The late Hugo Chávez made waves when he controversially expressed his fanciful desire to “swim in the Bolivian sea.” More than once, Chávez waded into this sensitive, longstanding territorial dispute, only to receive a diplomatic slap on the wrist when Chile recalled its ambassador from Venezuela in 2003.
Today, thanks to more tactful diplomacy, landlocked Bolivia is a step closer to reclaiming access to the Pacific Ocean, which it lost to Chile 134 years ago during the War of the Pacific. A resolution could soon be at hand after the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Peruvian congress approved a bill to grant Bolivia permanent access to the Pacific Ocean, without surrendering sovereignty. The agreement, known as ‘Boliviamar’, will be debated by the Peruvian Congress before the end of the month, and if ratified, would allow Bolivia to conduct industrial, commercial, and tourist activities from the Peruvian port of Ilo.
Bolivia lost its ocean-front territory fighting alongside Peru in the War of the Pacific, which erupted over control of part of the Atacama Desert, an area rich in resources on the Pacific coast. Chile, wanting to protect the interests of its nitrate companies against Bolivian taxation, attacked the Bolivian port of Antofagasta in February 1897.
After five years of fighting a truce was called, and a victorious Chile redrew the map; seizing 400km of coastline and 120,000 km2 of Bolivian territory as well as land from Peru. Twenty years later, in 1904, all three countries signed the ‘Treaty of Peace and Friendship’ making the arrangement permanent. Under the treaty, as compensation for the appropriated land, Chile agreed to build a railroad connecting the Bolivian capital of La Paz with its port of Arica and ensure freedom of travel and commerce through Chilean ports and territory. Boundaries established by the treaty are still a source of contention between the three neighbours today.
Bolivian president Evo Morales has stated that the loss of ocean-territory has caused “great harm” to his country in economic terms and has also generated “deep emotions” in its people to assert their right to access the sea.
In economic terms, Bolivia’s losses were both strategic and material. The loss of its Pacific access left Bolivia geographically isolated from the wider world. Bolivia also lost control of its nitrate, copper, and other mineral industries, including Chuquicamata, the world’s largest copper mine. Bolivia has rejected its landlocked status, insisting on maintaining a navy, based on Lake Titicaca, 3,800 metres above sea level. At the base stands a statue of a Bolivian war hero pointing west asserting: “What was once ours will be ours once again.” The Andean nation also celebrates ‘Día del Mar‘ (Day of the Sea) every 23rd March to commemorate the loss of the coast and keep the fight alive to regain it.
A Long Time Coming: Steps to the Sea
The foundations for the current accord were laid in 1992 when former presidents Alberto Fujimori of Peru and Bolivia’s Jaime Paz Zamora signed the Boliviamar agreement. Peru agreed to give Bolivia a 5 km coastal strip located 17 km from the port of Ilo for a period of 99 years. Peruvian Congress never ratified the deal and so far the site has not been developed.
In October 2010, the leaders of the two countries, Evo Morales and Alan Garcia, renewed and expanded the agreement, granting Bolivia permanent access to the Pacific Ocean and a mooring in the port of Ilo.
“It is unfair that Bolivia has no sovereign outlet to the ocean,” García said, standing side by side with Morales on the shore of Ilo. “This is also a Bolivian sea.”
It was a positive step that put an end to friction between the pair, who just two years earlier had been trading insults. In 2008, Morales called his Peruvian counterpart “fat and not very anti-imperialistic.” Bilateral relations had deteriorated to the point where both countries withdrew their respective ambassadors.
The agreement with Peru, however, is not a transfer of sovereignty to Bolivia and the Peruvian committee did not approve the installation of a Bolivian Naval School to train cadets and officers, as had originally been included in the agreement.
Instead, Boliviamar grants Bolivia:
– Permanent access to the Pacific Ocean and a mooring in the port of Ilo, 870 km southeast of Lima.
– The expansion of an industrial and economic free trade zone for 99 years, which will enjoy exemptions from customs duties, taxes, and labour law.
– A tourist zone for 99 years, where operations will be exempt from income tax, general sales tax, excise tax, and municipal promotion tax.
Real Benefits or Political Gestures?
Morales applauded the move to debate the agreement in Peruvian Congress, saying it would eliminate “the true submission that Bolivian exporters suffer” when they have to use Chilean ports. Currently Bolivia, a large exporter of metals, including silver, tin, and zinc, conducts around 70% of its maritime trade through ports in northern Chile, where it enjoys customs-free access under the terms of the 1904 treaty.
