July 2014

The War of the Pacific:
A Never Ending Story?

The Saltpetre War, the Guano War, the Ten-Cent War, but best known as the War of the Pacific: a battle where it was two against one; Peru and Bolivia vs. dominant Chile.

By: Simone Batelaan
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Den Haag, Netherlands

On November 27th 1873, the Chilean ‘Antofagasta Nitrate & Railway Company’ sealed a deal with the Bolivian government to extract saltpetre tax free for 25 years. In February 1878, the Bolivian Congress ruled the contract as invalid since it was not confirmed by congress, as determined by the Bolivian Constitution of 1871. Then trouble began. Bolivia imposed a 10-cent tax per quintal of mineral extracted by the Antofagasta Nitrate & Railway Company and Peru nationalized all its nitrate mines in Tarapacá.

The loss of the “Litoral” (coast) created serious emotional and practical issues for the Bolivians.

The Antofagasta Nitrate & Railway Company refused to pay the tax and in February 1879 President Hilarión Daza of Bolivia revoked the contract with the company. Naturally, this was not taken happily by Chile and in reprisal took the port of Antofagasta; Peru tried to mediate to no avail. The war was officially acknowledged two weeks later.

The war’s first battle was the one called Topáter. On March 23, 1879, Chilean troops, including cavalry and “Krupp (a prominent old German dynasty famous for manufacturing the best ammunition) guns” were on their way to take Calama but were held back by 135 Bolivian soldiers and civilians. Its small fighting force and low amount of ammunition available forced the Bolivian fighters to pull back soon, except for a small group of Bolivian civilians with Bolivia’s national hero, Colonel Eduardo Abaroa, as their leader. Eventually Chile defeated the Bolivian “army” and the whole Atacama region came under Chilean control.


Sea Coast Chile
Photo: Simone Batelaan

Shortly after becoming aware of the alliance treaty between Peru and Bolivia, on April 5, 1879, Chile declared war on both countries, and blockaded the Peruvian port of Iquique while several cities were bombarded and port facilities burned. Chile hoped, by disturbing Peru’s trade and, most important, their saltpetre exports, that the war effort of the Peruvians would decrease and the Peruvian Navy would be compelled into a crucial showdown. However, Peru did not oblige and the smaller but effective Peruvian Navy won the battle of Iquique. It gave a tactical victory to Peru as it stopped the blockade of Iquique. Nevertheless, it was a hollow victory; the loss of the “Independencia”, one of Peru’s most important ships, was a fatal loss.

On November 2nd , 1879, Chilean forces landed outside the Peruvian city of Pisagua and attacked its defences; the city fell to Chile. From Pisagua, the Chileans moved south, approaching Iquique. 17 days later, on November 19th 1879, defeated, the Peruvian and Bolivian troops concentrated in Agua Santa in the Battle of San Francisco and Dolores. Bolivian forces retreated to Oruro and the Peruvians fell back to Tiliviche, as the Chileans occupied Iquique. Now that they had captured the Peruvian province of Tarapacá, they tried to get further into Bolivia, but that was a bit too optimistic as they were defeated by Peruvian forces at the battle of Tarapacá.

Unfortunately, Peruvian forces were incapable of managing the territory and pulled back. The province of Tarapaca was lost, their biggest treasure. The nitrate production with an annual income of £28 million; essentially all of the country’s export profits. Of course, this triumph gave Santiago de Chile a commercial boon. Approximately a year later, in October 1880, the United States mediated and tried to end the war with diplomacy. Foreign ministers from Chile, Peru, and Bolivia met to discuss the territorial disputes, yet both Peru and Bolivia disclaimed the loss of their territories to Chile and deserted the meeting. Chile occupied the Peruvian capital of Lima the following January.

Peruvian resistance continued for three (3) more years with leader Andrés Avelino Cáceres, assisted by Miguel Iglesias, and U.S. encouragement. Finally, On October 20, 1883, antagonism between Chile and Peru formally came to an end with the Treaty of Ancón. Bolivia signed a truce that abandoned the entire Bolivian coast, the province of Antofagasta, and its nitrate, copper and other mineral deposits. A treaty in 1904 made this treaty permanent. In return, Chile agreed to build a railroad connecting the Bolivian capital of La Paz with the port of Arica and to secure freedom of transit for Bolivian trade through Chilean ports and territory.

Bolivia and Peru never stopped fighting. At the time of this writing, there are two pending cases since Bolivia and Peru sued neighbouring Chile before the International Court of Justice in The Hague; they are pressing the longstanding claim to recover their sea coast property lost in the war.


Iquique Port - Chile
Photo: Simone Batelaan

The loss of the ‘Litoral’ (coast) created demonstrative serious emotional and practical issues for Bolivians as clearly evident during the gas war of 2003. The country’s troubles were blamed on its landlocked situation; retrieving the seacoast was (is) seen as the solution. A “Día del Mar” (Day of the Sea) was introduced to remember the devastating loss of the sea coast.

Many Bolivian presidents put Chile under pressure for access to the sea. For its part, Chile has stated that there is no doubt to not return parts of Bolivia’s former coast, adding that wars of conquest were normal at that time, that the coast has been completely absorbed by Chile, and that Bolivia needs to agree to the result of the war as a ‘fait accompli’.

The outcome of the case between Peru and Chile was January 27th , 2014. At stake were 14,670 square miles of ocean at predicted value of $200 million in annual fishing earnings. The waters in question contain some of the most lucrative fishing areas on earth. The ICJ, the Supreme Court of the United Nations, resolved the decades-long feud between Peru and Chile and their maritime border with a compromise. Neither of them got completely right or completely wrong in the new provision of the maritime borders, both of them got partly what they wanted: up to 50 miles offshore the sea border now runs straight westward, just as Chile wanted. Then it runs, as Peru’s desired, further in a south-westerly direction. This means that Peru will receive a larger part of the ocean while Chile preserves the richer fishing grounds.

