Bolivia Wrestles Chile for Ocean Access

El Tatio is a geyser field located within the Andes Mountains of Chile, just west of the Bolivian border. (Photo: Christian Espinosa)

Earlier this month, during the Summit of the Americas in Panama, an age-old debate was revived between one of South America's poorest and one of its most prosperous nations. As leaders touted Latin America as an increasingly war-free zone, Bolivia still battles with neighboring Chile over land lost in a past war.

"In the year 1879, [Bolivia] was invaded, taking away its Pacific Ocean access," Bolivian President Evo Morales stated during a press conference, "I hope that this injustice will be resolved." Hours later, Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz replied, "I regret having to begin my statement refuting. But the Summit of the Americas is not for bilateral issues but to discuss prosperity, equity and our common future." Bolivians appears to find it difficult to embrace this common future when they believe they have been suppressed.

Bolivia is one of South America's two landlocked countries. It is also one of its most impoverished. Ever since the War of the Pacific 136 years ago, it has partially blamed Chile for both.

Past governing the present

After defeat by Chile's military invasion, Bolivia lost 10 percent of its territory. This included 420 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline and 120,000 square kilometers of land. Then in 1904, a controversial bilateral agreement legitimized amiable relations and new borders. Yet, save for a brief spell in the 1970s, Bolivian and Chilean affairs have continued to be strained. While Chile substantiates that what is done is done, in 2013 President Morales went so far as to take the ocean access dispute to the International Court of Justice. Chile has challenged this lawsuit, and in July 2014 presented documents supporting the "incompetence" of the foreign court's ability to handle the local issue. The two countries will again present claims this week.

The land in question is coastal but generally a desert and mountainous region. It is worth noting that this debate supersedes sea trade and port rights, which Chile has offered Bolivia to use freely but without sovereignty. The Chilean government has hence called its neighbor's claim of being "landlocked" irrelevant. But is Bolivia's argument "irrelevant" when it is fighting for what is beneath the land, too?

An age-old conquest

For years, Chile has been rated South America's most economically successful and stable country, having recovered well from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 70s and 80s. But recognizing Chile as a desirable country dates centuries before that, riding much on the coattails of its vast natural resources.

"Chile has exported Bolivian copper … worth $25 million in a single year. Imagine if that territory had continued to be held by Bolivia," said Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera. "Add that up over 100 years and look at how much money they have stolen. If [the Chilean economy] is good, it is because of our copper, our minerals." García Linera also claimed that if that amount added up to natural gas exports, modern Bolivia would be a "continental power."

Today, precious metal mining accounts for at minimum 40 percent of Chile's economy and, according to the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences, produces 10 percent of the world's copper. In fact, partially because of this mining potency, it received U.S. and U.K. funding to win the War of the Pacific. Is it pure coincidence that major mining corporations from these same Western nations continue to hold interests in that area as Spanish conquistadors had done centuries ago? Bolivia does not think so.

Fifty-three percent of the mining from which Chile has prospered originates in its far-north territories, including the Antofagasta region—land taken from Bolivia. Consequentially, the landlocked republic considers economic damages as substantial, as this area hosts one of the Andes' richest deposits of copper—the mainstay of Chile's powerful market.

In addition, in diverting the Lauca River, which originates in Chile and dies in Bolivia, Chilean companies also privatize the waters of those springs. Whether it be precious metals or water, neither international companies nor the Chilean government have paid anything to Bolivia in more than a century.

Chile talks back

Chile, however, argues that there is nothing due. In brief, not only did it offer Bolivia ocean access through Chilean ports—which Bolivia views as insufficient partially because the permit denies mining rights—but also in the 1904 agreement, the two nations legally established a mutual accord of territory rights. According to the Chilean Foreign Ministry, Bolivia's fight to regain the land lost long ago is an outdated argument that modern nations should drop. Furthermore, four ex-presidents and major businessmen—Patricio Aylwin, Ricardo Lagos, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle and Sebastian Piñera—have all met with incumbent Michelle Bachelet. They advise her not to recognize Morales' claims and to ignore The Hague, the United Nations' principal judicial organ, as this organization was established almost four decades after this dispute was technically settled.

Yet Morales still emphasizes the mining argument, proclaiming, "Bolivia wants coastal territory before its natural resources are exhausted by transnational corporations." Chile has yet to directly respond. The most recent productive recognition of this concern is the "13-point plan" between Presidents Bachelet and Morales, which has been under discussion since 2006. Fashioned to resolve mutual differences, the agreement remains theoretical, being increasingly abandoned as relations continue to strain.

The Bolivian head of state has added that "no state should be deprived of access to the sea," and since his nation "knows what it is to not have access to the sea," the president has ensured that a Bolivian sea would be open to all peoples, eliminating "reason to grow armies."

Whether this statement comes in defense or offense, it brings us back to a rule that has shaped much of Latin American history. Sovereignty is rarely just ideological or humanitarian. Riches are at its roots.

Ailana Navarez is a writer, photographer and political analyst with a concentration in Latin America. She is pursuing a major in government with a specialization in international relations and a minor in psychology at Harvard Extension School. She is a South America regional specialist for Pulsamerica (a U.K.-based Latin America analysis firm) and has been featured in several international magazines and news outlets, including Telesur, Mercury Magazine and Casa Rosada.

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