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Enigma de la Laguna del Desierto: Una memoria diplomatica (review)
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Hispanic American Historical Review 81.2 (2001) 431-432

Book Review

Enigma de la Laguna del Desierto:
Una memoria diplomática

Enigma de la Laguna del Desierto: Una memoria diplomática. By MARIO VALENZUELA LAFOURCADE. Colección Sin Norte. Santiago: LOM Ediciones, 1999. Maps. Photographs. Appendixes. 255 pp. Paper.

In late 1965, a squad of Chilean carabineros, patrolling near Aysen, stumbled upon a unit of Argentine gendarmes. A firefight ensued in which the Argentines killed a Chilean junior officer while capturing three carabineros. Each side quickly alleged that the other had violated its national territory. The incident proved heaven sent to Argentine and Chilean nationalist extremists who yearned to resolve the outstanding boundary issue on the battlefield not the peace table. Fortunately, Eduardo Frei Montalva and Arturo Illía, presidents of Chile and Argentina respectively, proved less bellicose. Ironically, a few weeks before the Laguna del Desierto incident, the two leaders had met in Mendoza, Argentina, where they agreed that they would resolve peacefully any outstanding border issues. Thus the Laguna incident provided the first test case for arbitration. Outraged chauvinists on both sides of the Andes, however, stridently denounced their respective governments for treating with a traditional enemy intent on violating national sovereignty.

Happily for Chile, the recently elected reformist Frei proved less vulnerable to Chilean jingoes; Illía did not enjoy such good fortune: his earlier attempt to reach some accommodation with the Peronists, including permitting Isabel Peron to visit Argentina, had eroded his regime's legitimacy. The border dispute provided a superb opportunity for the somewhat discredited Argentine armed forces to refurbish their tattered image as the protector of the motherland. Indeed, already displeased with Illía's political appointments, the military adroitly orchestrated a media campaign to humiliate the president and contravene his policies. Eventually, General Onganía used Illía's supposed craven behavior vis-à-vis Santiago, as the excuse to overthrow the Radical president. Happily the turmoil remained confined to Argentina. The more restrained elements managed to calm the rhetoric: Chile and Argentina eventually agreed to resolve the Laguna del Desierto through negotiation.

Throughout the crisis, the author, a career Chilean diplomat serving in Buenos Aires during this incident, consistently tried to convince his government that Argentina, not Chile, had a better claim to the Laguna del Desierto. While doing research in the British archives -- the English had settled the boundary in 1902--Valenzuela discovered maps that plainly demonstrated that the Chileans had violated Argentine territory, not the other way around. This unpleasant truth did not prevent the Chilean diplomats from arguing that their nation owned the disputed territory or the senate from accusing Frei of being a vendepatria.

Since he was serving in the Argentine capital during most of the squabbling, Valenzuela's memoirs argues that many of his Chilean diplomatic colleagues did rise to the occasion. Unfortunately, Valenzuela's recounting of the Laguna del Desierto crisis day-by-day proves extraordinarily tedious. The author could have shortened his account without doing harm to its theme. More analysis and some biographical data might also have increased the book's value. Valenzuela, who does not include a bibliography, often inserts documents without citing their provenance. We have no way, therefore, to determine these sources' objectivity. Readers would also be hard put to find these materials if they wished to build on Valenzuela's study.

Valenzuela's work suffers because it seems to lack direction. Instead, one had to wade through a rambling, and not particularly elegant narrative, which chronicled day-to-day activities, but without referring back to some overarching thesis. The author's style, moreover, is so arid that it verges on being brittle. Diplomatic historians will doubtless find this work useful but it is hard going for all but the most dedicated.

WILLIAM F. SATER, California State University, Long Beach

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