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Bolivia demands access to the Pacific from Chile

President of Bolivia, Evo Morales demands that the International Court of Justice initiates the negotiations on Bolivia’s border with Chile and its access to the Pacific Ocean. “It’s the Chilean oligarchs who don’t want to give us this access”, he said, adding that all the Chilean ports belong to private entrepreneurs.

Negotiations in good faith

Bolivia and Chile this week are back before the International Court of Justice to defend their positions on the border conflict which has lasted since 2013.

“In the International Court of Justice we heard a clear and strong voice of our international lawyers who prove that Chile is obliged to negotiate in good faith in order to find solutions for Bolivia’s lack of access to the ocean. The current status quo was formed by a 100-year-old geographical conflict which stemmed from an unjust invasion”, claimed Morales during his press conference at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in the Hague.

He was paraphrasing Daniel Sánchez Bustamante who in 1910 said that Bolivia cannot be isolated from the ocean. Morales also assured that he will do everything in his might for his country to regain the access to the Pacific, adding that he is going to deliver on his past promises and get back to the negotiating table.

“It’s been 130 years since the war. Bolivia has never stopped and never will stop fighting to find a solution that restores the balance for both countries and provides us a useful and sovereign access to the Pacific”, he announced.

The desert argument

Bolivia lost its access to the Pacific Ocean as a result of the 1879-1884 armed conflict which happened between Chile and Bolivia (supported by Peru). The dispute began with a conflict about a part of the Atacama desert which was rich in natural resources. At that time these resources were mined by Chilean and British companies. The conflict was sparked when they refused to pay higher taxes to the Bolivian government.

Bolivia, however, was not prepared for a war. The country did not have a navy, which proved to be crucial as the military operations would be hard to perform in a desert. Peru, which supported Bolivia due to obligations resulting from a secret defensive alliance made in 1873, did not have the money to buy vessels either. Chile, in turn, had a well-trained army and a naval fleet with modern ships which allowed them to defeat their opponents.

In 1884 a truce was made between Bolivia and Chile. It stipulated that the latter country will take over the control of the Bolivian coast. Peru, on the other hand, lost the province of Tarapaca as a part of the deal. In 1904, a new treaty was ratified by which Chile agreed to build a railway connection between La Paz, Bolivia’s capital and the port of Arica. Free transit for Bolivian trade was also guaranteed.

Lauca river

In the 50s and 60s Bolivia and Chile signed agreements by which the winning country made an obligation to undertake negotiations on restoring Bolivia’s access to the ocean. Carlos Martinez Sotomayor, Chile’s former minister of Foreign Affairs, later explained that signing the agreements was a way for his country to avoid the issue of Bolivia’s territorial claims at an inter-american conference in Ecuador’s capital, Quito. On the other hand, according to the Bolivian politician Jorge Escobari Cusicanqua, the real reason for signing the agreements was to continue the work on changing the course of the Lauca river which runs through both countries. Bolivia was against that and its neighbors wanted to lull the country into a false sense of security.
Due to a lack of agreement on the territorial and Lauca river issues, the diplomatic relations between Bolivia and Chile have been severed twice. The second time it happened was in 1978 and it lasted for a period of over 30 years. It was only in 2006 when Michelle Bachelet, the former President of Chile, established a plan for bilateral talks that consisted of thirteen points. One of them referred to the maritime issues. The progress on this specific element of agenda was halted when Bolivia asked the International Court of Justice in the Hague to “quickly and effectively oblige Chile to start negotiations in good faith”.

When the court agreed to help in mediations between the two countries (disregarding Chile’s protest), Michelle Bachelet replied: “At the moment, Chile has no border issues to resolve with Bolivia and this decision does not affect our territorial situation. Bolivia does not gain anything”, she added.

Let’s ignore the facts

Roberto Ampuero, Chile’s Minister of Foreign Affairs believes that this week Bolivia presented new, more aggressive arguments in the tribunal.

“Bolivia started asking only to have a chance to sit down at the negotiating table. Today the country ceased its claims for the Chile’s territory”, he said.

Ampuero also added that Bolivia is trying to prove that Chile, by undermining the 1904 treaty, has failed to fulfill the agreements and international treaties. He believes that it harms the image of his country. On the other hand, Chile wants to show that the agreement is binding and that the country does not accept any interference in its sovereignty.

The new President of Chile, Sebastian Piñera has also informed after the first day of the hearing, that his country has always respected treaties and was the guarantor of peace, adding that Chile “has no current issues with Bolivia”. Piñera believes that the court case is an obstacle for establishing dialogue between the two countries.

“Chile believed that they know everything and that the talks between them and Bolivia are going to revolve around the treaty from 1904. We proved them wrong”, said Héctor Arce, the Justice Minister of Bolivia. He also added that the International Court of Justice recognized that Bolivia from the very beginning of the country’s existence had access to the ocean and that the 1904 treaty does not close the issue. Also, the lawyers representing Bolivia in the Hague presented evidence indicating that Chile has offered Bolivia the access to the ocean ten times but the talks have ended up in a deadlock.

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