Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The war which left Bolivia without access to the sea

On April 29 Bolivians commemorate their Right to Maritime Recuperation • On this occasion Granma International responds to the common question: How is it that this country has no coastline?

by FÉLIX LÓPEZ, Granma International, 28 April 2011.

EDUARDO Galeano recounts that a Bolivian child once asked his father to take him to see the ocean. Together they began the journey which seemed interminable. Once arriving and seeing the immense blue before his eyes, the little one made another request, "Father, now teach me to look at it."

Beyond the poetry in this image, it represents a synthesis of a mental outlook, a national problem for Bolivians: the loss of the ocean they once treasured as part of their national territory. What happens when wars change borders drawn on maps? Who stripped Bolivia of its access to the sea? How legitimate is Bolivia’s claim?

By the middle of the 19th century, the Atacama Desert had acquired significant economic importance with the discovery of valuable guano and saltpeter deposits which were fetching good prices on the international market. Within no time, these resources became a bone of contention, drawing Bolivia, Chile and Peru into the Pacific War.

The conflict continued for 150 years and there are still disagreements between Bolivian and Chilean historians and geographers. Bolivia maintains that the territory within the Spanish colonial Audencia de Charcas, first part of the Peruvian Viceroyalty and then the Río de la Plata, included the coast. Chile denies and casts doubts. What is certain is that when the Republic of Bolivia was founded (1825), initially designated the Republic of Bolívar, Simon Bolívar described the country’s access to the sea at Cobija (Puerto La Mar).

It is also clear that before the war, the Republics of Bolivia and Chile had signed two treaties delineating borders, the first in 1866 and the second in 1874. Both were ratified and solemnly exchanged in Santiago and La Paz. According to its preamble, the 1866 treaty had as its objective "putting an amicable and mutually satisfactory end to the long-standing disagreement over the location of respective territorial borders in the Atacama Desert and the exploitation of guano deposits existing along the coast of said desert." [1]

In Article 1, the border between the two countries is established as "the 24th parallel south, from the Pacific coast to the eastern border of Chile." [2]

On November 27, 1873, the Antofagasta Railroad and Saltpeter Company, a Chilean organization formed by Chilean and British investors, signed an agreement with the Bolivian government authorizing their unencumbered exploitation of saltpeter for 15 years, from the bay of Antofagasta to Salinas, including the Carmen salt flats. The agreement was not ratified by the Bolivian Congress, which was at that time considering the negotiations with Chile leading up to the 1874 treaty.

The war took place. The dead were forgotten. Bolivia continued as one of only two countries in Latin America without a coastline. There are 42 nations around the world in this situation, and 30 of them are among the least developed and poorest. The position they find themselves in is considered a disadvantage, not only because it prevents their benefiting from the ocean’s natural wealth, but also because it makes participation in international commerce difficult, which still depends, in great measure, on maritime transportation.

With the dignity and perseverance that the issue merits, the Aymara leader Evo Morales, the first indigenous President of Bolivia, has since 2006 asserted his people’s sovereign right to access to the sea. His arguments are sustained by the view that in 1825, his country’s territory stretched west to the Pacific. Along the coast, the northern border was with Peru and with Chile to the south. For Bolivians, their rights to the Pacific coast have prehispanic roots given the presence of the Tiahuanacu culture in the area and the subsequent Inca control of the coast. The Peruvian Viceroyalty clearly delineated its southern frontier as the 25th parallel at Paposo, in the Copiapó Valley. This border was inherited by Bolivia as can be seen in all international maps from that era. The country’s coastal territory included approximately 120,000 square kilometers.

The detractors of this point of view point out that the colonial borders were vague, especially when they passed through an area like the Atacama Desert. There are Chilean texts which assert that Bolivia never had a coastline. Official history has seen to it that Bolivia has no coastline even in books.

To unravel the tangle of claims and denials, it’s important to know that before the Pacific War, Chile’s export economy was based on the exploitation of the saltpeter deposits which stretched from the Atacama Desert north to the southern reaches of Peruvian territory. Britain had an enormous interest in the saltpeter trade, with British and Chilean capital holding 33% of Peruvian saltpeter. Everything was going well until the Bolivian government imposed a tax of ten cents for every quintal exported. Chile invaded its territory, arguing that Bolivia had violated the treaty of 1874 which said that Bolivia would not raise taxes on saltpeter for 25 years - until 1899.

The conflict was settled on the battlefield. Chile declared war on Bolivia and its ally Peru and the fighting lasted five years, 1879-1884. A victorious Chile moved its border north and left Bolivia with no access to the sea. Another war then began: the legal one which has never ended. The Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Trade between Bolivia and Chile, known as the Treaty of 1904, set the current territorial limits with Chilean sovereignty extending to the Peruvian border and Bolivia’s far removed from the Pacific.

As a consolation, the document concedes Bolivia, in perpetuity, broad, unencumbered rights to commercial transport through Chilean territory and use of its Pacific ports. By all rights, Juan Ignacio Siles, former Bolivian Minister of Foreign Affairs (2003-2005), declared that the Treaty of 1904 is "disgraceful, profoundly unfair, entirely lacking in generosity on the part of a country which has defeated another." [3].

This April 29, when Bolivians celebrate their Día del Derecho a la Recuperación Marítima, those of us who have the good fortune to see the ocean every day understand the justice of their demand. As a minimum, Bolivia is fighting for a corridor ten kilometers wide extending some 160 kilometers from its border with Chile to the Pacific, including a section of coastline where it can develop industrial and commercial facilities under its own flag.

Historically Chilean officials have rejected the idea that their country is hindering the economic development of Bolivia, by denying it a small section of the Pacific coastline. They emphasize that under the provisions of the 1904 treaty, Bolivia has tax-free access to the northern Chilean port of Arica and that Chile has built a railroad linking Arica with La Paz. To counter the notion that the Treaty of 1904 was imposed on the defeated by the victor, Chileans emphasize that it was signed well after the conclusion of hostilities, according to established norms of diplomatic relations between states.

The repercussions of the conflict seriously affected the three countries involved. Chile emerged with a much more powerful army. The expansion of its territory contributed to the development of the country, allowing Chile to consolidate its position as a South American power in that era. Peru and Bolivia, on the other hand, faced societies extremely demoralized by the outcome of the war, making normal development impossible for their peoples. The first were ruined. The second had lost their ocean, which they are still seeking.

Thus when Evo Morales demands with so much conviction "a sea for Bolivia" he is not only thinking about restoring the lines drawn on old maps and building the long-awaited port needed for the development of his country. He does so to heal the age-old wounds of history and so children in his country no longer think of the ocean as an impossible destination.

[1] «Tratado de 1866», Guerra del Pacífico 1879, disponible en:

[2] Ídem.

[3] «Claves: Bolivia, Chile y el mar», BBC, disponible en: