July 15, 2005

Bolivia-Chile Relations

MABB © ®

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.


Juanson said...

Wow. I had no idea that Bachelet was actually going to go to the bargaining table. That's fantastic.

Also, a point that I would add is the racism that many Chileans (esp. young people) have towards Bolivians. They view Bolivians as darker skinned, more indigenous, less civilized. This crass characterization is often due to the fact that many Bolivian immigrants perform low wage labor in Chile.

Robert Mayer said...

Great article Miguel, and I must admit that I am generally biased toward Chile since many of my friends are from there and I lived there for a few years. But the energy issue is an important one. While I definitely don't think that Chile should just give up land for nothing (just because Bolivia keeps moaning for it), I think energy for direct sea access would be an interesting and beneficial compromise for both countries. One of the periods of time I lived in Chile was during the '99 energy crisis, at which point a lot of the day went by without any electricity. Talk about great economic growth and friendly relations for both if the two were to work on that together!

Miguel said...

Christian: Yes, Bachelet has indicated she would negotiate. However, she still needs to do it officially. I imagine it'll depend on whether this position will translate in more votes or not.

There is an interesting poll in La Tercera, where they ask Chileans whether they are in favor or against Chile giving Bolivia access to the sea. I haven't seen it yet, though.

Yes, unfortunately that racism does not come only from Chileans. Bolivian society is very racist as well. Lighter skinned Bolivians discriminate against darker skinned Bolivians. It is a question of how light is your skin. That happens even though the majority of Bolivians have some indigenous blood.

Robert: Yes, it would be very benefitial to take advantage of the synergy. The problem is that it is a very, very, complicated problem. It is very hard to go pass the two countries' idiosyncracies.

Alfredo said...

Robert Mayer Quote "I must admit that I am generally biased toward Chile since many of my friends are from there and I lived there for a few years. But the energy issue is an important one. While I definitely don't think that Chile should just give up land for nothing (just because Bolivia keeps moaning for it)

Firts of all I assume you are not from Chile. Growing as a Bolivian in school they teach you that "Is the duty of all Bolivians to get back our Sea" This land was unfairly and abusedly taking from us in a period of time where our country was weak on any aspect. Economically we as a Major producer of many goods we have the chance to have our own port where we can export and import freely.
We as Bolivians we are not "Moaning" for a piece of land, we just want what was taken from us. a piece of land that sooner or latter chile as to give it back.

Sorry my grammar is not good, but I know you know better ;-)

Miguel said...

Yes Alfredo, that is an interesting point I thought of pointing out too.

As far as I know, there are two versions of who started the Pacific War. Bolivians get taught Chile invaded Bolivia because they were greedy. Chileans get taught that it was Bolivia who started to be agressive.

For Bolivians, it is a matter of justice. For Chileans it is a matter of law.

As long as these extreme versions exist (they keep getting taught in schools) the problem is going to be very hard to resolve with the backing of the population. Any politician worth its votes, has to take a stand on the issue. And guess what, it's usually the same. In Bolivia, the sea must be recovered. I Chile, the treaty must be respected.

That is why I find the current developments interesting. We are getting to a point where the balance is changing, and I would argue, in favor of Bolivia. If Bolivians are smart about it, they would conceivably end up with sea access and good commercial relations with Chile.

Robert Mayer said...

Alfredo, I know where you're coming from, though I don't know if it can be a right considering Bolivia did lose the war, irregardless of who started it. Countries do tend to negotiate treaties from a position of weakness when they lose.

So here's the thing. As has been pointed out, Chilean politicians use as an excuse the "legality" of it. But the fact is, most Chileans just don't want to give it back. The problem for Bolivia is that it doesn't have to irregardless of how much it wants it.

That's why I am so interested in what Miguel is bringing up. If Bolivia has something to bargain with, especially with an increasingly relevant commodity, they can gain a lot of leverage at the negotiating table that will be worth both countries' while. I'm in favor of that, and the added bonus would be the stability that the economic growth would bring.

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