is a term that focuses on a territory more than its people, and it's the word Argentina often invokes while asserting its claim to the islands. Late Friday, Argentina's foreign ministry repeated its assertion that the islanders are an "implanted" people and that U.N. resolutions require Britain to resolve the dispute bilaterally, "taking into account the `interests' (not the `desires') of the inhabitants of the islands."

Britain prefers to refer to "self-determination," which focuses more on the people than the land they live on.

The U.S. strongly endorsed self-determination for the people of South Sudan ahead of their 2011 referendum, which showed 99 percent wanted independence from their northern neighbor. President Barack Obama said during the Arab Spring uprisings that "the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination" for people in Egypt and Tunisia. The Palestinians and the Puerto Ricans have gained similar support for self-determination rights, and Obama even came out in favor of a UN declaration supporting self-determination for Native Americans.

The Obama administration also has expressed support for letting Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, determine their territory's relationship to the U.S., though the result of a referendum on the question last year was ambiguous.

But when it comes to the Falklands, which Argentines claim Britain stole from them nearly two centuries ago, and which the two nations fought a war over in 1982, Washington has always tried to take no side. US policy casts it more as a dispute over a territory than a population. This is why the referendum poses a potential dilemma for the U.S., diplomats and political scientists say.

"What we hope is that an act of self-determination in a free society, where people are able to vote as they did in Puerto Rico, is not something that anybody can dismiss or ignore," Britain's ambassador to Chile, Jon Benjamin, told The Associated Press. "It's a self-evident reflection of the will of the people. And that will be the case shortly in the Falkland Islands too. The people there have the right to choose how they are governed and under whose sovereignty."

Mark Jones, a Latin American politics expert at Rice University in Texas, called the U.S. position "tortured" and difficult to maintain.

"It's hypocritical for the U.S. to deny the right of the Falkland Islanders to self-determination, while at the same time supporting that same right for a host of other groups throughout the globe. The referendum's clear-cut outcome makes the U.S. position increasingly untenable and difficult to justify," Jones said.

The Falkland Islands Government is a direct democracy and largely self-governing, although Britain handles its defense and foreign affairs, and the queen's representative has veto power over its decisions. So far, islanders have decided to keep their permanent population very small, making it very hard to obtain formal "islander status."

Excluding the British military and civilian contractors, the islands' population was 2,563 in last year's census, and only 1,973 of them had islander status. The referendum rules exclude anyone who lacks a British passport and hasn't lived in the islands for the last 12 months.

It boils down to 1,650 voting adults, a tiny electorate and one in which the voters all know each other - and their parents and grandparents, some going back nine generations - very well. There were no polls before the vote, but islanders interviewed by the AP predicted that nearly everyone would vote to keep things as they are.

Immediately following the vote, Falkland Islands lawmakers Sharon Halford and Mike Summers planned to arrive in Washington to lobby administration officials and members of Congress.

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Associated Press writers Michael Warren in Buenos Aires and Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington contributed to this report.

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Michael Warren on Twitter: (at)mwarrenap

Luis Alonso Lugo on Twitter: (at)luisalonsolugo