Bolivia hasn’t always been a landlocked country. Many years ago it’s borders stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean, occupying a vast desert landscape once known as Litoral. Unfortunately Bolivia lost their precious coastline to Chile in one of the most famous South American conflicts: The Battle of the Pacific.
In the early 1800’s Chile, Bolivia and Peru were in the process of forming independent nations after the fall of the Spanish Empire. But it didn’t take long for the new countries to start bickering between themselves. Tension began to build over various political and economic disputes.
The arid deserts of Litoral are the perfect climate to preserve vast quantities of Potassium Nitrate, used in explosives and Guano (bird poo), a potent fertilizer. Chilean mining companies had an agreement with Bolivia to exploit these precious resources in return for a share in the profits. However, the Bolivians obviously felt that they were getting a raw deal so in 1878 they decided to add a ten cent tax to every 100 pounds of resources extracted by Chile. Ten cents was a fair bit of money back then and the Chileans were unimpressed. Furthermore, just a few years earlier Bolivia promised that they would not raise taxes for another 25 years. Instead of graciously accepting the new tax and broken promise, Chile declared war.
In February 1879, while Bolivia was busy drinking and dancing for Carnival, Chilean troops invaded the port city Antofagasta. They were met with little resistance and took the city with ease. Bolivia sent troops to defend their territory (presumably after their hangovers had subsided) which culminated in a battle for the city of Calama on March 23. Chile vastly outnumbered Bolivia with 554 soldiers to 135 and easily won the battle. Chilean troops then surrounded the defeated Bolivian General, Eduardo Avaroa, to demand he surrender. Avaroa famously replied “Me surrender? Tell your grandmother to surrender!”. He was subsequently shot dead and the day has since been known as El Dia del Mar throughout Bolivia.
But the War of the Pacific wasn’t over yet. Chile warned Peru not to get involved, urging them to sign a treaty declaring neutrality. Peru considered their options, but ending up siding with Bolivia because they already had a secret treaty promising to military assistance in these situations. However, Chile was clearly the superior military power and dominated Peru so severely that they eventually reached and occupied the capital Lima.
Once Bolivia and Peru knew they had been defeated, they signed separate peace treaties with Chile. Bolivia’s treaty relinquished the entire Bolivian coastline in exchange for Chile constructing a railway line between Arica and La Paz. The railway has since fallen into disrepair.
Almost 150 years later, El Dia del Mar is still observed across the country and remains a sore point for many Bolivians. Huge patriotic parades are held in all major cities featuring displays of national pride from the Bolivian Navy (Navy being a useless military expenditure considering Bolivia doesn’t have a coastline). Government relations between the two countries are tense at the best of times and there is a general feeling of distrust among opposing citizens. Many Bolivians still long for the sea so Morales’ government is taking steps to reclaim lost land through the International Court of Justice, the primary judicial branch of the United Nations located in The Hague, Netherlands.
So why does Bolivia make such a big deal out of a coastline lost so many years ago?
Many of the parades and media coverage are ultimately to sooth an injured national pride. To put it simply, Bolivians don’t like to think they were outsmarted and overpowered by their Chilean counterparts. Having said that, there are significant economic advantages in reclaiming lost land.
While Guano can now be cheaply synthesized and Potassium Nitrate is not as sought after as it used to be, there is still untold wealth in the form of copper and other minerals hidden under the barren desert floor. Chucuicamata near Calama for example, is the biggest open cut copper mine in the world. In fact, Chile’s entire prosperous economy depends heavily on the resource rich lands of the north.
It’s fairly certain that Chile isn’t going to give away their country’s most valuable land without a fight but they could possibly one day share a slice of their seemingly endless coastline. This would make Bolivia very happy, though not for the prospect of a beach vacation as the beaches of northern Chile are not exactly the Caribbean. The water is cold, the sand murky brown, the weather is typically overcast and there is almost no vegetation. Tourism has little potential but the economic advantages of having direct access to the shipping routes of the Pacific Ocean cannot be underestimated. Many goods are very expensive in Bolivia because they have to be imported through neighboring countries while exports would be much more profitable if the country had it’s own seaport.
Morales wants the International Courts to rule the invasion illegal and order Chile to return occupied land. But even the most patriotic Bolivian knows this is wishful thinking. This is a conflict far out-dating UN and international law, not to mention the existence of an undisputed and signed legal document proving a handover of control to Chile. And even if the UN were to rule in Bolivia’s favor, it’s unlikely that Chile would comply without military intervention. Nevertheless, Bolivia continues to pay homage to the war they lost and dream of one day having a coastline of their own on March the 23rd every year.