Political irrendentism has a long ignoble history in South America, and I’ve recently written about the topic in the context of Argentina’s emotional claim to the Falkland Islands. In the course of my travels, though, I’ve often come upon aspects of another equally contentious territorial issue, Bolivia’s territorial access to the Pacific, which it lost in the catastrophic Guerra del Pacífico (War of the Pacific, 1879-1883). In that conflict, Chile acquired all of the present-day Antofagasta Region, which belonged to the presently landlocked La Paz government, and also gained substantial territory from Bolivia’s ally Peru.
Acquisition of the area, which comprises about a quarter of modern Chile’s territory (not counting its Antarctic claims), made the country wealthy through its mineral nitrates, but the industry declined with the production of petroleum-based fertilizers after the 1920s. After Chile assumed control, the Bolivian settlement of Cobija (pictured above), which once had a population of 1,500, gradually deteriorated to the point where, today, it’s a cluster of crumbling adobes that’s now home to a handful of fishing families. Scenes from the 2008 James Bond flick Quantum of Solace were shot here, though it was not identified as such in the film.
Soon, though, Bolivia is taking its claim to the International Court of Justice, in The Hague, in hopes of getting “access to the sea,” despite a 1904 treaty that presumably settled the issue once and for all. Bolivian President Evo Morales is every bit as adamant on the matter as his ideological ally, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is on the Islands issue (which Argentina, however, has refused to submit to The Hague).
What’s ironic is that, for all of Morales’s posturing, its access to the Pacific is better than at any time in the country’s history. Bolivian exports enjoy the use of two excellent paved highways from their own highlands to the Chilean coast: from La Paz to the port city of Arica (pictured above) and from Oruro to the port of Iquique (pictured below), at minimal cost. Should Bolivia manage, somehow, to obtain a territorial concession on the Pacific, the only “advantage” might be the ability to extend a naval presence that is now limited to Lago Titicaca and the rivers of its Amazonian lowlands. Potentially destabilizing to the region, that’s a far higher price than Bolivia should be willing to consider.