July 15, 2005

Bolivia-Chile Relations

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The relations between Bolivia and Chile are defined around several points:

  • Access to the Pacific coast for Bolivia
  • Access to the water of the river Silala
  • Free access for Bolivian export products in the port of Iquique
  • The demining of the Bolivian-Chilean border (by the Chilean military)
  • The proposed natural gas ring
  • A proposal by Chile to eliminate the use of passports to enter or exit both countries

The stone blocking the further development of what otherwise (in my opinion) would be a very fruitful relationship is the first point, i.e. free and sovereign access to the pacific coast for Bolivia.

Bolivia and Chile have been hanging on this point for ever. On the one side, Bolivians see this issue in terms of natural rights whereby Bolivia being born with a coast line to the Pacific and due to an unjust war of agression it was lost. Almost every Bolivian government has made this demand an official policy. There is overwhelming support for this policy and it seems that it is expected by the population. On the other side, the Chilean government has replied and still replies with the 1904 treaty signed between the three countries involved in the war, Bolivia, Chile and Peru. The official policy coming from Santiago is that the treaty cannot be altered because doing so would be a violation of international law.

What is interesting though, are recent developments on this issue. First, we have a stronger stance from the part of Bolivia, which is intent on brigning the issue on the table. There is almost an air of intransigence when it comes to the Bolivian diplomacy "forcing" the issue in every encounter with their Chilean counterparts and also in every international venue they can use. A second development is the need for energy from the part of Chile and recent discoveries of huge natural gas deposits in Bolivia. This has had an effect of placing Bolivia in a stronger possition to negotiate. Simply because Chile is in almost desperate need of energy and, whether it likes it or not, it is geographically dependent from Bolivian natural gas. Bolivia is the place where it would make most sense to import energy for Chile.

A third and last development is, I think, more a result of the first and the second developments. Chile is in an election year. It is set to hold presidential elections on December 11, 2005. Five months into the elections, there is already a clear winner, her name is Micelle Bachelet from the government alliance. According to the latest polls, Bachelet is the favorite candidate with a commanding lead of 47% over her immediate opponents, Juaquin Lavin with 22% and Sebastian Pinera with 16%. This commanding lead is apparently due to her perceived competence and the excelent approval for her alliance which is the current government led by the equally highly approved Ricardo Lagos. Bechelet however, has indicated that she is willing to enter in serious talks with Bolivia over the sea access issue. And what is more impressive and encouraging for Bolivians is the fact that people in Chile support this move by Bechelet.

If Bechelet is able to capitalize on her lead until December (her goal is to have only one round of elections), she might become the first woman president of Chile and the person who will be able to settle once and for all this issue between Chile and Bolivia. Bolivians should be observing keenly what happens this December in Chile.