On 23 March 1879 well equipped Chilean troops invading Bolivia came across stiff resistance from a handful of civilians defending a small bridge over the Loa River. Honoring their bravery, a Chilean officer asked them to surrender in exchange for their lives.
Eduardo Abaroa, an accountant and small businessman from the targeted locality of Calama, yelled back: “May your grandma surrender!” followed by an equally traditional Spanish imprecation. He was shot on the spot and buried with honors by the Chilean troops.
In commemoration of this brave act, every 23 March Bolivia celebrates the Day of the Sea. This is a bittersweet celebration. As a result of the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), Bolivia lost its entire sea coast of 400 kilometers in length and a resource-rich province of 120,000 square kilometers.
21 March, two days before Bolivia’s Day of the Sea, was the date chosen in 2016 by Chilean communications expert Ascanio Cavallo to give an interview to Spain’s highly respected newspaper El País. Mr. Cavallo was contracted by his government to manage Chile’s PR and communications strategy regarding a law suit brought by Bolivia against Chile at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on pending territorial issues derived from the late 19th Century War.
During the War of the Pacific Chile overwhelmed its northern neighbors Peru and Bolivia. Peru lost three large provinces. Its capital city, Lima, was occupied during three years. An objective introduction to the Bolivian participation in this war can be found on line in ‘Guano, Salitre y Sangre’ by Roberto Querejazu Calvo, www.lecturasinegoismo.com/2013/05/guano-salitre-sangre-historia-de-la.htm.
Imposing a peace treaty is not an exception but the rule whenever a country wins a war. Chilean President Domingo Santa Maria (1881-1886) took the decision to choke Bolivian commerce in order to force Bolivia’s representative in Santiago to sign a Truce Agreement or Pact on 4 April 1884, through which Bolivia was forced to give up its entire maritime province.
To save Bolivian minerals trade with Europe, on 20 October 1904 the Bolivian Congress was forced to approve a “Treaty of Peace and Friendship” with Chile, ratifying the conditions of the 1884 Truce. More than a century later, Bolivia cannot denounce this treaty without risking 80% of its exports. President Santa Maria has long been gone, but the duress he imposed on Bolivia under the rights conferred by a military victory persists to this day.
In every generation after the War of the Pacific there have been a handful of idealistic Bolivians who strived against all odds to propose actions aimed at recovering the totality of the territory lost to Chile. Successive Bolivian governments have centered on a more realistic objective: obtain a very narrow corridor over Chilean territory granting Bolivia sovereign access to a useful port on the Pacific Ocean. For this corridor not to split Chile in two, it would have to run along the current border of Chile with Peru.
The scaled down Bolivian objective is complicated by a Treaty signed by Chile with Peru in 1929. In a clause kept secret at the time, Chile agreed with Peru it could not grant former Peruvian territory to ‘a third power,’ without obtaining Peru’s express approval. This power could only be Bolivia. Bolivian President Daniel Salamanca (1931-34) observed that Chile locked up Bolivia’s access to the sea and handed the key over to Peru. Chile holds this action in no way affected the 1904 Treaty with Bolivia.
Nevertheless, on 19 December 1975 Chile agreed to grant Bolivia a sovereign corridor eliminating its border with Peru. The corridor would have ended close to the Port of Arica. Once again, Chile made clear that this offer did not alter the 1904 Treaty in any way.
In compliance with the 1929 Treaty of Lima, Chile asked Peru for its consent to proceed along these lines. Almost a year later, Peru responded with a creative counterproposal: make the Port of Arica a tri-national entity. Chile took this to be a denial of its proposal and closed the matter to this day.
On 24 April 2013 Bolivia instituted proceedings against Chile before the ICJ over this and a series of other frustrated negotiations that would have granted this landlocked country access to the Pacific Ocean over Chilean territory. Bolivia substantiated its case in a memorial dated 15 April 2014.
According to the Bolivian Application, these offers add up to an obligation contracted by Chile to negotiate with Bolivia in good faith an access to the Pacific Ocean. This claim is backed by the doctrine of unilateral acts of states, recognized by the ICJ in previous cases.
On 15 July 2015 Chile presented a preliminary objection claiming the ICJ lacks competence to hear the Bolivian complaint. On 24 September 2015 the Court dismissed Chile’s objection by a vote of 14-2. In accordance with Court procedure Chile has the option to respond the Bolivian demand on or before 25 July 2015.
Chile enjoys an international image as a well-organized, law-abiding country, with extensive representation at various levels of the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). This image can be tarnished by its condescending policy towards Bolivia, a much weaker, less organized nation whose current President Evo Morales takes pride in calling himself indigenous.
