Bolivia/Chile Pacific Access

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  • Bolivia demands the unconditional return of land annexed by Chile after the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) in order to regain access to the sea.
  • Lingering hostility, stubbornness on both sides, and the history of the disputed region makes talks between the two nations nearly impossible.
  • If Bolivia wants to regain access to the sea, it will eventually have to compromise and agree to terms it deems unacceptable at this moment.

On March 23, 2011, as the latest move in the longstanding territorial dispute between Bolivia and Chile, Bolivia intensified pressure on Chile in order to secure for itself “free and sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean.”[1] It did so by threatening to bring a case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) located in The Hague.  The War of the Pacific, fought 1879-1883 between Bolivia and Peru on one side and Chile (the eventual winner) on the other, left a bitter legacy that has shrouded the region for decades.  Bolivia has insisted on the unconditional return of a portion of annexed land, hoping to regain its access to the sea.  Despite recent efforts by Bolivia and Chile to calm the two countries’ historically truculent relationship, each nation’s persistent reluctance to resolve outstanding conflicts has stalled talks.  In response to what La Paz perceives as hostile action, a group of Chilean senators threatened to suspend bilateral talks if Bolivia does, indeed, take the case before the ICJ.

As a result of growing tensions, various factors might obstruct the smooth resolution of this 132 year old dispute.  Deep-seated resentments nursed by Bolivians, as well as Chile’s total repudiation of La Paz’s territorial claim, and the sensitive nature of this border dispute, among other reasons, have kept the resolution at a stand-still.  The Atacama Desert, the territory that would provide Bolivia access to the Pacific Ocean, was annexed by Chile following the War of the Pacific.  To comprehend why this issue is so important to Bolivians, one must understand the emotional and economic background behind this impossibly dry, barren, and seemingly useless land.

Setting Borders

Following Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru in 1533, the lands were divided up and definitively demarcated by the Spaniards.  This act was confirmed by Charles V, and shortly after, the Viceroyalty of Peru was established.  However, as trade routes shifted and certain exports declined in value, the Viceroyalty was partitioned to reflect the growing importance of new centers of populations and commerce.  During this period, the Atacama Desert served no discernible economic purpose and was largely left sparsely populated.  Therefore, the nominal borders of the desert temporarily remained unmodified.

The South American independence from Spanish rule in the first part of the 19th century and the creation of the new Bolivian state prompted a buildup of permanent tensions along the border.  Simón Bolivar and General Antonio José de Sucre, the first two leaders of Bolivia, recognized that Bolivia needed access to the sea and claimed the Atacama Desert as Bolivian territory.  In 1806, prior to Bolivian independence, the Viceroyalty of Peru had declared in a report that its southern border was “the desert of Atacama…comprising in all its territory from 32’ to the north of the equinoxial line to 25° 10’ of south latitude.”[2] Given its inheritance of the now-defunct Viceroyalty of Peru’s territories and disregarding Chile’s own preexisting claims, Bolivia established port facilities in the region without consulting its neighbors.

Despite Bolivia’s evidence proving its historical ownership over the area in question, such as old maps and written records, Chile was also able to produce documented evidence exhibiting legislative jurisdiction.  In every version of Chile’s early constitutions, including the ones issued from 1822-23, 1828, and 1832-33, the desert of Atacama was named as the de facto northern border of the country.  However, the exact location of the desert border remained in question.  The ambiguous wording left the northern border in a precarious status.  Then, in the treaty of 1844 between Spain and Chile, the Spanish recognized Chile’s borders as “all the territory which extends from the desert of Atacama to Cape Horn.”[3] Acknowledgment from Spain regarding this border was important because as the former ruler over both countries, it had the clear authority to demarcate its boundary.  Gaining Spain’s recognition of the location of coordinates strengthened Chile’s legitimacy by garnering support from an important nation possessing both power and standing.

