In April 1884, Bolivia and Chile signed a treaty that ended the War of the Pacific and ceded 240 miles of coastline — Bolivia’s only outlet to the sea — to the Chilean victors.
In September 2015, the International Court of Justice at the UN ruled that it would hear the Bolivian government’s argument that Chile must negotiate with it for a new route to the sea.
A final decision is months, if not years, away.
But after 131 years, Bolivia may soon touch the sea once more.
The War of the Pacific
Bolivia, Chile, and Peru had competing claims over an arid but mineral-rich portion of the Atacama Desert since gaining their independence from Spain in the mid-1820s, a consequence of unclear Spanish colonial boundaries in the area.
By the late 1870s, the competition over the area’s sodium nitrate deposits had pushed tensions higher, and a tax dispute led to war in 1879.
The war that followed raged on the Pacific Ocean, across harsh deserts, and into the mountains of the Andes.
Chile soon gained an advantage, occupying Lima in 1881. By 1883, Peru bowed out of the conflict, signing a peace deal. Bolivia signed a truce a year later.
The territorial shifts the war brought helped make it one of the most important military actions of the late 19th century.
Chile gained from its foes most of what are now its three northernmost regions, which then supplied it with the bulk of its government revenues for the next forty years.
Peru lost vital resource-rich provinces in its south (though it regained some land in 1929).
A 1904 treaty made this loss permanent in exchange for Chile allowing Bolivian trade access to the sea through Chilean territory.
Bolivia has been consigned to landlocked status ever since. (The quest for sea access would lead Bolivia into another war with Paraguay a half-century later.)
The war of words
Relations between Bolivia and Chile have been strained ever since. With the exception of a brief period in the 1970s, the two countries have not had full diplomatic relations in decades.
In recent years, leaders from each country have berated the other for the impasse that persists.
While Bolivia still has access to ports in northern Chile, the country has said the Chileans have backed out of agreements granting Bolivia access to other ports. While Bolivia is itself rich in natural gas, the extensive copper deposits discovered in what is now Chilean territory have no doubt attracted attention across the border.
In December 2012, Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia called Chile “the bad boy of the region” whose behaviour was “unfriendly, provocative and aggressive.”
The next month, Chile’s then-President Sebastian Pinera dedicated a speech at a regional summit to rebuking Bolivia, telling his neighbour to be “more respectful of the truth.”
Chile has invoked the 1904 treaty to defend its claim on the territory, saying, “no one in the world will accept that a country unilaterally dismisses a treaty which is in full force.”
Indeed, despite Bolivian President Evo Morales’ claim that the treaty was forced on his country “down the barrel of a gun,” the country’s suit, filed with the ICJ in April 2013, only asks the court to compel Chile to negotiate “in good faith” with Bolivia over the latter country’s access to the sea.
In September this year, the court assented to Bolivia’s request, and agreed that it had the jurisdiction to hear the case.
Chile argued its territory was defined by previous treaties, but, the court ruled, prior treaties did not cover “Chile’s alleged obligation to negotiate Bolivia’s access” to the Pacific Ocean, said ICJ judge Ronny Abraham in the court’s 14-2 decision.
“Chile’s objection to jurisdiction [of the court] … must accordingly be dismissed,” Abraham added.
The rule has led to a new round of posturing.
According to Bolivia’s vice president, Álvaro García Linera, “the government of Chile is clinging to the logic of the 19th century, and that is not going to take them anywhere. Bolivia is invoking the justice, they history, and the logic of the 21st century.”
Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, said her country maintains “the firm conviction that the Bolivian demand lacks all basis, as it confuses rights with aspirations.”
Morales, whose country celebrates the Day of the Sea every March 23 by marching through the streets with model ships and pictures of the ocean and with the landlocked country’s navy in full uniform, said the September 24 ruling was “a day Bolivians would never forget.”
For Morales and Bachelet, the ruling is likely imbued with political importance.
Bachelet, who was elected in late 2013 with 62% of the vote, has seen her popularity shrink to just 20%, while disapproval of her administration reached 72%, according to a recent poll. The Chilean public, however, has shown strong support for resisting giving up control over the land in question.
In Bolivia, the country will vote in a national referendum in February that would allow Morales to seek a third term in office, which has said he will do if the measure is approved. His current term ends in 2020.
Whatever the domestic political implications, the matter is far from settled.
“Bolivia hasn’t won anything,” said Bachelet.
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