The longstanding dispute with Chile looms large as analysts see Morales flaring tensions for electoral gain
LA PAZ, Bolivia (AA) – Nothing unites Bolivians more than their claim to the sea.
The landlocked country’s loss of territory in a 19th century war against Chile is an open wound that seeps resentment, still.
President Evo Morales (pictured right) has made Bolivia’s so-called “sovereign access to the sea” a central plank of his second government, bringing a claim before the International Court of Justice last April.
And in bidding for a third term, the “maritime cause,” as it’s locally known, has heavily figured in his Movement for Socialism (MAS) party’s campaign.
“It’s something that has been decisive in the Bolivian identity,” Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, told The Anadolu Agency (AA).
“It’s political jockeying by MAS to show it’s behind the cause, though this is a genuine national issue where consensus exists.”
-War of the Pacific
Bolivia lost 250 miles (400 km) of coastline and 46,000 sq. miles (120,000 square km) of territory in the 1879-84 War of the Pacific. That deprived it of key ports – choking off international trade and its development.
While its coastal sovereignty was formally relinquished in a 1904 treaty, a series of Chilean presidents have promised its return.
This is the crux of Bolivia’s demand put before the International Court of Justice at The Hague last April – that Chile negotiate in “good faith” and work toward a diplomatic resolution.
But Chile says it isn’t obliged to do so. Bolivia “intends to re-write history” and has mounted false arguments to distort the process, according to foreign minister Heraldo Muñoz. This year Chile challenged the court’s jurisdiction to decide the matter, suspending Bolivia’s claim until all arguments are heard.
“How can a country that’s so efficient and respectful in other disputes maintain this lie?” Gustavo Aliaga, an international analyst with 25 years’ experience in Bolivia’s foreign ministry told the AA, with a weighty blue document, “The Book of the Sea,” which outlines Bolivia’s position on the issue, before him.
“They say Morales is like the Gaddafi of Bolivia, putting at risk the peace and stability of the continent. When he just wants to see Chile respect its promise.”
Ahead of Bolivia’s election, both sides have traded diplomatic blows. Last week Chile published a six-minute video seeking to debunk its neighbor’s claims.
The video, which features President Michelle Bachelet along with former presidents, emphasized how Bolivia enjoys preferential customs agreements, use of roads and access to ports.
“An access that is undeniably better than the majority of countries without coastline,” according to the foreign minister.
Aliaga refutes this assertion, arguing Bolivia hasn’t the free movement Chile attests and is hobbled as a landlocked country.
Although Bolivia’s economy has tripled since Morales came to power, buoyed by sky-rocketing natural gas sales and the country will be Latin America’s best economic performer this year, Bolivians should not be distracted that “for the moment (they’re) rich on two hours of a commodity boom”, Aliaga says.
“Every state has the right to make the world aware of its arguments, but it can’t do it lacking the truth,” President Morales said in response to the video.
The chances, however, for a decision in Bolivia’s favor look faint, with the ICJ ruling unequivocally for one side on rare occasions.
“The obligation to negotiate is simply an obligation to negotiate, not to agree to grant sovereign access,” Julian Ku, a professor of constitutional law at Hofstra University in New York told the AA.
“Moreover, Chile has arguably fulfilled the obligation to negotiate repeatedly over the years. I just find this case pretty implausible from a legal point of view.”
Some analysts say Morales is using the cause for political gain, rousing nationalist spirits – following previous presidents who have tapped into ingrained anti-Chilean sentiment.
Bolivia retains a navy, primarily in Lake Titicaca, high in the Andes and every March celebrates “the day of the sea.”
“It allows the government to sell to the people that it is pursuing a national cause,” said Mariano de Alba Uribe, professor in international law at Universidad Catolica Andres Bello in Caracas. “It’s able to focus the attention on an external “enemy.”
“There is little ground for opposition to the idea in the internal political spectrum of Bolivia.”
That’s correct, however the issue has bridged those on either side of the ideological divide — with former opponents, presidents Carlos Mesa and Eduardo Rodriguez leading the demand – lending it bipartisan credibility.
But as Morales has rallied support, dissenting opinions have prompted backlash, with critical journalists discredited as pro-Chilean.
“The issue can be delicate in terms of freedom of expression in a country with a jingoistic culture,” Ricardo Aguilar, a journalist at La Paz-based La Razon daily told the AA.
Aguilar is among several journalists pursued by the state for criticizing Morales’ handling of the cause. He was threatened with espionage charges in May after writing a column in the daily La Razon perceived to be critical of the government.
If the court rules in the favor of Bolivia it could be at a “terrible cost” for Chile, after its effort to improve its image internationally after years of dictatorship, he added.
Chile may deny to comply with the ruling, similar to a ruling given against Colombia with a case with Nicaragua in 2007.
But Morales has support from Venezuela and Ecuador in the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) political bloc, which could see the issue move past legal arguments. Bolivia must present its response to the ICJ by November and the verdict on Chile’s objection should be known by next June.
While progress in the international court is typically glacial however, time doesn’t faze Aliaga.
“Us Bolivians have waited over 130 years, we can wait 20 more.”
(An early version of this story stated Ricardo Aguilar gave up a source under duress from the Bolivian government. This article has been amended to show Aguilar did not do this.)