Jockeying for Position

The discovery of vast deposits of guano and saltpeter in the Atacama initiated the fight for possession by nations in the immediate vicinity.  Chile arguably possessed a valid legal claim over the Atacama Desert, as could Bolivia due to its history and geographical proximity.  Eventually, the Chileans decided to forgo a modest approach and opted to use a more aggressive method instead.  Chilean smugglers operating off Bolivian-controlled coasts could not resist the lucrative market for saltpeter and guano; thus, illegal operations were encouraged.  After enduring several Chilean incursions on Bolivian soil, Bolivia finally captured a Chilean vessel near Mejillones.  However, the Chilean vessel Chile arrived and recaptured the prisoners, proceeded to disembark at that port, and set up a fort with a Chilean flag flying overhead in the immediate vicinity of where the action had transpired.[4] When confronted by Bolivian authorities, the Chileans dismissed the incident, while the president of Chile declared before congress that the guano deposits that had fallen under Chilean control were legitimately within Chilean territory.  On October 31, 1842, the Chilean Congress passed a bill that stated: “All the guano deposits which exist in the Province of Coquimbo, in the littoral of Atacama, and in the adjacent islands, are hereby declared as national property.”[5]

Chile’s threatening posture during this period displayed a contemptuous disregard for its neighbor and portrayed the haughty attitude that it bore; yet it was a pragmatic approach that it projected more often than not.  The fragility of South American polities upon obtaining independence and the absence of definitive borders with neighboring countries bespoke of a somewhat belligerent attitude each country retained, which at the time was characteristic of the region.  Chile fought and defeated a Peruvian-Bolivian Confederation several years before in the War of the Confederation (1836-1839). The war began because of Chilean fears of the Confederation’s territorial expansion, economic potential, and the inevitably disrupted balance of power on the continent.  Now in an advantageous position, Chile adopted a more practical foreign policy similar to what emerging regional powers around the world were typically maintaining: seek economic and territorial expansion at their neighbor’s expense without fear of serious repercussions.  After a series of negotiations, a treaty was finally brokered in 1866, setting the boundary at the 24°S parallel. The treaty stipulated that all profits generated within the 23rd and 25th parallel from the harvesting of guano and mining of nitrate should be equally divided between Bolivia and Chile.[6]

However, behind this seemingly equal and balanced treaty, there was a clear winner and loser; Chile essentially bullied Bolivia into the agreement.  Chile would receive half of any profits made on the Bolivian side of the boundary from the 23rd to the 24th parallels, and Bolivia would gain the same from the 24th to the 25th parallels.  Chile was able to flex its muscles and, as a result, would acquire new land in which it previously had no interest.  Bolivia also showed that it was prepared to cede more territory than what earlier Chilean claims had called for.[7] The Bolivian diplomats were not unduly enthusiastic about the treaty, expressing their disdain through a variety of protests.  Having to endure the humiliation of losing what they believed to rightfully belong to them, in addition to being forced to pay commercial concessions, deeply embittered their sentiments.

Road to War

Controversy over the application of another treaty signed in 1874 led to the seizure of Chilean assets by Bolivian authorities, which eventually led to the culminating conflict.  The 1874 treaty maintained the border at the 24th parallel, but Chile would no longer receive a share of the profits north of the boundary.  Instead, Chilean businesses were guaranteed no tax increases for 25 years.[8] This new treaty was advantageous in particular to one company, the Compañía de Salitres y Ferrocarril de Antofagasta (Antofagasta Nitrate and Railroad Company), which had vested interests in the Atacama.  Nonetheless, this newly minted treaty was short-lived, as the new Bolivian president, Hilarión Daza, declared the 1874 treaty void because it was never approved by the Bolivian Congress.  In a past border dispute with Argentina, Chile had agreed to generous concessions, so Daza fully expected Chile to do the same once more.  The Bolivian Congress then enacted a new law that placed a 10 cents per quintal tax increase on all nitrate exports.  The Antofagasta Nitrate and Railroad Company vigorously called upon the Chilean government to support them and even advertised their complaint in newspapers to rouse the Chilean public.[9] The Chilean government intervened and asserted that the new tax violated the 1874 treaty.  However, the Bolivian government refused to abandon the new act and declared that if the company did not pay, then its assets would be confiscated and sold.

