How Chile quashes Bolivia

On 21 February 2016 Bolivians went to the polls to approve or disapprove a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed President Evo Morales to run in 2019 for a consecutive term ending in 2025, for a total of two decades in office.

According to official results, 48.70% of Bolivian registered voters approved the proposed amendment while 51.30% disapproved.  This was the first major loss suffered by President Morales in his 10 years in office.  His approval ratings during this period hover around 75%.

Retired Chilean diplomat Jorge Canelas recently assessed the prospects of improving relations of his country with its immediate neighbor Bolivia, severed since 1978 by the Bolivian government.  He did so in an article published in El Libero on 26 February 2016.

In his article Ambassador Canelas celebrates what the takes to be a frontal clash with reality on the part of President Evo Morales.  He argues with unabashed enthusiasm that the results of the referendum in Bolivia open an opportunity for Chile to recover the initiative it lost a while ago.  He assumes the referendum was a major blow to President Morales in general and to his policy towards Chile in particular, ignoring the fact that this policy enjoys widespread support in Bolivia.

From 2010 to 2014 Ambassador Canelas served as Chile’s Consul General in Bolivia, the highest rank allowed when diplomatic relations are severed.  He is the grandson of a Bolivian who went to study medicine in Chile.  Like many other Bolivians, his grandfather ended up marrying a local girl and staying for life in the new country.

In spite of his roots and familiarity with Bolivia, Ambassador Canelas insinuates in his article that Bolivia is on the verge of regime change on account of the results of the 21 February referendum.  According to him the NO of this referendum is similar to the NO given by the Chilean people in October 1988 to Pinochet’s attempt to remain in power after 15 years of bloody dictatorship.

That result led to regime change.  Presidential and parliamentary elections took place as scheduled on December 14, 1989.  Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin won and took office on the following March.  On 21 February 2016 the Bolivian electorate rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed President Morales to run for an additional term in 2019.  Surveys show that many of the people who voted NO approve the performance of President Morales.  Regime change is not in question.  Change at the top is.

It would be all too easy to point out the similar difficulties faced today by President Bachelet of Chile and Bolivia’s President Morales.  The prices of commodities exported by both countries are suffering a marked decline.  Accusations of corruption plague both regimes.  Their difficulties have had a vastly different impact on the approval and disapproval ratings of both heads of government.   By the end of February 2016 the approval ratings of President Michelle Bachelet fell to 20%, while her disapproval ratings rose to 70% (CADEM Survey).

On April 24, 2013 Bolivia instituted judicial proceedings against Chile at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).  This action was decided by President Morales after Chile failed to follow through on conversations based on a mutually agreed 13-point agenda, which included discussion of sovereign access to the sea for landlocked Bolivia.  When Chile ignored over a two year period President Morales’ attempts to resume these conversations, he responded with the demand.

Ambassador Canelas wants to take future relationships between Chile and Bolivia out of the judicial sphere.  He wants Chile’s initiative back in the bilateral area, undisturbed by multilateral parties such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the highest court under the United Nations.  As a first step he recommends that Chile pull out of the Pact of Bogota, under which Chile, Bolivia and most Latin American nations agreed through the Pact of Bogota to submit their differences to the ICJ, the multilateral judicial body which meets in the Peace Palace at The Hague in the Netherlands.

In its demand Bolivia claims Chile, through a number of repeated promises made before and after 1948, incurred in an obligation to negotiate with Bolivia in good faith a sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean.  Bolivia has asked the Court to uphold this obligation and rule that Chile should abide by it.

The first step Chile took when confronted with this demand was to object to the Court’s jurisdiction.  At the same time its top diplomats pretended on the media front that the 13-point agenda had been cancelled by Chile because Bolivia took Chile to court.  In its preliminary objection Chile claimed Bolivia’s demand hides a request for the revision of the 1904 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, through which Bolivia surrendered to Chile 400 kilometers of sea coast and 120,000 square kilometers of land where the richest copper deposits in the world were found.

The Court rejected Chile’s preliminary objection and decided to hear this case.  Following court procedure, Chile has to counter Bolivia’s arguments in a Counter-Memorial due on July 25, 2016.  If Chile follows Ambassador Canelas’ advice and denounces the Pact of Bogota, this action will not have any effect on Bolivia’s demand, which would continue due to the fact that it was presented before any possible repudiation of the court by Chile.  The only way Chile could withdraw from this case would be by abandoning it.  The case would then proceed in Chile’s absence without any Chilean defense.  Chile could be declared in contempt of court.