It was more Peru who wanted to enter into cooperation and to be the partner of Bolivia

Chilean President Sebastian Piñera viewed the judgement as a “regrettable loss.” However, Chilean President-elect, Michelle Bachelet, focused on the fact that “most of the fishing takes place within the territory whereof the court judged belongs to our country. Our fishermen rarely venture further than 40 nautical miles from the coast.” Her Peruvian counterpart, President Ollanta Humala said he was satisfied with the judgement; he was happy seeing the court recognizing the lack of a maritime treaty between the neighbouring countries.

This is the case between Peru and Chile so far. For the matter between Bolivia and Chile, I talked with a history teacher/expert to get to know more about the feelings and opinions from the Bolivians towards the case between Bolivia and Chile.

Shortly after becoming aware of the alliance treaty between Peru and Bolivia, Chile declared war on both countries on April 1879. What made Bolivia want collaboration with Peru?
“I think Bolivia was not searching; it was more Peru who wanted to enter into cooperation and sort of volunteered to be the partner of Bolivia. The most important reason was that Peru was very distrustful with Chile. In 1872, Peruvian foreign relations minister José de la Riva-Agüero believed Chile would use their acquisition of new ironclad ships to take possession of the Bolivian coastline. The treaty made both countries feel safer and stronger against crafty Chile.”

But despite the treaty, the war became big and in the end there was no resistance against the Chileans. Do you think that the whole war could have been avoided?
“Yes, I do believe that the war could have been avoided. Neither Bolivia nor Peru was good prepared. In 1873, the Bolivian army was not (yet) ready for such an attack; certainly not for a war. Also, at that time, border control was very bad, which led to its easy access and many illegal shipments. Finally, the politicians and people who ruled the country at that moment were not yet that vigorous and strong as they needed to avoid the war. All these elements made that a war against Chile inevitable.”

Then Bolivia lost 400 kilometers of coastline as a result and has been landlocked ever since. How has the landlocked situation affected Bolivia? Or does it not affect anything?
“It is terrible. First of all because it has so much influence on our exports and imports; everything must be shipped through other countries. I feel like Bolivia gets excluded. It might sound very childish, but in my opinion Bolivia gets treated as a minority. The import taxes we have to pay are sky-high; surrounding nations can impose brutally high tariffs. That it is not distressing only for the country, but to Bolivians. Our mobility is much less in comparison with Chile; our development is behind. For instance, Bolivia’s internet access is the most expensive. I feel like we do not live in the same era. Our technological (transportation) development is far behind due to our landlocked situation. So yes, it does influence Bolivia, very much so. ”

Also, relations between both countries have suffered for decades and tension between them is increasing. Despite the animosity, I think there is little danger of an armed conflict. What do you think; will there be a possibility of an impending war?
“As an historian, I am always interested in the latest developments of the relations between countries, and right now specifically between Bolivia and Chile. I recently saw a video on Facebook where Bolivians protested in Arica (Chile) against the landlocked situation, resulting in a stern reaction by the Chilean police; enormous manifestations and deadly Bolivian victims. This shows, again, that we are not ready. Chileans buy combat aircrafts, have a strong army, possess high technological products, etc. Chileans “can kick our ass” (beat us in conflict). So no, I am not afraid for war since Bolivia knows full well that it doesn’t stand a chance. Here you can observe the subordinated situation of being landlocked, the opportunities that Chile has, and whose possessions are so much larger then Bolivia’s.”

Nevertheless, Bolivia never stopped fighting. In 2012, Bolivia filed a lawsuit against Chile to reclaim access to the Pacific Ocean. Chile says Bolivia’s demand has no historical or legal basis. What you think about that?
“I think Chile should see the larger picture than only pointing out to the treaty we signed with them. They should think further back, to all the things they did not finished or where they have not kept their word. For example, I refer to the fact that they never fully completed the railroad from La Paz to the port of Arica and our attitude during the gas conflict.”

Evo Morales says the 1904 treaty was effectively imposed on his country through the barrel of a gun. With what kind of arguments will Bolivia appear in court to reclaim their former land?
“I think that they will going to refer to the big help Chile received from the UK, the big influence of the English on Chile, which you can label as ‘not fair’. Then there was the enormous pressure where under the Bolivians had to sign the treaty, which you can label as a ‘threatening’ (for the whole country and habitants).”

If Bolivia would win, what would actually change?
“If I am honest, I do not think it would be extremely different with the current situation. Chile will always want more and more and they are already so much further ahead. I do not think that it is something with whom we can catch up. We have our natural resources which is enriching country and which they cannot take away. Nevertheless, with access to the sea, our development would move increase much more rapidly.”

Finally, the decision of this case will be around April 2015. What do you think of Bolivia’s chances?
“It will be a very diplomatic decision just as with the case between Chile and Peru, a decision somewhere in between which will please both countries more or less.”

In the end, Bolivia depends greatly on Chile, which makes it very difficult to argue with them. Chile can basically do whatever it wants. It limits Bolivia in many ways, it treats Bolivia as inferior, and there is a sort of discrimination going on regarding how Bolivia suffers from its landlocked situation. It influences industrial, social, and political aspects. To refer to the historian: “Like I said, not only the country but Bolivians themselves suffer the brunt of the situation. We know what there is ‘out there;’ we suffer from the limitations, to put it very dramatically.”

Adventures in Chapare
Craving adventures and a different scenery than the more hectic and trafficfilled one in Cochabamba, I decided to take a weekend trip to the village Villa Tunari and its surrounding jungles in the province of Chapare, which is just four hours away from the city. It was truly a trip I will never forget!
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