Bolivia and Chile: Unfriendly terms

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, July 22, 2014


After Bolivia decided to take its demand for sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean to The Hague, Chile’s challenge to the jurisdiction of the International Court has brought bilateral relations to a new low. Both governments’ strategies will further delay the only long-term viable solution to this 135-year old problem. Unless Bolivia and Chile sit down at the bargaining-table to work out a mutually beneficial compromise, the Bolivian-Chilean border will remain underdeveloped for decades to come.


After Chile defeated Peru and Bolivia in the 1879 War of the Pacific, Bolivia lost any sovereign access to the ocean. In the eyes of Bolivians, being landlocked explains the country’s underdevelopment. Though the nation relinquished its former territories in treaties signed in 1884 and 1904, Bolivians have never renounced the idea of regaining access to the sea.


Successive Chilean governments have maintained that their country has fulfilled its treaty obligations. Though Santiago has repeatedly asserted its willingness to talk about integration initiatives, the most recent Chilean government has resisted reopening discussions over sovereign access to the sea for Bolivia.

Relations between both countries have never been strong. At diplomatic level, Chile and Bolivia have only had consular relations since 1978. Though Chilean governments have offered to exchange ambassadors,

Bolivia has refused, claiming that Chile denies the existence of pending border issues.


Over the years, Bolivia has tried different strategies to force Chile to sit down at the negotiating-table. Its efforts to involve other Latin American nations have failed as few countries are in favour of revisiting existing and legally sanctioned treaties. In 2003, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez issued a strong sign of support for Bolivia when he declared his dream of “taking a swim off a Bolivian beach.” Diplomatic pressure by Chile prevented the campaign from gaining international traction. In 2005, when leftwing leader and Chávez ally Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia, Chávez tried again to support Bolivia’s claim but few other countries joined the effort.


President Morales, whose political career received a big boost when he campaigned in 2002 against selling gas to Chile, is the longest-serving president in the history of Bolivia. In addition to being the first indigenous president of the country, Morales also wants to be the president who regains the country’s access to the ocean. After assuming office in 2006, Morales attempted to start negotiations with the then recently elected president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet. Chile’s resistance to open the debate and Morales’ use of nationalist anti-Chilean rhetoric every time his approval numbers declined conspired to block more meaningful progress.


Morales also had a short-lived period of friendly relations with Bachelet’s successor, Sebastián Pińera. There were good reasons to be hopeful that a rightwing Chilean president, like Pińera, could negotiate a permanent solution. After all, in 1978, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet made an offer to Bolivian dictator Hugo Bánzer to grant access to the ocean through a strip of land in Chile’s northern border with Peru. Peru’s opposition to the deal and Bolivia’s rejection of land compensations derailed the negotiations. Since the existing treaties requires Peru’s agreement with any land concessions by Chile of territories that were formerly Peruvian, Pinochet’s bold move failed. Since right-wing presidents are normally more nationalist, Pińera was in the unique position to hammer out an agreement with Bolivia. As Bolivia has ample reserves of natural gas and Chile was short on energy, there was also room for a gas-for-access-to- the-ocean deal.


The intricacies of diplomatic relations, and the fact that Chile uses existing treaties to claim that there are no pending border issues, have put the pressure on the Morales administration to signal that his government is willing to reach a compromise. After all, Bolivia needs to help the Chilean government convince their public opinion that a negotiated solution for Bolivia will also be beneficial to Chile. As Evo Morales usually uses the nationalist anti-Chilean card whenever he faces problems at home, Chilean governments have resisted making the first move that toward an agreement that gives Bolivia (probably non-sovereign but flag-bearing) access to the Pacific Ocean in exchange for territory, gas, water and business and investment opportunities for Chilean companies in Bolivia.


Such an agreement would end up being mutually beneficial to both countries and would convert the Bolivia-Chile-Peru border into an area of buoyant economic activity. In addition to being a Nobel Peace Prize-deserving agreement, any deal that grants Bolivia access to the ocean and helps Chile solve its energy shortage would also fully leave behind the symbolically open wounds that have conspired to leave the tri-country Andean region underdeveloped.


Unfortunately, the recent case brought by Bolivia in The Hague and Chile’s decision to ask The Hague to first rule on its jurisdiction over the case have put of sitting down at the bargaining-table to work out a mutually beneficial solution to one of the oldest and most controversial border disputes in Latin America.