May 2014

When Bolivia sends a
message in a bottle

Every March 23rd Bolivia celebrates “El día del mar” – “The day of the sea.” This event commemorates the loss of access to the sea during the War of the Pacific between 1879 and 1884. For more than 100 years, the Bolivian people have tried to develop their country – without an advantage of a coastline. Today, President Evo Morales wants to get back the region that was lost to Chile to help the country improve its economic status. On April 24th, 2013, the President made a request to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to negotiate an access to the sea. This, of course, raises some questions.

By: Ian Depauw
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Mouscron - Belgium

With this request, President Morales’ main goal is naturally to benefit Bolivia, but is it legitimate for Bolivia to ask for a border change that was established well over 100 years ago? What could be the outcome for Bolivia from an economic aspect? Will Chileans, who live in former Bolivian, have a nationality crisis if ownership of the territory changes?

To answer these questions, we interviewed a Bolivian from Cochabamba named Christian Claure – a 30-year old alignment technician in Sound Reinforcement Systems; and Juan Alvarez – a Chilean from Arica, Atacama.

1) According to Bolivia’s version, in 1884 Chile took Bolivian territory that provided it access to the sea. Do you agree with this point of view?

Juan, Chile: We know that this territory is the region of Antofagasta, where English companies worked in the salt pains. These companies needed workers, and because they were closer to Chile, they hired Chileans to work with Bolivians, who were also cheaper at that time. Later, the Bolivian government demanded that the English raise their salaries or leave the area. The Bolivian workers were there when these large companies with their economic power insisted that Chile fight to take this area of land. They also insisted for Chile to turn to Peru, as there was a secret contract between Bolivia and Peru which said they would fight together if Chile was to start a conflict. However, this invasion was sponsored by the large English companies.

Christian, Bolivia: I totally agree. During this period – because of the growing interest England and North America had in the nitrate, silver, and copper deposits discovered in the Atacama region – the government showed plenty of interest. Both Bolivia and Chile had made an agreement regarding the extraction of these natural resources. This agreement permitted Chile to extract the nitrate by paying a tax in return. Shortly after, the Bolivian government modified the agreement, which allowed them to gain more out of the deal. Chile saw this as a “violation” of the treaty and seized the town of Antofagasta by force. What Juan is saying is fair, but he forgot to mention the most important part: seven years before the British and American companies came to invest in this region, the liberator Simon Bolivar, who founded the Republic of Bolivia, had asked for the maritime territory of Antofagasta.

“Bolivia receiving coastline now depends completely on a political agreement”

2) What do you think is the probability that Bolivia will get access to the sea? Would you consider that to be legitimate? Why? In what ways could this be beneficial for Bolivia?

Juan, Chile: After the War of the Pacific, Chile signed a treaty with Peru in which they agreed not to isolate Bolivia. The treaty regarded the fact that Bolivia could continue to profit from the sea by using Chile’s ports. Bolivia receiving a coastline now depends completely on a political agreement and, as usual, this is where the large companies get some control over the outcomes of the treaties. They won´t hesitate to inhibit the Chileans and Bolivians. I think that Bolivia could get sea access legitimately, but I also know that the politics for achieving that will be extremely complicated. It could be really beneficial for them. It would mean that they could work without middlemen. It will be also good for the Bolivian people to simply enjoy the sea more easily.


The Pacific Ocean
“It is absolutely legitimate that a democratic country like Bolivia deserves a maritime territory”
Photo: Ximena Noya

Christian, Bolivia: I think and I hope that one day Bolivia will get back the access to the sea. It is absolutely legitimate that a democratic country such as Bolivia to deserve maritime territory. If you ask me, the odds are in favor of Chile, but I haven’t lost hope. It’s important to note that there are many cities in Chile who are in favor of Bolivia. We have to remember that Bolivia was founded with maritime territory, well before Chile indicated its interest in the Atacama area. Bolivia would benefit economically. For example, Bolivia would no longer have to pay tariffs for their imports and exports through Peruvian and Chilean ports.

“It is important to note that the change of nationality should not influence the economy or the education in the area”

3) What do you think about Chileans to change their national identity if the Atacama region of Chile became Bolivian territory?

Juan, Chile: The consequences would be serious for the Chilean people who are living in the villages. These people – who have been there for generations – would suffer from this situation. On the other hand, the companies will not have large problems – they could settle down in other places or countries. Some companies will even be able to sell their infrastructure to Bolivia’s government as well. Both countries would take advantage of the situation.

Christian, Bolivia: This is a very difficult question. If it does happen, we should offer them institutional infrastructures. At an educational level, we would have to make sure families do not suffer due to this change. “It is important to note that the change of nationality should not influence the economy or the education in the area.”

I think that we can reach an agreement which would allow the concerned inhabitants of the Chilean cities to keep their nationality. The truth is that the territory is large. We will not force them to leave their residences because we don’t want to inflict the same treatment Chile inflicted on us one century ago, during the capture of Antofagasta. Holy land…

4) What consequences would Chile suffer if they lost this territory?

Juan, Chile: The territory of Antofagasta once belonged to Bolivia. So for me, I don’t have any problem with that. I think there is not a lot of difference in the people’s minds. It is not going to change very much. We can compare this with the history of when Chile gave the region of Tacna to Peru. The people of Chile who kept their Chilean nationality and those who changed to Peruvian nationality were both harassed by the Peruvians. This could be the same in the case of Antofagasta.

Christian, Bolivia: In the first proposition Bolivia introduced to the court, it reads: According to Bolivia, “Chile has not complied with its obligation and... denies the existence of its obligation.” It is further declared that: (a) Chile has the obligation to negotiate with Bolivia in order to reach an agreement granting Bolivia a fully sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean; (b) Chile has breached said obligation; (c) Chile must perform said obligation in good faith, promptly, formally, within a reasonable time and effectively, to grant Bolivia a fully sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean.”

Canine therapy project
Since the beginning of 2013, a joint program has been launched: the Training Center of Drug Detection Dogs (Centro de Adiestramiento de Canes, C.A.C) in Cochabamba to promote canine therapy. Children with physical and mental disabilities are being comforted by specific trained dogs that stimulate and enhance their self-confidence.
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