Mr Cavallo addressed this problem head on. His March 21 interview at El Pais struck a familiar note in Bolivia. The headline quotes the first part of one of Mr. Cavallo’s statements in response to the question: “Do you accept that Morales has managed to put Bolivia on the map of the world in a way that is new?” Headline: “Evo Morales is no more indigenous than any Chilean.” Second part of this statement quoted within the interview: “we’re all half-breeds.”
Chile is run by a well-educated oligarchy that is much more proud of its European origins than any presumed non-European drops of blood in its blue veins. Chileans of indigenous origins are a large proportion of the population only in the Northern Provinces taken over by Chile from Bolivia and Peru. Upper class Chileans must have been surprised to be labeled indigenous by one of their most prestigious communicators.
President Evo Morales chose as Bolivia’s communicator on this issue a tall, bearded, notoriously white former President of Bolivia who looks like he has just debarked from a Spanish galleon. Carlos Mesa happens to be a respected historian, man of letters, cinema expert and exceptional communicator. He commanded enormous respect in Chile when he was aggressively interviewed on 29 September 2015 by TV Chile (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywFLtRDFnJw).
To claim every Chilean is partly indigenous sounds in Bolivia a bit like the consecrated phrases “some of my best friends are Jews” or “I don´t mind Blacks in my neighborhood” when pronounced in the US or the UK. If you never have a second chance to make a first impression, Mr. Cavallo missed his chance as far as Bolivia is concerned.
The interview is otherwise a compendium of Chilean commonplaces regarding Bolivia’s claim of an outlet to the sea over Chilean territory. Following are excerpts of the main themes:
It’s all about politics and emotions. It’s an excuse to promote support for internal demagogues. Chile is a daily victim of Bolivian verbal aggression. Bolivia never said what it wants from Chile. When they say they want sovereign access to the sea they don’t even know what sovereignty means. President Morales stokes nationalist feelings in Bolivia. This is extremely dangerous.
Chilean public opinion has turned against Bolivia on account of the law suit. Bolivia claims its underdevelopment is due to lack of access to the sea. This is completely false. Its underdevelopment is due to institutional instability. Bolivia enjoys unparalleled access to the Chilean sea port of Arica. 80% of its exports go through the Port of Arica and 80% of the Port of Arica traffic is Bolivian commerce.
Bolivia lost territory to all its neighbors. Why should Chile be singled out to resolve Bolivia’s lack of a seacoast?
This last argument recalls the response Senator Sam Ervin gave to President Nixon’s Watergate collaborators when they claimed in self-defense that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democratic Party had spied as well on past Republican presidential campaigns: “larceny and murder have been popular every generation; that does not make larceny legal or murder meritorious.”
With astonishing candor Mr. Cavallo claims Bolivia was in the hole after losing more than half its original territory to all its neighbors. According to him this was the reason Bolivians begged to sign the 1904 Treaty through which they surrendered to Chile in perpetuity their whole maritime province. Aside from being patently false and ridiculous, this is an unusually cheap shot for a high-end communicator.
In response to a question about international support obtained by President Morales for Bolivia’s law suit against Chile, Mr. Cavallo resorted to the stock answer of Chilean diplomats: “This is a bilateral issue in which third parties must not interfere because, when that happens, this issue tends to become more poisonous.”
No wonder Chile resents the Bolivian law suit. It requests justice be done by a multi-lateral agency set up by the United Nations, the highest International Court of Justice that meets at The Hague since its founding 70 years ago. It is very hard for Chile to claim it is a respectful member of the international community while rejecting all multi-lateral meddling in its Bolivian policy.
Mr. Cavallo admits at the end of the interview that there have been a number of occasions when Chile and Bolivia came close to an agreement on this matter. “All Chilean proposals failed because of Bolivian maximalism. Chile offers something and Bolivia asks for three times as much… they don’t understand an agreement cannot be built on the basis of imposition or blackmail.”
“Amen” is all Bolivians can say in response to this pious conclusion.
If Chile wants to make significant inroads in Bolivian public opinion, it must stop talking down to its indigenous neighbors and start measuring the impact of its tired rhetoric not only on Bolivian ears, but also on the international community.
All the proceedings of Bolivia’s case against Chile, including Chile’s responses, can be examined at www.icj-cij.org/docket/index.php?p1=3&p2=3&case=153. Mr. Cavallo’s full interview is found at http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2016/03/20/america/1458503243_194665.html.
Walter Guevara Anaya is an independent consultant on democratic development.