Landlocked Bolivia's Symbolic Step Seaward
by COHA Research Associate Nicky Pear
A Matter of National Pride
From 1879 to 1884, Bolivia and Peru were embroiled in a military conflict with Chile over the control of territory on South America's western shore. The "War of the Pacific" was fought both on land and at sea, and saw Chile conquer an area of Bolivia known as the litoral or coast. Chile's spoils of war included access to a greatly expanded and mineral-rich, former Bolivian territory. Bolivia, on the other hand, was left landlocked and has remained so to this day. Relations between Chile and Bolivia have been strained ever since, with successive Chilean leaders stubbornly refusing to negotiate on the issue of Bolivia's sovereign access to the sea.
The story of Commander Eduardo Abaroa is today a thing of legend in Bolivia. During the military conflict with Chile, Abaroa cemented himself in Bolivian folklore by replying to an order to surrender: "¿Rendirme yo? ¡Qué se rinda su abuela, carajo!" ("Surrender? Your grandmother should surrender, you bastard!").1 Abaroa's legacy lives on in Bolivia, where the spectre of the "War of the Pacific" looms large in the national conscience. The nationalistic desire to regain access to the Pacific Ocean is expressed every year on March 23rd, when Bolivians celebrate a national Día del Mar (Day of the Sea) during which they demand that Chile return part of Bolivia's stolen coastline.
For a landlocked country, therefore, the sea plays a surprisingly prominent role in Bolivia, and presidents throughout the 20th century have made attempts to work out a deal with Chile in order for La Paz to renew its maritime tradition. In the recent deal, President Morales may have inched closer to this prize than any of his predecessors. Though the agreement only involves a tiny area of coastline, measuring less than 4 sq. km, its significance for Bolivia is great. Access to a port will allow the Bolivian navy to operate in the ocean for the first time in over a hundred years and also provide a valuable trade route for Bolivian exports. Furthermore, deal carries huge symbolic importance, given Bolivia's historical struggle to regain access to the sea.
Bolivia and Peru: Signs of a Thaw?
The Bolivian Minister for Planning and Development, Viviana Caro, has outlined plans for investment in a road from La Paz to the Peruvian city of Tacna, just east of Ilo. The improved access to the ocean will finally allow the Bolivian navy to carry out operations in realistic conditions (its vessels are currently confined to Lake Titicaca, some 3,800m above sea level). Perhaps more importantly, the ability to use the port is also likely to have tangible benefits for the Bolivian economy, given that it will improve trade links with valuable markets. Indeed, according to Caro, having a port on the Pacific coast will cut the distance that goods have to travel from Bolivia to important Asian markets by some 40 percent. Many in Bolivia see the country's previous lack of access to the seas as a contributory factor to its incessant economic woes.
It remains unclear why García has agreed to this deal now, and what he personally stands to gain from doing so. It may be related to his effort to gain Bolivia's support for Peru's own maritime border dispute with Chile, which is currently before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The ongoing case relates to 38,000 sq. km of ocean with valuable fishing grounds, currently claimed by both Peru and Chile.4 Given Chile's refusal to return any territory to Peru or Bolivia, the recent accord between the traditional allies may cast a shadow over Chile's bilateral relations in the region. Despite García's assurances that Peru will "never be a barrier"5 to Bolivia's relationship with Chile, the recent deal may cause further damage to the already fraught relationship between the long-standing adversaries.
Bolivia and Chile: A Continuing Stalemate
Prospects for repossessing any stretch of coastline from Chile remain as distant as ever, and recent indications from Santiago have been ambiguous. Despite Piñera's diplomatic assertion that while "the past has divided us, the future unites us,"6 his refusal to discuss the issue of Bolivian access to the sea is likely to remain a divisive barrier to improved bilateral relations. Barring a dramatic (and highly unlikely) climb-down by one side or the other, it looks as though the legacy of the baleful 19th century maritime dispute will continue to stand in the way of an improved relationship.
A Step in the Right Direction
A statue of Eduardo Abaroa stands in La Paz today, over 3,000m above sea-level, and each year Bolivians come and pay their respects to the legendary naval commander, a symbol of Bolivia's nautical history. Now, for the first time since the "War of the Pacific" deprived Bolivia of its coastline, it will be able to once again establish a presence on the seas. A tiny stretch of sand it may be, but for the Bolivian population, last week's deal represents a significant step towards resurrecting the country's maritime tradition and redressing a deeply felt historical injustice.