Nicolás Salerno, an academic at the University of Buenos Aires who specialises in Bolivian politics, told The Argentina Independent that passing the agreement would be “a very important historical recognition for Bolivia.”
“For many South American states the resolution of these questions, like Bolivia’s access to the sea, has to do mainly with solving questions of autonomy and popular sovereignty,” he said.
Apart from a symbolic victory, Bolivia stands to gain economically and is eyeing off a direct route to the Asian market. In 2010 Morales said the agreement “opens doors” for Bolivia. “The sea is for world trade, the sea is so that the products of our peoples can circulate and have access to these ports,” he said.
Reflecting the present poor relations with Chile, the Bolivian government intends to snub its southern neighbour. Telesur reported earlier this year that the Bolivian government plans to redirect both roads and the interoceanic railroad to the Peruvian ports of Ilo and Matarani to export Bolivian products to Asian markets.
Good Neighbours Make Good Allies
After a long time in the making, many wonder about the timing of Boliviamar: why now?
Salerno explains that new favourable political conditions have facilitated the negotiations between the two neighbours. A period of political stability, economic growth, and mutual goals to develop regional autonomy has created positive diplomatic relations in South America. “Governments – under different names or ideologies- that in general have a component in common: they are trying to build a model opposed to the neoliberal policies that dominated South America during the 90s and are trying, through the process of strengthening the autonomy of the region, to be less dependent on the centres of world power.”
Boliviamar would also prove beneficial for Peru, both economically and politically. The country stands to gain from trade diverted from Chile to Peru, stimulating and diversifying the its southern economy.
The deal could also earn Peru an important ally in the region for their own territorial disputes. Peru is currently awaiting a ruling from The Hague –expected early next year- over a maritime dispute with Chile. The complaint, filed by Peru in 2008, relates to ocean territory lost to Chile during the War of the Pacific.
Peruvian Parliamentarian Alberto Adrianzén has urged Congress to green-light the proposal for this reason. “Failure to approve this agreement would be a serious mistake… At a time when we are awaiting the ruling from The Hague, we cannot be estranged of our neighbouring country,” he said.
The Chile Factor
Apart from a brief period of unsuccessful negotiations with the Pinochet regime, diplomatic relations between Bolivia and Chile have been frozen since 1964. Despite Bolivia’s continual insistence, Chile is unwilling to give up any part of its 6,435 km coastline.
Relations warmed in 2006 when Morales and former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet established a 13-point agenda. One of these points was a commitment to open a dialogue regarding Bolivia’s demand for a sovereign piece of coastline. But the relationship deteriorated after a brief period of positivity and current president Sebastián Piñera adamantly refuses to discuss the issue with Bolivia.
In 2009, three Chilean architects raised the idea of digging a 150 km tunnel –the longest in the world- to connect Bolivia to the sea. The tunnel would end at an artificial island in the Pacific Ocean made from the land dug up during construction. The idea never got off the ground, or beneath it for that matter.
In April this year, Bolivia instigated legal proceedings in The Hague against Chile to negotiate a sovereign outlet to the sea. Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said that the 1904 agreement, establishing the current boundaries between Bolivia and Chile, is invalid as it was signed under duress. In response, Piñera has promised to defend “with all the might in the world every square metre of our land and every square metre of our sea,” ensuring the standoff will continue.
Peruvian Congress must ratify Boliviamar before Bolivia can use Peru’s ceded land and the lack of infrastructure at the Port of Ilo suggests real benefits may still be a long way off. The ratification alone would vindicate Morales but it is still a distant cry from the sovereignty that Bolivia has historically demanded. Without a clear consensus from the Peruvian Congress, Bolivia must wait a little longer to learn its maritime fate. However, favourable bilateral relations have positioned the landlocked nation the closest it has been to the ‘Bolivian sea’ in 134 years.
Morales, who said if he ever got married he would honeymoon at a Bolivian resort in Ilo, will continue to push the issue, having stated in 2010: “Our return to the sea is something that Bolivians cannot renounce. This work will continue, we hope, so that with the understanding of all, one day Bolivia may recover sovereign access to the sea.”
Do Argentines think their neighbour has the right to demand access to the sea? Click here to find out.