The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has recently ruled that Chile is not required to enter negotiations with Bolivia over access to the sea. Bolivia lost its coastal regions following defeat to Chile in 1884 at the end of the War of the Pacific. Much of the media reported this story as if this lack of sea access has held up the country’s development. Bolivia’s GDP per capita is $3,394 compared to $15,364 in Chile. This is complete rubbish. The country with the highest GDP per capita in the world is Liechtenstein at $139,100. Next is Luxembourg at $105,803. Next is Switzerland at $80,591. All are landlocked, hundreds of miles from the sea.
No. Bolivia has made a fetish of this issue to divert its population’s attention from its real problems which are the consequence of following a socialist programme of economic development. When Chile did the same in the early 1970s it was one of the poorest countries on earth. It has become one of the richer countries in South America, despite occasional socialist interruptions to its government, by following a more liberal economic programme. It has, for example, more free trade agreements with the rest of the world than any other country bar none.
Despite being landlocked Bolivia maintains a navy and celebrates Dia del Mar (Day of the Sea) every year on 23rd March. Quite a substantial proportion of Bolivian trade goes through Chilean ports and Chile grants duty free access to the northern port of Arica. The socialist President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, demands “sovereign access" to the Pacific Ocean, presumably by establishing a land corridor and port under Bolivian control. However, by a majority of 12 to 3, the ICJ, which is backed by the United Nations, decided that Chile has no obligation to enter talks on the matter.
The Guerra del Pacifico (War of the Pacific) took place between Chile and a Bolivian-Peruvian alliance in 1879 to 1884. It was fought over Chilean claims on coastal Bolivian territory in the Atacama Desert. It ended with victory for Chile, which gained as a result substantial territory from Peru and Bolivia, rich in mineral resources, particularly nitrates.
In February 1878, Bolivia imposed a new tax on a Chilean mining company despite its express guarantee in the 1874 Boundary Treaty that it would not increase taxes on Chilean persons or companies for 25 years. Chile protested and applied for mediation, but Bolivia refused saying it was a matter for Bolivian courts. Chile insisted stating that it would no longer be bound by the 1874 Boundary treaty if Bolivia did not enforce the law. On Valentine’s Day 1879, when Bolivian authorities tried to put up for auction the confiscated property of the Chilean mining company, the Chilean military occupied the port city of Antofagasta.
It turned out that Peru and Bolivia had entered a secret treaty of alliance in 1873 and so Peru tried to mediate, but on 1st
March Bolivia declared war on Chile and called on its ally Peru to join forces. Chile asked Peru to declare its neutrality. Bound by its treaty with Bolivia, Peru refused. Chile had no choice but to declare war on both nations which it did on 5th
But the background to this was more subtle. All three nations had gained independence from Spain around the same time, though there is a substantial difference between the dates of declaration of independence in the 1810s and the final recognition of it by Spain in 1836. By 1879 Chile had achieved power, prestige and relative stability in contrast to the economic deterioration and political instability which characterised Peru and Bolivia after independence. There was intense rivalry between Peru and Chile and the borders over which they fought were by no means well defined.
The role of the Chilean navy was crucial as it defeated the Peruvian navy and thus established a supply corridor to the Atacama Desert, the world’s driest, where the Chilean army defeated the Bolivian military. Bolivia retreated after the Battle of Tacna on 26th
May, 1880. The Chilean army advanced as far as Lima in January 1881. Peruvian army irregulars fought a somewhat pointless guerrilla war but Chile and Peru signed the Treaty of Ancón on 20th
October, 1883. Bolivia then signed a truce with Chile the following year.
Chile gained the Peruvian region of Tarapacá and the Bolivian territory of Litoral, thus cutting Bolivia off from the sea. Crucially in 1904, Chile and Bolivia signed the “Treaty of Peace and Friendship” which established definite boundaries. The 1929 Tacna-Arica compromise gave Arica to Chile and Tacna to Peru but made no concession to Bolivia.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of war, under international law a treaty signed by both parties at the end of a war determines the relative status of those two nations. Any other interpretation would take us back to the Dark Ages. Indeed the very status of these independent nations would be in question. They won their independence through conflict and that was eventually recognised by Spain and other powers. If we go further back then we should reinstate the authority of the conquered indigenous peoples, from whom Evo Morales is descended.
It reminds me of the dispute that Argentina maintains over the Falkland Islands or Las Malvinas as they are called in Argentina. (See my blog The Falklands Conflicts
16 June 2012 https://www.davidcpearson.co.uk/blog.cfm?blogID=214
) Despite clear legal title, a successful war to defend them from illegal occupation and an overwhelming majority of inhabitants in favour of British rule, still Argentina bangs on about its claims. The Falkland Islands are 800 miles from Argentina, about the same distance as Iceland is from the UK. The only reason they continue to make these spurious claims is to set up an external “enemy” on which the population can vent its spleen rather than on the incompetent and/or corrupt government of the day.
Chile has also had its disputes with Argentina over territory, specifically over the so-called Beagle islands. Named after Charles Darwin’s ship these uninhabited rocks were of no particular strategic value although it was conceivable that there might have been hydrocarbons nearby. But that is not the point to the Argentine nation. Its politicians, whether military or of dubious democratic authority, often need to divert the population from their disastrous management of the economy. The Beagles had been claimed by the Chileans long ago but the Argentinians had counterclaimed. The Chileans suggested this claim should be referred to independent adjudication. At various times Queen Victoria, the Pope and a panel of five international judges were asked to settle the dispute and all decided in favour of Chile. On the last occasion, in 1971 the Chilean and Argentine Presidents signed a treaty to submit it to independent arbitration. In 1977 the judges delivered their verdict that the islands were Chilean. The Argentinians responded with a military attack on Chile in 1978 which was subsequently aborted.
After General Galtieri resigned from the office of president at the end of the Falklands War plans were found for further attacks on Chile.
A few years ago I suggested to the then Chilean Ambassador to the Court of St James’ that a possible diplomatic solution to the dispute would be for Chile and Bolivia to combine forces over lithium. Chile has the largest identified resources of lithium in the world and is the second largest producer after Australia, but it has five times the reserves of Australia. Bolivia, while well behind in production, may have even larger reserves. So my idea was for the two nations to bury the hatchet over access to the sea and instead combine, not just to mine lithium but to add substantial value by producing batteries and other products. The world is rapidly converting its car fleet to electric cars which are all powered by lithium batteries. Most of the world’s population has a mobile phone, all of which are powered by lithium batteries. Now that the dispute has been settled, at least by the courts, perhaps my idea can be revived.