The War of the Pacific was popularly dubbed the “Ten Centavos (cents) War.” In 1877, after a devastating tidal wave destroyed much of the port of Antofagasta, the municipal council there passed a reconstruction tax. In 1878, President Hilarión Daza and the Bolivian Congress approved the modest 10¢ tax on every 100 pounds of nitrates exported from Bolivian territory. This law directly violated the 1874 treaty, and the Chileans and foreign investors were outraged. The British and Chilean–owned Nitrates and Railroad Company of Antofagasta refused to pay the tax, and tensions mounted.
At first, cooler heads prevailed. President Daza temporarily suspended the tax, and the company agreed to an annual voluntary contribution. But then Daza ended the moratorium and demanded that the tax be paid retroactively. Once again, the foreign company refused to comply. The Chileans responded with gunboat diplomacy, and anchored an ironclad in Antofagasta harbor and mobilized their entire fleet.
This time, President Daza refused to back down. With Bolivian sovereignty seemingly besmirched, Daza canceled the mining contract of the British-Chilean consortium. On February 14, 1879, Chile occupied Antofagasta—home to 5,000 Chileans and fewer than 600 Bolivians— and issued an ultimatum: Bolivia had 48 hours to accede to international arbitration of the dispute. President Daza ignored the deadline and insisted that the port first be liberated. He also withheld news of the Chilean landing for a week until after the conclusion of the popular carnival festivities then under way.
In no mood for more wrangling, Chile occupied Bolivia’s Antofagasta province and the entire Pacific coast south of the 23rd parallel in March. On March 14, Bolivia announced a formal declaration of war, but war still might have been averted if Peru’s last-minute conciliatory diplomacy had succeeded, or if Peru had not honored its defensive alliance with Bolivia. By this time, however, word of the Bolivian declaration of war had reached Santiago, and therefore, on April 5, Chile formally declared war against Bolivia and Peru.
Defeat and Loss of the Seacoast
Bolivia was totally unprepared for war, especially one so distant from its population centers and resource base, and suffered from grossly irresponsible leadership. Despite his patriotic bluster, President Daza was inept in the military campaign. On the battlefield, he proved cowardly, self-motivated, and (according to some accounts) often drunk. Daza withdrew his crack Bolivian regiments from the field and left the allied forces to be defeated by the Chileans in the Battle of San Francisco. Although the remaining allied forces were victorious days later in the indecisive Battle of Tarapacá, President Daza’s desertion became a great national embarrassment to Bolivia.
Historians have argued that Daza wanted to protect his prized regiments as a hedge against coup attempts, but on December 27, 1879, in a clever and meticulously timed plot, officers at the front and Colonel Eliodoro Camacho, the chief of staff, overthrew Daza, and the expresident fled into exile in Europe.
In January 1880, General Narciso Campero, a distinguished career officer and division commander, was appointed Bolivia’s provisional president and assumed command of the allied forces in the field as by then both the Bolivian and the Peruvian presidents had effectively deserted command of their armies. Campero’s Bolivian-Peruvian force was decisively defeated by the Chileans in May, and Campero and his exhausted troops retreated toward La Paz. At the head of one column of survivors, Campero was met with the news that the National Assembly had formally elected him president on May 31. As the marauding horde of desperate soldiers approached the Bolivian border, a cavalry force from La Paz intercepted and forcibly disarmed them. The government feared violence when the wounded and exhausted returnees learned that they would not receive the back pay owed them. For Bolivia, the shooting war was over, although hostilities between Peru and Chile continued for three more years while Bolivia watched from the sidelines, hoping for a favorable resolution.
On April 5, 1884, Bolivia signed the Truce of Valparaiso, which gave Chile control, but not permanent transfer, of Bolivia’s coastal territory. A peace treaty was finally signed in 1904, whereby Chile formally annexed Bolivia’s Atacama province (called Antofagasta today). Bolivia was guaranteed the right to import and export its goods through the ports of Arica and Antofagasta and to set up customs stations. Duties on imports were to be divided, providing Bolivia 75 percent and Chile 25 percent.
Thus, with the stroke of a pen, Bolivia lost a fourth of its territory and became the landlocked nation that it is today. The War of the Pacific was officially over, but not Bolivia’s relentless quest to regain a seacoast.