Bolivia Presses Chile for Access to the Pacific

NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Bolivia Presses Chile for Access to the Pacific

Bolivia has been urging the Chilean government to meet a 125-year-old demand for access to the Pacific Ocean. The landlocked nation has been calling for a sovereign strip of coastline with increasing stridency while Chilean officials have said they will not work with these demands until diplomatic relations are re-established between the two countries. The renewed dispute has put an end to trade negotiations between Bolivia and Chile and has garnered international attention.

Bolivia lost its access to the ocean during the War of the Pacific in 1879-1883 when Chile annexed the coast running from Arica to Antofagasta. Peru also lost a large portion of territory and some coastline to Chile in the same war (see NotiSur, 1992-02-12). Bolivia and Chile have not had diplomatic relations since 1978 when Bolivian dictator Hugo Banzer (1971-1978, 1997-2001) broke off relations over the issue, just three years after he had re-established relations with Chile's de facto President Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

At the Special Summit of the Americas, held Jan. 12-13 in Monterrey, Mexico, the issue sparked a verbal confrontation between Bolivian President Carlos Mesa and Chile's President Ricardo Lagos. At the plenary session of the summit, Mesa sought to open the issue of recovery of coastal territory for consideration by international organizations, but Lagos protested that there was no "pending" matter to resolve. The public disagreement set back the possibility for dialogue, as later interviews with the presidents showed their positions further apart than ever.

"Peace, but no friendship"

Newly confirmed Bolivian President Mesa, a historian and journalist, has said that "there is peace, but no friendship" between Chile and Bolivia regarding the issue of maritime access. In 1904, the two countries signed the Tratado de Paz y Amistad, making concrete Bolivia's loss of coastline. Today Mesa's government seeks to modify those terms, arguing that it is one of the major obstacles to Bolivia's economic development.

Chilean officials respond that they have already granted sea access to Bolivia by guaranteeing tariff-free use of the port cities of Arica and Antofagasta, where Bolivia operates its own customs services and warehouses. At the Summit of the Americas, President Lagos said he was willing to dialogue with Bolivia, but only once they had reinstituted diplomatic contacts. He called the issue "bilateral" and rejected the possible intervention or mediation from international groups like the Organization of American States (OAS).

This confrontation pits Bolivia, one of Latin America's poorest, least developed and least politically stable countries, against Chile, a market-oriented economy with a relatively high per capita GDP.

Mesa has said that "Bolivia's request has to do with the stability of the region...[it has] become a potential element of regional destabilization because it's put Bolivian democracy in play, it's generated a situation of terrible uncertainty and of great danger for global stability. Neighboring countries and regional countries have become worried because the Bolivian example could extend to other nations." In October, Mesa, then vice president, ascended to the presidency after bloody protests led President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (1993-1997, 2002-2003) to resign (see NotiSur, 2003-10-24).

But Chile's Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear rejected Mesa's warnings, arguing that "the themes relative to each nation and their institutional stability are surely subject to internal definition."

Bolivian demands receive international attention, support

Bolivian leaders have thanked countries like Uruguay, Brazil, Cuba, Argentina, and Venezuela for their backing in the conflict. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez provoked Chile's ire when he said, "I dream of bathing at a Bolivian beach." Chile retaliated by recalling its ambassador from Caracas.

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