Bolivian nationalism is being whipped up ahead of the national ‘Day for the Sea’ this Thursday, led by the hashtags #ElMarNosUne & #MarParaBolivia and slogans such as ‘Bolivia Nacio Con El Mar’ (Bolivia was born with the sea) and ‘Los Bolivianos Tenemos Derecho Al Mar’ (Bolivians have a right to the sea). They want back the coastline they lost in 1879-83 to Chile in the War of the Pacific, and the reasons are many. But will they get it?
Back in 1879, 54years after Bolivia achieved Independence on 6 August 1825 from the Spanish Empire, the Chilean army & navy launched a landgrab to the north, taking Bolivia’s sole stretch of coastline and a chunk of southern Peru as well. Victory was easy for the much better prepared & armed Chileans (supported by the British Empire!), while the performance of the Bolivian army & navy was typically useless and led by military idots and self-interested politicians….although some later became ‘national heroes’!?
For Bolivia the issue of regaining their coastline / direct access to the sea has been a national obsession every since. On countless occassions they have been out-thought by the much more strategic & better organised Chileans. Not least because the Chileans have continually used the issue as a bargaining chip in their ruthless search for ever greater access to Bolivia’s natural resources to aid their own economy, and have cut numerous deals only to never fulfill their promises to Bolivia. The major problem for Bolivia has been the selfish & self-interested nature of their leading politicians, who since Independence have put their own and/or their regional & industrial interests ahead of any sense of the national interest. In shoring up their own support they have used patronage & corruption to the extreme, whilst themselves being very open to corruption from foreign interests – be they other national governments or corporations.
With no sea access Bolivia has never been able to directly export it’s natural resources, instead it’s cut numerous deals, nearly always to its own national disadvantage (but usually to the benefit of its leaders!), with neighbouring countries (or the likes of the UK & USA). Where it has built pipelines to the coast it has been subject to extensive duties & taxes, and has been ripped off by the corporations who have provided the infrastructure – this is dealt with extensively in Pete Good’s book ‘Bolivia – between a rock & a hard place‘.
And the coastline isn’t all it’s lost over the years since 1825. In a succession of disastrous wars it has lost at least a third of its territory to the likes of Brazil, Paraguay & Chile, along with of course countless billions of Bolivianos in resources & trade. Now though, Bolivia, led by President Evo Morales, fancies it’s chances. It has had a degree of backing in recent years from various international bodies & courts. Additionally the left-government of Morales is hoping it can cut a deal with the left’ish-government of President Michelle Bachelet in Chile. But it’s never going to be that simple, given the many years of bad history between the two countries…One wonders too if Morales is using the issue to whip up nationalism & national ‘unity’ at a time his Govt. faces problems on many fronts, and his own hitherto untouchable popularity is being questionned?
Last weekend Chile arrested 9 Bolivians amidst allegations of the robbing of trucks. Bolivia maintains they were 2 soldiers & 7 customs officers involved in anti-drug smuggling operations on Bolivian territory against Chilean gangs. That came at the start of 4 days of activities in the run up to 23 March, and has led to an increasingly fraught war of words. Here in Sucre we’ve seen marches & public information events supporting #MarParaBolivia. By Thursday we’ll be in Potosi, nowhere near the sea, but Potosi is understood to have enormous untapped underground water resources…that the Chileans would love to access to help their industries over the border. Who knows what the state of play will be when we attempt to cross from Bolivia into Chile in a couple of weeks time…?