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An emphatic NO!! Good for Chile

Chileans see August as “hump month”. Being at the end of their winter, if they survive August and September it’s relatively smooth sailing to finish out the year, get through the end-of-year holidays and then into southern hemisphere summer vacation.

September in Chile means first a society-wide struggle to remember, one way or another, the military coup on the 11th in 1973. Next they collectively eat and drink their way through the Fiestas Patrias, a week long demonstration of unity and national pride for the country’s independence. Then they warily approach the anniversary of the plebiscite that put the nail in the coffin of the Pinochet dictatorship on October 5, 1988. The commemoration of this game changing event reveals the ideological divisions in Chilean society while at the same time celebrates a time when a majority of Chileans showed their commitment to democracy by voting NO!! to Pinochet’s attempt to continue in power.

But this year, 2018, the arrival of October presented Chileans with something special to savor. On October 2, The International Court of Justice (ICJ) announced in the Hague its complete rejection of neighboring country Bolivia’s petition that the court force Chile to negotiate Bolivia’s sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean. A big, emphatic NO!!

Northern Chile

Sovereign access to the Pacific, if obtained by Bolivia, would require acquisition of some part of Chile’s Pacific coast. As a result of the War of the Pacific (1879-1884) and subsequent treaty of 1904, Bolivia lost its 400 kilometer coast to Chile and since then has remained landlocked behind (east of) Chile’s extensive three Northern regions including major mining areas and the port cities of Arica, Iquique, and Antofagasta. Over the years since, Bolivia has attempted to engage Chile in discussions on this issue, and in fact the two countries off and on have held bilateral negotiations regarding many issues inherent to neighboring countries, but no solution to Bolivia’s felt need for sovereign access to the Pacific has been found. At one point during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and the Banzer dictatorship in Bolivia, the idea surfaced of ceding to Bolivia a strip of land between Peru and Chile, extending from the present Bolivian/Chilean border to the Pacific. This arrangement would have required Peruvian agreement, which was not forthcoming, so the idea was dropped.

A series of agreements between Bolivia and Chile facilitate Bolivian access to the Pacific Ocean, mostly Bolivian use of Chilean roads and ports for international trade. Chile claims it is doing everything it has agreed to do to facilitate Bolivian trade through Chile. Bolivian goods  pass through Chile tariff free, controlled by Bolivian customs officers. But Bolivia argues that Chile is applying unnecessary and unfriendly constraints, charges, and delays to Bolivian goods. Notwithstanding the Bolivian complaints about controls and constraints to Bolivian trade through Chile, transit of Bolivian imports and exports through Chile continues to increase.

In both countries, a core issue is a history of nationalist aspirations, complicated by more than a little mutual antipathy stemming from cultural and economic differences, and of course, the War of the Pacific. The Bolivian population has taken the quest for sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean to a high emotional level; on each March 23, they celebrate seriously the “Day of the Sea”. 

Diplomatic relations with Chile were cut by Bolivia in 1978, and President Evo Morales repeatedly criticizes and insults Chilean leaders. Of course he feels that Chile’s resistance to resolution of his dream of returning Bolivia to the Pacific Coast (and hopefully, the city of Antofagasta itself) is intolerably unfriendly and in bad faith. Chile benefited greatly from resources it exploits in what was previously Bolivia, especially copper. And to add fuel to the fire scalding relations between the two countries, Chile has become one of the more well off Latin American countries while Bolivia remains among the poorest.

Some might think that the “slam dunk” nature of the ICJ decision should put the issue to some sort of rest, but Andean politics and personalities being what they are, it’s doubtful, though not impossible. The Bolivian president must now explain to his people why their proposal was so unacceptable. They were led to believe (by him, mostly) that Bolivia would prevail. The decision by the court simply rejects, in no uncertain terms, the idea that Chile be required to negotiate with Bolivia for sovereign access to the Pacific. The Bolivians, you might think, would now temper their public relations campaign in the press and in international political fora, insisting that Chile must cede this access to Bolivia. The IJC decision requires nothing of Chile.

So, what will happen now?

If Chilean leaders and public figures approach this felt victory with some degree of humility and grace, they will let things just meander for a while, to give Bolivians a chance to figure out whom and how to blame for this self inflicted national defeat. Evo Morales will probably have a harder time convincing his people they should forego their law to the contrary and elect him to an unprecedented fourth term in 2019.Eventually, reestablishing diplomatic relations will be a precursor to any other serious collaboration or negotiation on the many important issues pending between the two countries, joint commercial and development activities to benefit both countries.

It is quite unfortunate that this issue has caused such damage over the years to relations in western South America. This region boasts the solidest economies in South America (Colombia, Peru, Chile and Bolivia), all with projected positive economic growth for the near future. More peace and greater prosperity in the Pacific region of South America would surely result if more visionary and creative leaders in Bolivia and Chile can find a mutually satisfactory solution to Bolivia’s historical isolation. Most commentators seem to share this desire. However, they also feel that the reconciliation process between Bolivia and Chile will be slow. If that results to be true, both countries and the region will sacrifice greater progress and development their human and natural resources could provide and which their people deserve.

Chilean Flag

Bolivian Flag







Posted on October 6, 2018, in Leesburg, Virginia.

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David Joslyn
David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile. Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.
David Joslyn

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