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Bolivian President Evo Morales Bolivian President Evo Morales Golden Brown
30 Apr
Klaus Dodds explores the importance of reclaiming access to the sea to Bolivian culture

Where a country begins and ends can be heavily disputed. These territorial disputes and border conflicts are endemic to many national geopolitical cultures. The vast majority of Argentine citizens believe with great conviction that Las Malvinas son Argentinas (‘the Malvinas Islands are Argentine’) and successive administrations have worked hard to persuade and even invade in order to secure that territorial objective.

Bolivia’s genesis was also territorially troubling. Looking at an atlas would suggest that it is a land-locked country surrounded by five neighbours – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Peru. Historically, the country owes its origin to the break-up of the Spanish Empire in the 19th century, with independence declared in August 1825 and being internationally recognised by other parties in July 1847. However, in the mid-19th century, Bolivia stretched through current-day northern Chile to the edge of the Pacific Ocean. A series of border disputes from the 1860s to the 1930s saw things take a turn for the worse as a Peru-Bolivia confederation crumbled. Political instability, military weakness and economic fragility left the country vulnerable to opportunism by others. Bolivia shrank as territory was ceded to Peru, Chile, Brazil and Paraguay.

In Bolivia, the desire to reclaim ‘Bolivian access to the sea remains highly visible in the national geopolitical culture.

The most devastating loss came with the so-called War of the Pacific (1879 to 1884) involving its southern neighbour Chile. The trigger to the conflict was a decision by the Bolivian authorities to impose additional taxes on Chilean mining companies in February 1878. Operating north of what is now the Chilean city of Antofagasta, the region was widely recognised as being nitrate-rich. Under the terms of the 1874 Boundary Treaty, Bolivia agreed not to impose additional taxes on Chilean mining interests for at least 25 years. Arguing that Bolivia was violating the treaty, Chilean armed forces occupied Antofagasta. By April 1879, war erupted and Chile’s well-equipped army and navy defeated its adversaries at sea, in the disputed coastal zone and in the mountainous Andes. The latest military technology was deployed including landmines, rifles, torpedoes, and armour-piercing artillery supplied by a global cast of characters including Britain and the US.

Two peace treaties were signed in 1883 and 1884. Bolivia agreed to a truce and accepted Chilean military occupation of its Pacific Ocean territories. Twenty years later, the country ceded Antofagasta to Chile and in doing so became land-locked. As a gesture of goodwill, Chile undertook to build a railway link between the northern port city of Arica (previously a Peruvian city) and La Paz. Chile also promised to respect freedom of transit for Bolivian commerce and industry via Chilean ports.

The 1904 Treaty of Peace and Friendship has been a sore spot for Bolivian nationalists ever since. The treaty delimits the common boundary between the two countries. Stretching over 850km, the former Bolivian territory remains a source of Chilean copper and nitrate extraction. Unsurprisingly, there is no appetite on the part of Chile to revisit a transfer of territory. In Bolivia, the desire to reclaim salida al mar de Bolivia (‘Bolivian access to the sea’) remains highly visible in the national geopolitical culture. Postage stamps, atlases, school textbooks, and a national day (the Day of the Sea) all play their part in reminding citizens of a ‘lost coastline’ and the ‘unjust’ treaty of 1904. Every 23 March, the president addresses the nation on the topic, while ceremonies and parades involving the Bolivian army and naval forces parade take place in La Paz and other major cities.

antofagastaChilean city of Antofagasta has been central to the fractured Chile-Bolivia relationship (Image: Jose Luis Stephens)

This March, a huge Bolivian flag was unveiled stretching more than 150 miles. Tagged as ‘the world’s biggest flag’, it is the latest and arguably most creative geopolitical intervention in this century-long dispute. It follows Bolivian determination to keep up pressure on Chile via the International Court of Justice (ICJ). After a period of diplomatic dialogue with Chile, the last decade has been anything but ‘pacific’. Ever since the re-election of President Evo Morales in 2009, it is possible to detect a worsening relationship which did not alter with his third presidential victory in 2014.

Bolivia wants the treaty’s provisions revised and updated to allow for the return of lost territory. It argues that Chile made an offer in 1975 to revisit the treaty and grant Bolivia a small land corridor to the Pacific Ocean. But Chile rejects any such amendment to the 1904 Treaty and is unlikely to make any concessions in the foreseeable future – ICJ intervention notwithstanding.

Territorial grievances tend to be resurrected at moments of domestic upheaval, and Morales’ administration has been hit by falling revenue from oil and gas, and by public unrest in the wake of rising unemployment and declining fuel subsidies. No amount of impressive flag-work will be able to disguise a geopolitical impasse.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction

This was published in the May 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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