BUENOS AIRES – Fernando Otero is the only Spaniard recognized by Argentina as a veteran of the 1982 war between the South American nation and the United Kingdom for sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, but his case could set a precedent for another 21 forgotten compatriots.
Otero was an engineer on the Usurbil, an Argentine-flagged fishing boat operating in waters of the South Atlantic, when it was “militarized and sent to face the enemy fleet,” he told EFE.
The crew of 27 Argentines and 22 Spaniards was “forced” to carry out intelligence operations for the Argentine navy, and what was going to be the search and rescue of Argentines fallen in combat turned into an espionage operation to detect and report British fleet movements, the veteran recounted.
He still remembers the moments of “panic” when British helicopters flew overhead and the relief of coming away unhurt, unlike other fishing boats like the Narwal that ended up at the bottom of the sea.
Otero kept quiet for 32 years – thinking this was all about a “military secret” – but what a surprise it was after all that time to discover his erstwhile Argentine crewmates acknowledged as war veterans, pensioned and decorated.
That’s when the fight began.
“The only thing I want is to be treated as their equals. If the government sent us into a war together, it’s only logical that we get the same compensation,” he said.
In 2016 he did manage to convince the Argentine government to acknowledge him to be a veteran of the war over the archipelago that Latin Americans know as the Malvinas, and a year later was decorated with medals in a ceremony at the Argentine Embassy in Madrid.
Today his demands go further: to make his Argentine pension retroactive from 1999 and obtain the benefit paid to veterans by Buenos Aires province, where Otero lived for two years.
The Spaniard zealously kept salary deposits, consular certificates and even telephone bills, but they are apparently insufficient to prove his residency in the Argentine town of Ingeniero White.
His struggle could set a precedent for the other 21 Spanish crewmates of the Usurbil, many now deceased or very old, and manage to get all of them accepted and decorated as war veterans.
“Fernando is the tip of the iceberg for resolving the cases of the other 21 Spaniards,” Marcelo Arce, the representative of Otero in Argentina, said in a conversation with EFE.
“For the same risk, the same pay and the same honors,” Arce said about those Spaniards who “risked their lives” for Argentina.
“It’s shameful, several articles of the Geneva Convention have been violated, because (Spain) was a nation declared neutral and those men were practically used as human shields. Twenty-two Spaniards used but not rewarded. What a miserable case,” he said.
This Tuesday, April 2, will mark the 37th year of the landing of Argentine troops in the Falkland Islands.
Full-fledged fighting in the islands, which have been in British hands since 1833, officially began on May 1, 1982, with the arrival of a British task force and ended 45 days later with the surrender of Argentine forces.
The conflict, which was started by Argentina’s military regime, claimed nearly 1,000 lives – some 700 Argentines and 255 British soldiers and sailors.