Landlocked in Latin America: Bolivia’s Fight to Regain A Coastline

The Bolivian Navy boasts around 5,000 sailors. In some indexes it ranks 13th in the world in terms of commissioned naval craft, between the military powers of Turkey and South Korea. Día del Mar, or ‘Day of the Sea’, is held annually on the 23rd of March and is one of Bolivia’s largest national celebrations. Such a fixation with the sea may seem bizarre for a country without a coastline, however Bolivia was not always landlocked, and this was rather the result of territorial losses during a late nineteenth-century war. The reclamation of the nation’s lost coastal lands remain a key political issue, as well as a defining principle of Bolivian national identity. 

As the dust settled following the collapse of the Spanish Empire in Latin America, and the newly independent South American states set about cementing their territorial boundaries, the western Atacama Desert became the centre of a diplomatic row. At the time, the coastal area known as Litoral Department was occupied in the north by Peru, centrally by Bolivia, and to the south by Chile. By 1878, a peace treaty signed four years earlier was violated as the Bolivian authorities imposed new taxes on a Chilean company working in the Bolivian area of the province. In response, the Chilean military occupied the port of Antofagasta, triggering a declaration of war. This also brought Peru into the conflict on Bolivia’s side, as a secret alliance had been signed between the two countries in 1873.  The war went disastrously for the Bolivian-Peruvian Alliance. The Chileans overwhelmed the Bolivian forces, taking Litoral province, while Lima was ransacked and the Peruvian territory of Arica occupied.

The ramifications of the loss of the coastline were far more than symbolic for the young Bolivian republic. For the former Litoral Department is a mineral rich area, comprising 400 kilometers of coastline and 120,00 square kilometres of territory. Home to silver and copper mines, as well as nitrate deposits, the region is an economic artery for any nation in possession of it. Following the war, Chile’s economy enjoyed a major upturn as a result of the acquisition of this territory along with its associated resources, and remains the largest exporter of copper in the world. This is contrasted by the languid economic development which has defined modern Bolivia. Without access to the coast, the country has struggled to export sufficiently, and has relied largely on tariffed routes through neighbouring countries. While this was remedied to a limited extent by the Arica-La Paz Railway, built during an early twentieth century rapprochement between Bolivia and Chile, the stagnation of Bolivia’s economy can largely be attributed to the loss of Litoral. The Antofagasta Province, as Litoral is now known, is Chile’s largest recognised region, and has a population of around 350,000, larger than that of the Bolivian capital in Sucre. The success of Chile’s administration in the area has only served to maintain anti-Chilean sentiment on the part of Bolivia and Peru.

Peru, like Bolivia, maintains a long-standing feud with Chile concerning Peruvian provinces captured by the Chilean army during the War of the Pacific. Files recently declassified under Donald Trump’s administration were commented on by Evo Morales, the Bolivian President, as having revealed an offer in 1975 made by Chile regarding a 10km corridor providing Bolivia with sovereign access to the sea. This was likely made in order to win the favour of the Bolivians in any future Chilean-Peruvian conflict. The offer, for reasons unknown, was never acted upon. Latin American nations continue to utilise Bolivia’s national desire for a coastline to their advantage. In 2010, Peru signed a 99-year deal allowing the Bolivian Navy to use its dock facilities. The Navy, formed in 1969, is currently based on Lake Titicaca. A similar deal has been struck with Argentina, allowing the Bolivian Navy to patrol the Desaguadero River freely. It is no coincidence that both Peru and Argentina have long standing disputes with Chile, as they struggle to coerce the Bolivian’s into an alliance.

In a television broadcasted speech made on the 27th January, Bolivian Foreign Minister Fernando Huanacuni reiterated the government’s determination to reacquire Litoral. Commenting on a maritime lawsuit against Chile currently being debated at the International Court of Justice, the minister spoke of ‘fruitful’ developments. It is hard to see a solution which would prove satisfactory to all parties.  For Chile, the loss of its largest recognised province cannot realistically be debated by Santiago’s politicians. Antofagasta has been made successful under Chilean guidance and sustains the relatively successful local economy. The Bolivians however will be hoping, and expecting, that the verdict will restore to them the Department still symbolised by a star on the national flag. Any concession of less than the entire claimed province, such as a corridor to the coast, is likely to do little to satisfy those who see Antofagasta/Litoral as part of Bolivia’s sovereign right. Moreover, any sign of Chilean co-operation is likely to alert those with territorial grievances in Lima and Buenos Aires. It may be so that the complexity of territorial disputes in the region prevents the  story of the landlocked Bolivian Navy becoming an historical curiosity.


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