Perpetual borders

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, November 18, 2014


The long-standing Bolivian claim against Chile over sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean remains one of the most complicated diplomatic disputes in Latin America. As both Chile and Bolivia remain in the comfortable position of demanding the other’s acquiescence to their preferred interpretations of history and facts, there is little hope that the issue will be resolved anytime soon. That is unfortunate. If Chile and Bolivia did hammer out an albeit difficult-to-reach mutually acceptable agreement, both countries would benefit enormously and such a step would offer the world an admirable lesson in how to put the past behind and build a better future.


In early November, responding to a claim made by Bolivian President Evo Morales that his country is only “temporarily deprived” of access to the sea, Chilean Foreign Affairs Minister Heraldo Muñoz stated that the existing borders between the two countries were established in perpetuity thanks to a 1904 treaty. Since it cut off Bolivia’s access to the Pacific Ocean in a war in 1879, Chile has rejected demands from La Paz to end its landlocked state of affairs. In Chile’s view, the treaty settled the issue for good. In Bolivia’s view, nothing will be settled until it regains what it once had.


In 2013, Bolivia brought its case before the International Court in The Hague. Shortly after, Chile challenged the authority of the court to rule on issues settled by legally sanctioned bilateral treaties. The Court is due to rule early next year. Regardless of the result, neither Bolivia nor Chile will be easily persuaded to change their uncompromising positions.


Relations between Chile and Bolivia have been distant for most of the 20th century. In 1975, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet offered Bolivian dictator Hugo Bánzer a strip of land in Chile’s northern territory, next to the border with Peru. As existing treaties require Peru’s acquiescence to any deal between Bolivia and Chile, the offer fell through when Peru counter-offered a solution that would force Chile to give up its northern city of Arica, to be made into an international port concurrently-run by the three countries. When Chile rejected the new offer, the Bolivian dictator broke diplomatic relations with Chile in 1978.


The 1904 treaty gives Bolivia quasi-sovereign access to the ocean. Bolivia can use Chilean ports without paying duties and can freely transport goods through Chilean territory. Yet, many Bolivians believe that their country’s underdeveloped status can be directly attributed to the country’s landlocked state.


Moving forward

In recent years, all of Chile’s presidents have declared their intention to move bilateral integration with Bolivia forward, conditional on whether La Paz will give up its claim.


In turn, Bolivia demands that Chile acquiesces. Since President Morales came into office in 2006, he has dealt with three different administrations in Chile. As Morales was first sworn in shortly before Chilean President Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010) came into power, there were high expectations that the two left-wing leaders could find a mutually acceptable solution. Unfortunately, the high hopes soon gave way to the usual frustrations on both sides of the border. When Chilean President Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014) took office, there was again, moderate optimism that some progress could be made. That optimism quickly vanished, once again. By early 2014, when Bachelet was inaugurated for a second term, Bolivia had already brought its case to The Hague and, thus, there was little hope over bilateral negotiations.


The problem lies in the uncompromising stance held by both countries. Chile offers negotiation on all issues of integration, except sovereign access to the border. Bolivia demands that, before any negotiations take place, its claim be recognized. A more reasonable starting position would be for Chile to accept that the result of the negotiations could grant Bolivia sovereign access and for Bolivia to renounce to that demand as a condition for negotiations. That would create space for a mutually acceptable solution. As Chile’s northern region lacks water and energy (for its copper mines) and Bolivia has abundant water and gas reserves, there is room to work out a mutually beneficial solution.


Matters are obviously complicated by the fact that Peru needs to agree to any solution that involves territory that Chile took from Peru in the 1879 War. However, if democratic governments in Bolivia and Chile were to reach a solution to this very complex issue, Peru would be hard pressed not to agree.


A solution that were to grant Bolivia sovereign-like access to the Pacific Ocean would certainly make the presidents of both countries strong candidates for a Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, a mutually acceptable solution that allows Chile to give up the least possible sovereignty and gives Bolivia sufficient control to claim that it has regained sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean would boost economic growth in both countries and would bring enormous benefits to the people in the areas included in a negotiation.


Yet, for that to happen, Chile will need to renounce to its claim that borders are perpetual and Bolivia will need to renounce to its claim that borders are not perpetual.