The traditional line followed by Ambassador Canelas in his article is that Chile’s relations with Bolivia are strictly bilateral.  No other country or international organization has a right to meddle in this area.  The visit of Pope Francis to Bolivia in July 2015 was regarded with great suspicion by Chile.  All the more so when Francis addressed this issue from La Paz and repeated his observations once he was back at the Vatican.  Plain historical, geographical, diplomatic and political facts show Bolivia’s relations with Chile are hardly confined to the bilateral area.

As a result of the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), Bolivia lost its whole sea coast and the southern part of the resource-rich Atacama Desert.  Peru, allied with Bolivia during this war, lost two large sea coast provinces, Arica and Tarapaca, and the northern part of the Atacama Desert.  The Province of Arica includes one of the few useful seaports close to the main cities of Bolivia.  Bolivia has been the main client and benefactor of the Port of Arica since colonial times.  This port has never been essential either to Peru or Chile.  It is the port through which Bolivian commerce breathes.

Bolivia is not asking that Chile give back the territories it conquered by force.  Ever since the end of the War of the Pacific, Bolivia has pleaded with Chile to grant it a sovereign corridor to a seaport on former Peruvian territory.  The only way to avoid splitting Chile in two with a Bolivian corridor is for this corridor to run along the current border of Chile with Peru, ending in the Port of Arica.

In 1929 Chile and Peru signed in Lima a treaty with a secret clause stipulating that the concession by Chile of land formerly belonging to Peru to “a third power” requires the explicit consent of Peru.  That power could only be Bolivia.  And that land could only be a corridor in the former Peruvian Province of Arica.

On February 8, 1975 Chile formally offered Bolivia such a corridor.  In compliance with the 1929 Treaty of Lima Chile asked Peru for its consent to proceed along these lines.  Peru responded with a counterproposal.  According to Peru’s response the seaport of Arica should become tri-national.  Conceivably, a multilateral organization would supervise its works.

Chile took this as an outright rejection by Peru of its proposal to grant Bolivia a corridor to the  sea.  Diplomatic relations between Chile and Bolivia, suspended in 1962, had been re-established in 1975 following Chile’s undertaking. By 1978 it became clear that Chile discounted the Peruvian counterproposal and closed the door on all further negotiations on this matter.  That year Bolivia once more broke diplomatic relations with Chile.  They remain broken to this day.

In 1979 the Organization of American States approved a resolution, with Chile’s sole dissenting vote, to the effect that Bolivia’s access to the Pacific Ocean is a matter of hemispheric concern, turning this into a multilateral issue of interest to all nations from Alaska to Patagonia.

The motto on Chile’s coat of arms remains to this day “By Reason of by Force.”  Chile is accustomed to impose its view point and conditions on Bolivia. Chile calls this a bilateral issue, when in fact it is a unilateral imposition.  The admission of Bolivia’s demand by the ICJ, an organism of the United Nations, is further proof that Chile’s efforts to exclude all third parties from helping to settle this issue are self-serving.

At present Chile claims that under the terms of the 1904 Treaty Bolivia has full and free access to the Port of Arica. Anybody traveling from Bolivia’s capital La Paz to the Arica sea port will be annoyed by long lines of trailer trucks waiting to go through customs at the Chile-Bolivia border.  Due to heavy traffic and lack of proper maintenance the road on the Chilean side is in extremely poor condition.

Bolivian cargo at the Port of Arica is subject to minute inspections by Chilean officials at high costs charged to Bolivian exporters.  Since Bolivia breathes through this Port, the Bolivian government has denounced these difficulties over the years at a number of appropriate organisms.  Relying on its excellent image as an exemplary democracy, Chile denies there is any pending problem with Bolivia.

Ambassador Canelas misses in his article three key attributes of Chilean diplomacy: strategic vision, decisiveness and a sense of historical responsibility.  The Chileans who planned, fought and won the War of the Pacific at the end of the 19th Century had these attributes.  They were acutely aware of the need to grant Bolivia sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean.

Later generations of Chileans benefitted immensely from the land conquered from Bolivia and Peru by their ancestors.  Unfortunately they lost the vision, decisiveness and sense of responsibility needed to face up to the pending problem of Bolivia’s lack of access to the sea.

Often in the past Chile has successfully bet on Bolivian internal divisions to make sure its interests prevail.  Ambassador Canelas deludes himself and deludes his compatriots when he imagines that the difficulties faced by President Morales give Chile a window of opportunity to insure that Bolivia lies low, forgets its demand before the ICJ and accepts Chile’s unilateral conditions from A to Z.


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