The Malvinas, mostly known in America by their British name the Falkland Islands, were the point of contention in the war betwee Argentina and Britain in 1982, known as the Falklands War in the US and Britain, as la Guerra de las Malvinas in the Spanish-speaking world.
Argentine President Fernández and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
To Britain, the Malvinas are officially known as the Colony of the Falkland Islands. Argentina claimed sovereignty over the islands in 1816, after Argentina had declared its independence of the Spanish Empire. In one of the long list of grievances Latin America has accumulated against the US, a US warship during the Jackson administration basically took over the island and then later allowed Britain to take it.
The 1982 war is an illustration of how complicated the politics of war can be, and how any war can unleash major consequences contrary to the intentions of its initiators. The brutal military junta that ruled Argentina during what they called "El Proceso" from 1975-1983 initiated the war by reoccupying the islands in April of that year. The junta at that time was led by Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher undertook the "liberation" of the islands, which was completed by the end of the month.
Galtieri's government had hoped to boost its popularity by rallying the public around what was and is considered a patriotic and just cause by Argentinians across the political spectrum, the re-establishment of sovereignty over the Malvinas. Like with virtually all wars, this one was popular at first. But the swift defeat of the junta's forces by Britain was experienced as a national humiliation by the public. And public anger over the junta's failure in that war was the final political blow to the junta, whose practice of state terror with kidnappings, torture and murder had already made it generally hated. They agreed to hold election in 1983, and Argentina has been a democracy ever since.
Their experience has special relevance to the current situation of the United States, in that crimes of torture and murder committed under official cover by the junta are still being prosecuted in Argentina. The leaders of the junta itself were tried and convicted for their criminal actions.
The Reagan administration backed Britain in the war in 1982. But it represented an embarrassing setback for the Reagan policies in Latin America. The preceding Carter administration had promoted a "human rights" policy that was primarily directed against the Soviet bloc as part of the Cold War, but which they also applied in a serious way to encourage a democratic evolution in Latin America, which was at the time largely under the rule of repressive, undemocratic regimes of various sorts. The US under both the Johnson and Nixon administration had encouraged repressive governments in fear of the spread of Communism, with the Cuban example constantly haunting them. Two of the most notorious incidents had been US intervention in the Dominican Republic against an elected regime in 1965 and CIA support of the military coup against Salvador Allende's Popular Front government in Chile in 1973.
The Carter administration had publicly criticized Argentina's human rights record under El Proceso. Reagan had opposed Carter's human rights policies, preferring the Republican Cold War boilerplate in which human rights criticisms would be directed solely against the Soviet Union and its allies, while repressive regimes that were adequately anti-Communist were embraced and even preferred to less tractable democratic ones in Latin America.
The Argentine junta was a particular favorite of the incoming Reagan administration, in no small part because it had been a target of criticism by his predecessor. Reagan was also focused on combating the revolutionary government in Nicaragua and what it saw as a terribly threatening guerrilla movement in El Salvador, and he had turned over Central American policy to neoconservatives, who made it their playground - and in many ways a template for the Cheney foreign policy of 2001-9. Argentina became a key player in supplying and training the Contras rebels that the CIA was running from Honduras against the Nicaraguan regime. A delegation from Argentina was the first formal foreign delegation Reagan entertained in Washington after he became President. Reagan's embrace of their regime led the junta to believe that Washington would at least refrain from opposing their action in the Malvinas.
But Britain was also not only a long-time ally of the US but also a favorite of the Reagan administration for Thatcher's hardline foreign policy toward the Soviets. So when Argentina seized the Malvinas, the administration backed the British position. Not without some internal dissent. Neocon star and UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick had favored backing the junta in the conflict.
The upshot of the war was the junta fell, depriving the Reagan administration of one of its favorite allied regimes. In Argentina and all of Latin America, the US enthusiastic endorsement of the British position on the Malvinas generated resentment. And for Argentinians, the Reagan administration had not only given unnecessary prestige to the brutal junta by embracing them diplomatically but had also opposed them in the one genuinely popular action they had taken: asserting Argentina's patriotic claim to the Malvinas. A heck of diplomatic job on Reagan's part.
The Obama administration so far has an indifferent record in Latin America. On the touchstone issue of the coup in Honduras, he managed to sound his uncertain trumpet on that issue, first seeming to strongly back the return of democracy - the position of virtually all Latin American countries including Argentina - and then equivocating. The uncertain trumpet threatens to become the signature characteristic of his administration. When it comes to the crunch, he just can't seem to stand up to rightwing hardliners. The Honduras election of last November, which Washington recognizes as legitimate, is also a particular diplomatic difference between the US and Argentina, as noted in this article about Clinton's recent trip to Latin America: Clinton Attempts Damage Control by Mario Osava Inter Press Service 03/04/10.
This is the summary of the history of the competing to the islands given in the article, "Falkland Islands", Encyclopædia Britannica 2006:
The French navigator Louis-Antoine de Bougainville founded the islands' first settlement, on East Falkland, in 1764. The British, in 1765, were the first to settle West Falkland, but they were driven off in 1770 by the Spanish, who had bought out the French settlement in about 1767. The British outpost on West Falkland was restored in 1771 after threat of war, but then the British withdrew from the island in 1774 for reasons of economy, without renouncing their claim to the Falklands. Spain maintained a settlement on East Falkland (which it called Soledad Island) until 1811.
In 1820 the Buenos Aires government, which had declared its independence from Spain in 1816, proclaimed its sovereignty over the Falklands. In 1831 the American warship USS Lexington destroyed the Argentine settlement on East Falkland in reprisal for the illegal arrest of three U.S. ships that had been hunting seals in the area. In early 1833 a British force expelled the few remaining Argentine officials from the island without firing a shot. In 1841 a British civilian lieutenant governor was appointed for the Falklands, and by 1885 a British community of some 1,800 people on the islands was self-supporting. Colonial status was granted to the Falklands in 1892. Argentina regularly protested Britain's occupation of the islands.