Landlocked Bolivia’s Symbolic Step Seaward

A Matter of National Pride

On October 19th, Peruvian President Alan García and Bolivian President Evo Morales signed an accord granting Bolivia access to a small stretch of coastline in southern Peru. The deal confirms the “Bolivamar” agreement initially signed in 1992, allowing Bolivia a 99-year lease of the port of Ilo. Consequently, Bolivia will have access to the Pacific Ocean for the first time since it lost its entire coastal region to Chile in the “War of the Pacific” over a century ago.

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 “Bolivamar” agreement also carries with it a number of potential effects on bilateral relations in the region. Since the “War of the Pacific”, Bolivia and Peru have considered themselves close allies, but in recent years their relationship has become increasingly hostile. According to a July 2009 report by the London-based Bolivia Information Forum (BIF), recent tension between the two Andean nations is due largely to their ideologically divergent standpoints: “whilst in Bolivia since 2006 there has been a reaction against neo-liberal orthodoxy, this has not been the case in Peru [which] under García has sought to attract foreign investment by whatever means possible.”2 Relations between Presidents Morales and García had deteriorated to the extent that at one stage the countries withdrew their respective ambassadors. This context makes the recent public display of solidarity all the more unexpected. The deal may very well signal the beginning of a thaw in the recent antagonism between the otherwise historically allied neighbours. Indeed, President García echoed Morales in claiming that “it is unjust that Bolivia has no sovereign outlet to the ocean.”3

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

Other than a brief hiatus between 1975 and 1978, Bolivia and Chile have had no formal diplomatic relations since 1964. An end to the standoff between Santiago and La Paz seemed increasingly likely following meetings between then-President Michelle Bachelet and President Morales in 2006. A 13-point plan was drawn up at the time to pave the way to an improved relationship. One of the points included was a commitment to open dialogue regarding Bolivia’s demand for a sovereign piece of coastline. However, Chile’s recently inaugurated President, Sebastián Piñera, has been adamant that he is not willing to even discuss the issue of access to the sea with Bolivia. Furthermore, Santiago has been critical of the “Bolivamar” deal, suggesting that Peru’s involvement in the coastline dispute constitutes a wedge in Chile’s own relations with Bolivia.

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

The “Bolivamar” agreement is hugely symbolic for the Bolivian populous, and a veritable coup for President Morales, who has (at least partially) succeeded where his predecessors failed. Morales and García commendably managed to transcend their deep ideological differences in order to forge an agreement. The Bolivian President has even expressed a desire to spend his honeymoon in Ilo should he ever get married.7 However, “Bolivamar” remains limited in that it is a loan agreement for a finite number of years, and relates only to a small port within Peru. The deal is therefore still a far cry from the sovereign access that Bolivia has historically demanded.

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.

References for this article are available here