Monday, March 30, 2009

Bolivia's international relations - Chile & Peru


Bolivia's relations with Chile are strained, as they have been for much of the last 130 years, by Bolivia's loss of its maritime provinces as a result of its defeat in the War of the Pacific (1879-83). Bolivia's territorial dispute with Chile has also long been a source of nationalist fervour, not least within the armed forces, who continue to see recovery of the lost coastal territories as a patriotic duty. Full diplomatic relations between the two countries have been severed since 1978.

There have been various attempts to enter into negotiations to give Bolivia a sea corridor, 'salida al mar', in return for Bolivian concessions towards Chile. These efforts have however tended not to find favour in either Bolivia or Peru. (As the disputed northernmost areas of Chile actually belonged to Peru prior to 1879, a 1929 treaty gives Peru an effective right of veto over any further territorial changes). Attempts by Bolivia to court international support for its claims have been rejected by Chile, which argues that the issue is entirely bilateral.

The election of the Morales government in Bolivia, as well as the Bachelet government in Chile from 2006, has led to an improvement in relations. Ricardo Lagos, the outgoing Chilean president, attended Morales' inauguration in January 2006 , becoming the first Chilean president in over 50 years to visit La Paz. A few weeks later, Morales returned the compliment by attending Michelle Bachelet's inauguration. He was met with a warm reception from Chilean leftist and trades union groups, who chanted slogans and unfurled banners in support of Bolivia's ambitions for coastal access. Bolivia's gas wealth and Chile's chronic energy shortage provides an incentive for both sides to work out a lasting solution. Using gas as a weapon to force Chile to give up territory is however poorly received in Chile, while selling gas to Chile without some sort of territorial incentive is a sensitive issue in Bolivia. A good deal of mutual distrust remains, and a certain rapprochement between Chile and Peru after the election of Alan García to the Peruvian presidency in February 2006 meant Bolivia risked being left out in the cold.


Peru and Bolivia have historically been drawn together in hostility towards Chile, since both came out losers in the three-way War of the Pacific. Peru's unwillingness to concede Pacific coast access to Bolivia along Peru's southern frontier with Chile has nonetheless been an obstacle. In 2002, Peru offered to provide an alternative route for the export of Bolivian gas, allowing Bolivia to bypass the problematic Chilean territories, but the project - involving the building of a pipeline to link the Bolivian department of Tarija with Peru's Pacific coast - has been shelved.

Bolivia and Peru are moreover potential rivals so far as gas sales are concerned: plans by Peru to use gas from the Camisea reserves in the Peruvian department of Cuzco to supply Chile and Argentina were seen in La Paz as an unfriendly move. Were Peru to try to build a pipeline directly to Chile across Bolivia's potential salida al mar , this would also further complicate territorial claims. The open sympathy expressed by Morales for losing candidate Ollanta Humala in the 2006 Peruvian presidential elections did little to improve relations with eventual winner Alan García. During his first months in office, García made clear that he attached great importance to improving relations between Peru and Chile. Any such rapprochement could lead to Bolivia's further isolation.

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