Chile and Bolivia

1879 War of the Pacific Redux?

Bolivian President Carlos Mesa
Bolivian President Carlos Mesa speaks with reporters about his determination to regain access to the Pacific Ocean, lost in the 1879 War of the Pacific (Photo: Aizar Raldes/AFP-Getty Images).

Landlocked Bolivia’s long-frustrated ambition to restore its access to the Pacific Ocean has moved from the dusty annals of its humiliating defeat in the 1879 War of the Pacific to the center stage of hemispheric diplomacy.

Bolivia’s President Carlos Mesa Gisbert had a tense face-off with Chilean President Ricardo Lagos at the Summit of the Americas in mid-January in Monterrey, Mexico. Mesa appealed in a speech before President Bush, Lagos, and other Latin American leaders for support for Bolivia’s bid to reclaim sovereignty over a strip of land extending from its southwestern border to the sea in Chile’s northernmost province.

Mesa’s move represented a constructive attempt to persuade his Chilean counterpart “to look to the future and seek a comprehensive response to the existing dispute,” asserted Cochabamba’s Los Tiempos in an editorial (Jan. 15). “Nevertheless, the carefully measured words of our chief executive...drew an abrupt and angry reaction from [Lagos] who, repeating the traditional rhetoric of Santiago diplomacy, insisted on denying that there is any pending problem of sovereignty with our country.”

The view from Santiago was starkly different. La Tercera (Jan. 15) lauded Lagos for responding in “an opportune and clear manner” to establish his administration’s willingness to normalize bilateral relations and negotiate further concessions to broaden Bolivian preferential commercial access to the Chilean port at Arica, as well as tax concessions and land rights for the proposed natural gas pipeline from the Bolivian border to the Pacific. “Still, La Paz succeeded in placing its demands—appropriate for bilateral dialogue—on the agenda of a multilateral meeting,” La Tercera observed. The editorial cautioned that Bolivia would turn the centennial of the 1904 treaty establishing Chile’s borders with Bolivia and Peru “into an opportunity to broaden its diplomatic offensive on the international front.”

An editorial in Santiago’s El Mercurio (Jan. 10) dismissed Bolivia’s effort to mobilize support as unlikely to succeed in gaining endorsements beyond those already received—much to Washington’s discomfort—from Cuban President Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Yet the editorial also obliquely suggested the need for diplomatic flexibility: “Chile cannot remain indifferent to the course of developments on the Altiplano, and it is in its interest to adopt initiatives of cooperation as a neighbor.”

Commentaries elsewhere in the region revealed sympathy for Bolivia’s claim and need for full maritime access, but also unease at reopening century-old territorial questions arising from the War of the Pacific that also involve Peru, Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay.

Peru would be most directly affected, given Chile’s treaty obligations to seek Peru’s approval if it should propose to cede land near its northern border to Bolivia. Juan Carlos Tafur suggested in Lima’s Correo (Jan. 9) that President Alejandro Toledo should keep his diplomatic options open rather than repeating the Peruvian veto that sank the last serious Bolivian-Chilean attempt to resolve the issue in the 1970s.

“No one in his right mind can think at this point in the 21st century that the territories conquered by Chile from Peru can be recovered,” Tafur wrote. “Nor should the fact that Bolivia might gain...access to the sea through lands that more than a century ago were ours become the cause for nationalist hypocrisy.” Why not instead play Peru’s “strong hand” to advantage, Tafur said, to negotiate a clear and advantageous definition of Pacific maritime borders?

Mesa’s decision to push the maritime issue to the top of his diplomatic agenda was interpreted by Chilean commentators as driven by domestic politics, particularly since it came just three months after popular protests over a proposed gas-pipeline deal contributed to the forced resignation of Mesa’s predecessor, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.

Ilya Fortún, writing in La Razón of La Paz (Jan. 15), countered that the Chilean reaction betrays “a prevailing superiority...that has led them to turn their backs on their Andean neighbors with a gaze fixed on Miami and Disneyland....It heartens me to say that President Mesa can rely on the unanimous support of the entire country.”