Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Saturday, 3 April 2010 12:18 UK

Scrap dealer who accidentally set off the Falklands War

Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Buenos Aires

While Britain has been involved in a number of conflicts since the Falklands War 28 years ago, it remains Argentina's only war in more than 100 years. Its defeat - and the issue of the island's sovereignty - continues to dominate on both a national and a personal level.

Constantino Davidoff
A war could have been avoided
Constantino Davidoff, scrap dealer

Constantino Davidoff played a small but significant role in a small but significant war.

At the end of March 1982, a party of Argentine scrap metal merchants landed on the distant and inhospitable South Georgia island - 900km (600 miles) east of the Falkland Islands.

He was the owner of a company contracted to dismantle a whaling station on the British-owned island.

It was a simple business deal that promised to make him a lot of money - but ended up provoking a war and ruining his life.

I meet Mr Davidoff at his small, neat apartment in the working class Avellaneda neighbourhood, just south of Buenos Aires.

He still deals in scrap metal from a garage below his home. He is in his late 60s now, wearing a cream-coloured safari suit and dangling a large gold cross around his neck.

His walls are covered in maps of the South Atlantic and framed letters of thanks from Argentine veterans' groups he has spoken to about his experience.

"I lost everything - my house, my planes, my boats, my company and eventually, my family. I simply couldn't defend my interests after the war. I was very sick," Mr Davidoff tells me.

Military invasion

He has been trying to sue the British government for $200m (£132m), but the Argentine courts, he explains, are slow and only told him a couple of years ago that he would have to pursue his claim through the international courts.

He told me he had done everything he could to avoid problems with the British authorities.

Map showing the Falkland Islands and South Georgia island

At the end of 1981, he visited the British ambassador in Buenos Aires, spoke to the Falkland Island authorities, signed a deal worth $270,000 (£180,000) with the Scottish owners of the derelict whaling station and then went back to the British ambassador to ask if there was anything else he might need to do.

His claims are confirmed by the 1983 Franks Committee report carried out by the British authorities into the events leading up to the conflict.

But some in London thought the scrap metal workers were the advance party of an invasion of South Georgia island, by the then ruthless Argentine military government.

It was reported that they had planted the Argentine flag and were singing their national anthem.

British Royal Marines were despatched from the Falkland Islands to find out.

The 39 scrap metal workers were detained. Argentina sent its troops to rescue them and, while they were about it, invaded the Falkland Islands.

War declared

Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister at the time, had no hesitation in dispatching a task force to the South Atlantic, and the two previously friendly countries fought a war in which more than 900 people died before Argentina surrendered on 14 June.

Britain won the military battle but is losing the diplomatic war... When the truth is known, then we'll have justice
Constantino Davidoff

"There were no military among my workers. And they didn't sing the national anthem or plant a flag. This was a business deal. I'd have been crazy to ruin it. All it needed was a phone call from the British embassy and I would have withdrawn my workers. I'd have cancelled the contract," Mr Davidoff says. "A war could have been avoided."

Mr Davidoff insists that Britain started the war by sending a military contingent to deal with a civilian matter.

He says though, that, despite his legal claim, he doesn't bear any ill-will towards the British people.

But like every Argentine I've met in the more than four years that I've lived here, and the 20 or so that I've been visiting, he firmly believes that "Las Malvinas son Argentinas" - the Malvinas are Argentine.

Constant theme

Britain is now drilling for oil in the waters near the islands. But it is not the oil or the fishing rights that upset most Argentines - it is a somewhat idealistic sense of justice.

Argentina has been claiming the Falkland islands, or Las Islas Malvinas as they call them, since 1833.

Ice-cream parlour in Argentina with the name Las Malvinas meaning Falkland Islands
More than 700 Argentines were killed fighting for Las Malvinas - the Falklands

They are marked as Argentine territory in every school atlas. Streets and ice-cream parlours are named after them and there are monuments to the fallen all over the country. For Argentina, it is a constant theme.

For most in Britain, the Falklands War is an historical footnote. And London will not negotiate while the 2,000 or so islanders say they want to remain British.

"Britain won the military battle but is losing the diplomatic war," explains Mr Davidoff.

In February, Latin American and Caribbean nations voted unanimously to back Argentina's claim, while Buenos Aires has renewed its complaint to the United Nations.

The scrap metal merchant believes that in his lifetime, he will see Argentina's sky-blue and white flag flying over the islands, perhaps in a power-sharing deal with Britain.

"Argentina has so much to give the islands. The war didn't end when the white flag went up," says Constantino Davidoff, leafing through the documents on his dining room table. "I believe in truth and justice. When the truth is known, then we'll have justice."

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Story by story at the programme website

Country profile: Argentina
29 May 12 |  Country profiles
Regions and territories: Falkland Islands
12 Jun 12 |  Country profiles
Argentina steps up Falklands row
17 Feb 10 |  Americas
Q&A: The Franks Report
27 Apr 04 |  BBC Parliament

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