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A Bolivian Seaside Drama

Building Bridges to the Sea? photo: Señor Hans, flickr

Earlier this week, Bolivia threatened to take Chile before an international court after Chile failed to respond to a deadline set for negotiations to settle a more than 100-year-old dispute between the two nations on questions of access to the Pacific Ocean.

Mr Morales was speaking on Bolivia’s “Day of the Sea”, the day when it commemorates its defeat by Chile in the 19th Century War of the Pacific: “Our fight for maritime re-vindication, which has marked our history for 132 years, must now include another element”, he said at the ceremony in La Paz. “We must go to international tribunals and organizations to demand free and sovereign access to the sea.”

Responding, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said that Santiago sees any negotiation on this matter with La Paz as a “serious obstacle” to their already strained relations. “Bolivia cannot expect a direct, frank and sincere dialogue while it simultaneously manifests its intention to go to international tribunals,” he said.

Bolivia at one time had a piece of the Atacama Desert on the Pacific coast, but it lost it to Chile in 1879 as the result of being on the losing end of the War of the Pacific. Bolivia has never tired of claiming a right to the coast, and the loss remains a fixture of the Bolivian psyche.

Bolivia’s 1879 loss of a considerable chunk of Atacama, including the port of Antofagasta, remains an emotive issue. The landlocked Andean nation thus continues to maintain a small navy, and schoolchildren are taught that regaining access to the sea is a patriotic duty.

The two nations already once broke off all diplomatic relations in 1978 over the disputed territory, and recently-launched negotiations at ministerial level now came to nothing when Chile failed to meet the 23 March deadline to offer “concrete proposals” to satisfy Bolivia’s demands.

It clearly is a touchy subject in both countries. And many ideas – both innovative and unimaginative ones – have been brought up on both sides. Luckily, none of the countries is likely to resort to armed conflict any time soon as a means of resolving the disagreement. The issue will have to be resolved sooner or later. Yet any hope of resolution is hamstrung by the posturing of politicians at all levels, the historical legacy and long-held nationalist views in each country and an unwillingness to enter into serious discussions.