Friday, April 24, 2009


The Pacific littoral was the other site of protracted military struggle. Given their very close economic and administrative links during the colonial era, the early separation of Bolivia and Peru was in many ways a political fiction. In part because of their historic and economic connection and in part because of the rising strength of the Chilean state, the Bolivian president General Andre´s Santa Cruz sought to establish closer connections between two halves of the old Viceroyalty of Lima. In alliance with a number of Peruvian caudillos, he invaded Peru in 1835, and in October 1836 he proclaimed the existence of the Peruvian-Bolivian Confederation. This union did have some popular support, but the division of Peru into two provinces and the selection of Lima as the capital alienated elites in both countries. More important, the union threatened the geopolitical position of Chile and Argentina. Both countries viewed a strong Peru as a challenge to their predominance. The first declared war in December 1836, the latter in May 1837. Despite some early failures, the Chilean army, in alliance with Peruvian forces opposed to the union, were able to defeat Santa Cruz in the battle of Yungay in January 1839, leading to the dissolution of the confederation.

Chile’s victory over Peru and Bolivia in the 1830s established its reputation as the regional ‘‘Prussia’’ and further solidified the political institutionalization begun under Diego Portales (who was assassinated at the very beginning of the war). If any war ‘‘made’’ Chilean exceptionalism, it was this one, as it provided a rare legitimacy while also establishing a stable civil military relationship. For Peru and Bolivia, defeat appears to have accelerated the process of economic and political fragmentation begun with independence.

Beginning in 1840, various international companies began the exploration of the Bolivian coast in order to make use of the guano and nitrate deposits there. The exploitation of silver beginning in 1870 led to an economic boom. During this decade Chile and Bolivia appeared to resolve a series of quarrels by increasing the influence of the former in the disputed region. But disagreements over taxes and the nationalization of Chilean mines in the Peruvian desert in 1875 fueled the tension. Following diplomatic efforts to resolve a new set of crises, Chile declared war in April 1879. Given a Peruvian-Bolivian alliance, this involved Chile in a war with both northern neighbors. The war quickly became a contest for plunder.

None of the countries was prepared for war, although Chile had a significant advantage in naval forces. More important, the Chilean state retained its institutional solidity, whereas both Peru and Bolivia suffered from internal divisions. Chile occupied the Bolivian littoral, then Tarapaca in 1879, and Tacna and Arica and most of the northern coast in 1880. By this stage the Chilean army had increased significantly with an invasion force of twelve thousand men. International pressure from both the U.S. and European powers forced the two sides into negotiation, but the Chileans sought a complete victory. In 1881, with an army now numbering twenty-six thousand, the Chileans entered Lima. They did not leave until 1884, extracting the province of Tarapaca permanently and the provinces of Tacna and Arica, which they retained until 1929. Chile also took the entire Bolivian coast (Atacama).

The victory helped determine the future institutionalization of both the Chilean and Peruvian militaries, as well as partially defining the development options of the three countries. Chile enjoyed an economic boom as well as unprecedented patriotic euphoria, both of which helped dispel the gloom of the 1870s. Despite the relative shortness of the war, Peru suffered severe casualties and the destruction of much of its coastal infrastructure. The war may also be seen as the best example of a military impetus for a new national identity, as the Peruvian and Bolivian memory of their defeat continues to play a large role in their respective nationalisms. The Bolivian defeat deprived that country of a great part of its wealth and left it contained within the Altiplano, in which Chile had no interest. The war did help decrease the political influence of the military and helped consolidate the rule of a civilian oligarchy dominated by mining interests.

The War of the Pacific may best demonstrate the consequences of the external orientation of these states and the lack of domestic domination. It was ‘‘at heart a bald struggle over exports among jealous Chile, Bolivia, and Peru.’’ ‘‘All three countries were hard up, and run by oligarchies which disliked paying taxes and looked to revenue from these fertilizers [nitrate] as a substitute.’’ Each country was competing with the others for those resources that would allow it to maintain its ‘‘rentier’’ status and not challenge the domestic status quo. War came because the states were too weak to fight their respective elites. For example, because the elites of the Altiplano were too powerful to tax, the Bolivian state saw the littoral and the nascent nitrate industry as the best source of fiscal support. This brought it into conflict with Chile. But, precisely because it did not have adequate support from its home base, Bolivia could not hope to win.


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.