Prewar Conditions

Even though Bolivia was ill prepared for war at the time, it felt a slight sense of security from a secret defense pact it previously signed with Peru.  Concluded in 1873 when negotiations with Chile seemed to falter, the pact stipulated that when one party established that the other’s sovereign rights were intruded on, they were empowered to cut all diplomatic relations with the aggressor country and immediately aid the defending party.[10]

Daza, perhaps overly confident with the safety net provided by this treaty, failed to realize the reality of the region’s perilous situation.  Although the combined armies of Peru and Bolivia outnumbered Chilean forces by at least two to one[11], the Peruvian-Bolivian forces were relatively weaker due to a lack of discipline and use of inferior weaponry.  Bolivia and Peru were also hindered by their geographical terrain, making rapid mobilization a formidable challenge.  Additionally, Bolivia’s economy was unable to adequately support a war and remained stagnant, prompting the government to allow foreign companies to exploit their resources as a last resort.[12]

Meanwhile, Chile was not without its own troubles, though it was in a far better state compared to Bolivia.  Chile’s internal structure, with its social unity and stable political organization, allowed for far greater efficiency.[13] New additions to its navy put it on par with the Peruvian squadrons at the time.  However, like Bolivia and Peru, the Chilean economy was in a state of stagnation.  Alejandro Garland, a contemporary Peruvian statesman, commented that: “Great sums having been spent in the accumulation of warlike elements, the financial position of Chile was very critical.”[14] With its worsening economy, Chile was open, perhaps even eager, to fight over the vast resources the Atacama offered.

The Pacific War

When the tax payment was not made, the Bolivian government proceeded to seize Chilean assets and planned to auction them off.  Infuriated, Chile sent a warship to Antofagasta, where it landed 500 troops and occupied the city without meeting any resistance.  Aníbal Pinto, the Chilean president, was compelled by the press and other politicians to seize further areas around Antofagasta.  Pinto also realized the urgency that the escalating situation dictated, as he was aware of Bolivia’s secret pact with Peru.  Peru offered to mediate; however, when the Chileans asked for Peru to sign an agreement of neutrality, it was unable to comply due to its prior secret treaty with Bolivia.  Therefore, worried that Peru would secretly mobilize for war, Chile declared war on Bolivia and Peru in April of 1879.[15]

The war came to an end with the signing of two separate treaties.  Chilean forces fought deep into Peruvian territory, even capturing the capital city of Lima.  Chile and Peru signed the Treaty of Ancón in October 1883.  Peru was to cede the Tarapacá province, while the cities of Tacna and Arica were to be administered by Chile for ten years. After which, a plebiscite would determine to which country they belonged.[16] With Bolivia, the Truce of Valparaíso was signed in April 1884, forcing Bolivia to surrender its coastal territory.  A formal peace treaty was then signed in 1904 which enabled Chile to permanently annex the Atacama.  It also stipulated the Bolivian right to import and export goods through Arica and Antofagasta and to install customs stations in these areas.  Bolivia was to acquire 75 percent and Chile 25 percent of import duties collected from these stations.[17]


As a landlocked nation, ever since the peace draft was signed, Bolivia has continued to push for its lost coastal territory, though its efforts to compromise have made little progress. For example, while Chile was discussing the Tacna-Arica issue with Peru in 1922, Bolivia demanded to be included in the talks, in hopes of regaining access to the sea.  Chile wanted to wait until the negotiations with Peru were finished, but Bolivia disregarded these concerns and presented the case before the League of Nations anyway, which did not work in Bolivia’s favor.[18] Further frustration over the lack of progress made on this issue led to the severing of diplomatic relations in 1964 by Bolivia’s then-president, Victor Paz Estenssoro.

Eventually in 1975, diplomatic ties between Chile and Bolivia were re-established, and the two countries were once again ready for serious discussion.  Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet proposed an exchange: land in the Atacama would be given to Bolivia in return for land similar in size elsewhere.  Bolivia rejected this proposal since they felt they should not have to give up land in order to gain what they believed was rightfully theirs.  Peru also raised an issue with this proposal, citing that the 1929 treaty stated that Peru must be consulted on any arrangement between Chile and Bolivia regarding land that had previously belonged to Peru.[19] Peru even offered its own suggestion of designating Arica as a tri-national city, with each country sharing joint sovereignty, but this too was rejected.

Since then, minor steps have been taken to timidly advance the issue.  An agreement signed in October 2010 between Peru and Bolivia granted Bolivia access to a 1.4 mile stretch along the coastline under a 99-year lease.[20] Initially signed in 1992, this agreement provided Bolivians a glimmer of hope—a step towards expanded economic opportunities at sea and a chance to regain lost dignity.  Bolivia will be allowed to operate a port named “Bolivamar” through which they can export their abundant supply of natural resources to different parts of the globe, specifically to Asia.  Viviana Caro, the Bolivian minister for planning and development, estimated that gaining direct access to the sea would reduce the distance goods need to travel to Asian markets by as much as 40 percent.[21] Also, in 2006, Chile and Bolivia agreed to adhere to a 13-point agenda, a roadmap for improving relations, in which access to the sea was included.


