Columns, Opinion

Worldview: Bolivia’s fight with Chile for access to the sea

In the globalized and interconnected world that we live in, access to the ocean and sealanes is imperative for states that wish to take advantage of burgeoning international commerce. While this isn’t to say that overland commerce is an old-fashioned method of trade, as evidenced by China’s One Belt, One Road initiative designed to stimulate continental Eurasian trade, access to the seas will always be an aspiration for landlocked states. An infamous example of this can be found in Bolivia, one of only two landlocked states in the Western Hemisphere (the other being Paraguay) where access to the sea is an exceptionally sensitive subject.

Upon gaining independence from Spain in 1825, Bolivia’s nascent republic controlled the Atacama corridor, a strip of land along the Pacific coast. This territory was lost to Chile, however, in the War of the Pacific in the 1880s. Bolivia only officially ceded its coastline to Chile in 1904 when the two nations signed the optimistic-sounding Treaty of Peace and Friendship. While the Treaty did result in the codification of Bolivia’s status as a landlocked state, the terms of the agreement actually served to enhance Bolivia’s access to the ocean. Article 6 of the treaty states that “[t]he Republic of Chile grants to that of Bolivia in perpetuity the amplest and freest right of commercial transit in its territory and its Pacific ports.” Furthermore, the treaty stipulated that a railroad was to be constructed between the port of Arica and the Bolivian capital La Paz. This railway provided Bolivia with an effective passage of transport between the country’s core and the coast which had been previously nonexistent.

The 1904 treaty was immensely beneficial for Bolivia, even though they had been the ones vanquished in the war. The Bolivian diplomat Alberto Gutiérrez summarized the treaty’s effect thusly: “The Treaty signed with Chile on 20 October 1904 was such a considerable evolution for the [Bolivian] national economy, that it can be said that it covered all its fundamental needs: railways, education, customs and financial independence.”

Despite the favorable circumstances of Bolivia’s cessation of its coast, however, the national sentiment is still sour toward the Chileans and nostalgic for the days when Bolivia could claim to be a seafaring nation. El Día del Mar is a national holiday on March 23 in Bolivia in which Bolivians celebrate the heroes from the War of the Pacific and mourn the loss of the Atacama corridor. Moreover, although they are painfully aware of their landlocked status, the Bolivian armed forces maintain a navy technically to serve as a river and lake patrol force, but also out of a steadfast hope that they will have a Pacific port to operate from someday.

Bolivia’s enigmatic former president Eduardo Rodríguez Veltze has been keen to use these national sentiments to his advantage, campaigning strongly that Chile should be forced to cede coastal territory to Bolivia. In 2013, President Evo Morales filed a suit to the International Court of Justice making this very demand of Chile. Veltze argued that GDP growth would increase 20 percent should it have a direct route to the sea and would have very little effect on Chile, stating that “[It] would make a small difference to Chile, but it would transform the destiny of Bolivia.”

Such an argument is hard to comprehend given that Bolivia already maintains highly preferential status in the ports of Arica and Antofagasta. In line with the Treaty of 1904, Bolivia is allowed to have its own custom officials in the ports, despite them being sovereign Chilean territory. The Bolivians are granted a slew of other benefits in these two ports, such as preferential treatment pertaining to cargo storage and reduced tariffs. While the Atacama corridor may not be sovereign Bolivian territory, it is the Bolivians rather than the Chileans who maintain preferential status in the region. In fact, the privledges and exemptions granted to the Bolivians in Arica and Antofagasta cost Chile approximately $100 million annually.

The ICJ’s decision to reject Morales’ lawsuit earlier this month therefore is hardly a devastating defeat for Bolivia. Rather, some speculate that the entire affair is merely a tactic by Morales to drum up support prior to the upcoming election in which he seeks to be elected to a fourth term, which is viewed by many as controversial. While Bolivia may technically be a disadvantaged state on account of its landlockedness, the conditions of the cessation of its coast back in 1904 make it so that Bolivia has better access to the sea than any other landlocked state.  

2 Comments

  1. CharlesWilliamMorganJr

    Bolivia now needs to settle down, STOP the aggression, and be a genuine friendly neighbor to Chile. They literally DO have free access to the ocean, and have since 1904. Frivolous lawsuits should NOT be filed again! The railways should be repaired and reopened for use!

  2. You’re an idiot Charles… Bolivia is not better off by being a landlocked country than being a country with a coastline … you and this author are morons who are trying to confuse the public… we Bolivians want our coastline back because it was stolen from us during an invasion because the Chilean invaders were angry about having to pay taxes for the natural resources that are in the area of Antofagasta so they decided to just take it by force in 1879 …