Bolivian President Arce hopes for a “sincere dialogue” with Chilean authorities on sovereign access to sea

During the commemoration of the Battle of Calama, Bolivian President Luis Arce called on his Chilean counterpart Gabriel Boric to initiate a new stage of bilateral relations and address the historical issues that separate the two nations

March 27, 2023 by Tanya Wadhwa
Bolivian President Luis Arce, during the commemoration of the Battle of Calama on March 23, called on his Chilean counterpart Gabriel Boric to initiate a new stage of bilateral relations and address the historical issues that separate Bolivia and Chile. Photo: Luis Arce/Twitter

On Thursday March 23, Bolivia commemorated the Battle of Calama and the Day of the Sea. On this day in 1879, Chilean army, backed by the British Empire, invaded Bolivia’s Litoral department on the pacific coast, killed Bolivian General Eduardo Abaroa, defeated his soldiers and took possession of the Antofagasta and Calama coastal regions, leaving Bolivia landlocked.

The Battle of Calama was the first battle in the War of the Pacific, fought between Chile and a Bolivian-Peruvian alliance between 1879 and 1884. The war began when the Bolivian government raised taxes on the joint Chilean and British mining companies operating in Litoral. When the companies refused to pay the new tax, the Bolivian government moved to nationalize the mines. In response, Chile declared war on Bolivia, which lasted five years, killing 18,000 Bolivians and invading 120,000 square kilometers of territory, with abundant natural resources, and 400 km of coastline on the Pacific Ocean. The Chilean army also invaded various parts of Peru, who had sent troops to support Bolivia. Chile occupied Peru’s capital city Lima for over a year, but later agreed to withdraw and settle for the seizure of Peru’s southern regions such as Arica, Pisagua and Iquique.

In 1904, a peace agreement was signed and Bolivia officially ceded its coastal territories to Chile in return for tax-free access to Chile’s Arica port and the construction of the Arica-La Paz railroad network. In 1920, Bolivia began making efforts to persuade Chile to revise the treaty and return Bolivia the sovereign access to the sea on the pacific coast. In 1978, Bolivia broke diplomatic relations with Chile following the failure of negotiations seeking a solution to the sovereignty over the maritime territory lost at the Battle of Calama.

On Thursday, like every year, Bolivians organized solemn acts to pay homage to the lost sea and the war heroes, who refused to surrender and bravely fought to the end hundreds of Chilean troops, defending the Topáter bridge.

President Luis Arce, during an event commemorating the day in the capital La Paz, remembered the heroes who did not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for the country, and lamented the mutilation of the “direct and ancestral relationship of the Bolivians with the sea.”

In his address to the nation, the head of state regretted the fact that “the Chilean invasion also had an internal enemy, the Bolivian mining oligarchy that played a destabilizing role in our country, which only benefited Chile, all with the purpose of protecting its interests linked to Anglo-Chilean transnational capital.”

In this regard, he called on “Bolivian men and women to learn from the lessons of the past, which teach us that no natural resource is safe from predatory capitalist anguish and foreign interests, neither then nor now.”

President Arce also called on his Chilean counterpart Gabriel Boric to initiate “a new stage of bilateral relations that will allow us to have a frank, sincere dialogue with the courage to address the historical issues” that separate Bolivia and Chile.

A long awaited dialogue

The head of the Bolivian government proposed to the Chilean government a seven-point agenda to guide the re-establishment relationship between the two neighboring nations: sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean for Bolivia, sovereign rights to the waters of Silala river, compliance with the 1904 treaty, the effects of the privatization of Chilean ports on Bolivian imports and exports, cooperation on the use of lithium, migration, and the fight against smuggling and organized crime.

President Arce stressed that “Bolivia will not stop proposing the need to work on the issue of maritime claims with Chile, it will never renounce its imprescriptible right of sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean.” “The Hague court’s ruling opened up that possibility and as sister nations we must work so that this wound in Abya Yala* is closed. I am sure that this would be a great joy for the entire international community,” he added.

Likewise, he pointed out that recently the International Court of Justice recognized Bolivia’s sovereign right to the canalization of the Silala river, which for many years were questioned by Chilean governments, and reported that the ministries of foreign affairs and the environment and water are working to make these rights effective. “Today, unlike then, our country can exercise its right to dismantle the artificial channels, restore the wetlands of the place and take advantage of the waters of Silala river for the benefit of our people,” said the President.

President Arce said that “as recognized by several historians, the 1904 treaty was imposed by Chile. In this treaty, poor compensations are established to Bolivia in exchange for a curtailment of our territory and our direct relationship with the seas. Chile recognizes in favor of Bolivia, and in perpetuity, the broadest and free right of commercial transit through its territory and Pacific ports, but unfortunately Bolivian cargo is permanently obstructed, delayed and controlled in its passage through Chile.”

In this regard, he called on the Chilean authorities to “comply with its commitments with Bolivia, as established in the 1904 treaty, any measure that affects free transit must be agreed upon in special acts. Therefore, Bolivia does not recognize the measures unilaterally imposed by Chile that hinder Bolivian foreign trade, generating significant transportation costs.”

The Bolivian head of state also condemned that “Chile has unilaterally privatized most of its ports, delegating the fulfillment of its commitments to private companies that profit from the Bolivian maritime confinement. Bolivia rejects the concessions made to private companies in the ports, granting them the possibility of imposing tariffs, procedures and conditions that hinder, delay and increase the cost of the transit of our cargo.”

“We call on Chile to comply with its commitments to free transit and allow Bolivia to operate our own cargo, under conditions that prioritize the facilitation of trade rather than the profit of a few companies,” said the president.

President Arce pointed out that another issue that Bolivia and Chile must deal with is lithium. “We have lithium in Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Peru and we are willing to jointly design a policy that ensures the position of our countries as suppliers of this type of energy under sovereign conditions that favor our peoples,” said Arce, adding that the Plurinational State does not want “lithium to be in the eyes of any Southern Command, nor to be a reason for destabilization of democratically elected governments or external harassment.”

“Our lithium is a way to advance towards our full independence. We need to have sovereignty in the market, with prices that benefit our economies, and one of the ways, as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador proposed, is to think of a sort of OPEC for lithium. The objective is clear: to position Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Peru as potential promoters of new forms of energy storage that will make it possible to overcome the use of fossil fuels. Minerals such as lithium are one way of doing this,” stressed President Arce.

Regarding the mobility of people and merchandise, the head of state said that “Bolivia proposes a dialogue between all countries involved in migration in our region, addressing the issue of migration from the perspective of the defense and respect for life.”

Along the same lines, President Arce also proposed to “work together against the scourge of smuggling, which in addition to compromising Bolivian production, promotes illicit activities such as drug trafficking, money laundering, trafficking and other crimes.” “We propose to discuss effective measures that take into account the origin of the problem, limiting the amount of products that are sold to the inhabitants of the so-called extension Free Zone,” he added.

“These are some of the issues that need to be addressed in order to set the relationship between two brotherly peoples on the right track. Strengthening our ties is not only possible, but necessary,” concluded President Arce.

*Abya Yala is the term used by the Indigenous peoples in the Latin American and the Caribbean region to refer to the South American continent.