Bolivia’s Flying The Flag For Access To The Pacific

135 years ago, Bolivia lost the War of the Pacific to Chile, and we are still witnessing the repercussions of the violent conflict today. On Saturday March 10th, tens of thousands of Bolivians took to the streets of La Paz, the third most populous city in Bolivia and its administrative capital, to protest for access to the Pacific Ocean. Access they lost in 1883 when the victorious Chile annexed 120,000 square km of Bolivian land, including its rich copper fields and all 400 km of coastline. According to the BBC, it is this contentious conclusion over a century ago which prompted Saturday’s protestors to hold a 200 km (or 124 miles) long and three-metre wide blue flag named the “flag of maritime re-vindication” from La Paz to Oruro. This event is just the most recent step in Bolivia’s fight for their “irrevocable right” to the Pacific as enacted in their 2009 constitution, according to The Economist.

The New York Times aptly noted that this peaceful protest was timed just nine days before oral arguments will be delivered at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) regarding the country’s claim to sovereign access to Chile’s Pacific coast. Therefore, the “unusual weapon” Bolivia has deployed, as the BBC put it, could be seen as an attempt to get international recognition for their cause, to put pressure on Chile and sway the ICJ now that they are in the fifth year of the process after filing back in 2013. Bolivian President Evo Morales, as quoted in The New York Times, stated: “We’ll show the International Court of Justice and all people on the planet that our cause is just, reasonable and sound.” However, this is not the first time President Morales has sought international headlines. For instance, last year he claimed US files declassified by President Trump revealed a secret offer that Chile made in 1975 that would have granted Bolivia a 10km corridor to the Pacific Ocean in exchange for fresh water access, according to the BBC.

It is widely believed that Morales seeks to use this secret offer as a further justification for Bolivia’s right to sea access. Given that in the past, Chile has been willing to break the 1904 “treaty of peace and friendship” under which Bolivia accepted the loss of its Pacific coast in exchange for “the fullest and freest” commercial transit, there is no reason why they would not do it again, according to The Economist. However, it has also allowed the Chilean government to poke holes in the Bolivian argument. For example, the Chilean Minister of Foreign Affairs Heraldo Muñoz stated in the Santiago Times that it “clearly proves the flaws in the Bolivian presentation, which has been a constantly shifting line of argument”.

Overall, Bolivia must be commended for going through official channels and holding peaceful protests. Chilean officials have continually pointed out that the case does not have a place in international court, referencing how the Pact of Bogotá states that both countries are signatories only, obliging them to submit disputes post 1948 to international tribunals, according to The Economist. Nevertheless, Bolivia’s determination to go through official channels rather than engage in conflict over land is refreshing. Saturday’s flag, coupled with the song “Beaches of the Future” that the government commissioned in 2015 and the national holiday “Day of the Sea” celebrated annually on March 23rd could lead to a rise of nationalism in a country which is already governed by left-wing nationalists. Therefore, what the ICJ ruling is and how long it takes to form could have a significant impact on South America.

Charlotte Devenish

History student at the University of Edinburgh, currently on exchange at the University of Auckland.