BOLIVIA INTENT ON REGAINING ACCESS TO THE PACIFIC
LANDLOCKED BOLIVIA'S NAVY, REINSTATED IN 1963, PATROLS RIVERS, LAKE TITICACA, AWAITING OPPORTUNITY TO SAIL FROM PACIFIC SHORES
27 September 2006
After the 1879 War of the Pacific, Chile retained control of coastal territory that had previously been party of Bolivia, leaving the Andean nation landlocked. The nation famous as a symbol of Spanish imperial wealth, for the Potosí silver mines, the richest ever uncovered, would be geographically isolated and would become the poorest nation in South America.
In 1963, then Pres. Víctor Paz Estenssoro formed a new navy, the first move in a long-running bid to regain a stretch of coastline and become a shipping and seafaring nation of trade once more. For decades, Bolivian relations with Chile have been strained by this desire to reverse an historic transfer of territory and by the intransigence of Chile in the matter.
Today, Bolivia's hydrocarbon industry is in rapid expansion, and successive governments have seen it as an able tool for stirring popular sentiment and for political maneuvering. Previous governments have tried to keep control of the industry away from the local indigenous peoples whose lands it exploits, while Evo Morales, Bolivia's current and first indigenous president, now seeks to use the industry as a means of transferring more wealth and opportunity to those peoples, principally Aymara speakers.
A few years ago, when Chile found itself with a fuel shortage and Argentina offerred to sell some of its Bolivian supply, Bolivia threatened to cut off Argentina's supply, if it assisted Chile with Bolivian gas. The goal, then and now, is to pressure the Chilean government to return a portion of coastline to Bolivia, where students still learn that the War of the Pacific was a military land-grab by Chile.
When Pres. Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, in 2003, gave his support to plans to export Bolivian natural gas to North America by way of Chilean ports, resulting protests forced him to flee the country. Morales, whose political platform protects coca-growing for farmers who don't use the plant —traditional in Aymara culture— for development of narcotics, has also upheld the "gas for sea" policy toward Chile.
Vice Admiral José Alba Arnez, commander general of the Bolivian Navy, told the New York Times "We don't want it all back. All we want is a 10-kilometer strip to call our own." Morales has told a gathering celebrating the reinstatement of the Navy 43 years ago that they should expect "to return at any moment to the Pacific Ocean."
At the conference of Non-Aligned states in Havana, Cuba, earlier this month, addressing a sub-group of 31 landlocked developing countries, Pres. Morales proclaimed his hope to soon withdraw Bolivia from the group. But the mineral content of the northern Chilean territory would appear to make a return of that land unlikely. Negotiations, at least, if they arise, would be heated and difficult.
There is pressure in Bolivia for Evo Morales to deliver rapid economic and social reform, as he promised, and returning to the sea remains a strong national aspiration. But the War of the Pacific was fought over control of nitrate deposits and the north still provides a mining boom for Chile.
To some extent, regional politics require a resolution of this 127-year-old issue. But the region's most prosperous economy has not been historically interested in parcelling out pieces of its remote but resource-rich north, even to aid its poorest neighbor. Bolivia is still hoping denial of access to hydrocarbon fuels will balance Chile's economic interests and lead to a negotiated restitution. [s]
More than 50 heads of state have gathered in Havana, Cuba, for a summit meeting to organize a geopolitical policy that would resist unipolar US control of economic and strategic affairs. The summit is a prelude to the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York, this week. The summit placed strengthening of diplomatic institutions and promotion of economic development in poor regions as priorities. [Full Story]