Spirited negotiations between the two countries since the second half of the 20th century demonstrate the absolute determination of the Bolivian people to reclaim land that they feel is rightfully theirs.  The willingness of the Chileans to at least come to the negotiating table and earnestly address an agenda containing terms that are acceptable to both sides is a step in the right direction.  However, the outlook remains quite grim.  Politically, too much time has passed for Chile to return all of the land that was originally Bolivia’s or address all of the unresolved issues.  Because the Atacama is predominantly populated by Chileans, it is unrealistic to consider all of these locations under Bolivian jurisdiction.  Also, the small strip of land in the far north that Chile originally offered to Bolivia was annexed Peruvian land.  Therefore, Peru would consequently block any resolutions containing this land.  Meanwhile, ceding a sliver of the former Bolivian territory is also out of the question for Chile, as it would divide the country into two parts.  The perpetual stalemate continues to erode the pride of Bolivians, causing them to push forward with their original demands.  Chilean compliance with this, however, is impossible: countries simply do not hand back sovereign territory out of pure generosity.  If any administration were to do this, it would lose all chances for reelection.  Such offers, therefore, are merely instances of posturing by Chilean leaders.

So what are some viable options that the Bolivian and Chilean governments can take?  One option is to continue on the situation’s present course and have La Paz take its case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.  Chile has warned against this action, threatening a severe deterioration of relations if the threat is carried out.  Since there is currently a pending case concerning another boundary dispute involving Peru, Santiago cannot afford to have yet another looming legal action brought against it.  Not only would this damage Chile’s carefully dressed reputation in the international arena, but a case brought by South America’s poorest country would only make Chile seem like an unrelenting bully.  Furthermore, leaving the fate of this contention up to an international court would represent a risky move.  It is unlikely that the court would rule in Bolivia’s favor because the land was legally annexed after a war; even if they did rule in Bolivia’s favor, the court does not have any executive power to actually implement the ruling.  Therefore, it would be in Chile’s best interest to attempt to quietly settle the matter with Bolivia and not take a chance on potentially tarnishing its national image.

A more violent and far less likely course of action would be for Bolivia to declare war against its neighbor.  Throughout history, if a country sought to regain its land, it would either have to win it back in another war or negotiate terms immediately after the previous war.  Unfortunately for Bolivia, the terms were deliberated over 100 years ago, and the Bolivian military stands no chance against Chile’s formidable armed forces.  Therefore, it would not bode well for Bolivia to solve its problem through armed conflict.

Another idea is to designate a governance controlled by all three countries.  While this may be ideal, many complications could arise from the amount of cooperation this would require.  First, it would not entirely satisfy Bolivia’s demand for complete and sole sovereignty over the disputed area.  Also, this shared governing structure would require demilitarization of the area and would create an inability to unilaterally administer its laws.  If a Chilean and a Bolivian went to court, under whose laws would the defendant be tried?  Confusion in the operational logistics and administration, along with unhealthy competition within the city, would surely ensue and cause setbacks.  This idea was previously proposed, but for obvious reasons it was rejected at the time.

The most practical, but also least popular, solution would be for Bolivia to agree to drop its claim and be content with only reaping the economic benefits of using Chilean ports.  Bolivia currently has free access to Chilean ports, but national pride has thus far prevented La Paz from concluding any commercial agreements with Chile.  Peru formalized its own deal with Chile in May 1993.  This treaty guaranteed the terms of a 1929 agreement in which Chile would construct several items for Peru, including a landing stage for Peruvian ships, a customs office, and a terminal station for the Tacna railway.  Chile would also allow complete freedom of access and use of that transit.[22] An agreement similar to Peru’s is the most sensible and logical course of action for Bolivia.

Understandably, the Bolivian people will not stand for this, as it has been culturally ingrained that the disputed land rightfully belongs to Bolivia.  Numerous presidents have promised to regain the lost territory, and schools teach that this land should be returned to its rightful owner – Bolivia.  But if Bolivia wants to normalize relations with Chile and ensure a healthy and beneficial future, it must turn its focus elsewhere.  Continuously struggling toward an impossible end will only result in further disappointment and, ultimately, missed opportunities for peace and prosperity.

The references for this article can be found here.