Letter from La Paz — From the February 2015 issue

The Day of the Sea

Bolivia’s dogged quest to reclaim its lost coastline

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In 1879, Bolivia and Chile went to war over fertilizer. For years, a company with ties to the Chilean government had been mining saltpeter on what was then Bolivia’s coast — a barren, isolated strip of desert bordering the sea. When Bolivia tried to impose a new tax on the company, Chile sent its military to occupy the Bolivian port of Antofagasta. They invaded on Valentine’s Day, in the midst of Carnival. Perhaps distracted by all the drinking and dancing and eating, the Bolivians underestimated both the size and the conviction of the Chilean forces. They lost the war — known as the War of the Pacific — and all of their coastline. The country has been landlocked ever since.

For more than a century, Bolivia has done a lot of magical thinking to support its claim that this condition is only temporary. The country has a star for El Litoral (The Shore) on its coat of arms, and it hosts a yearly pageant to choose a beauty queen for the former territory. Chile, for its part, hasn’t budged.


Cadets in the Bolivian Armada train at a base near the Strait of Tiquina, on Lake Titicaca © Fabio Cuttica/Contrasto/Redux

In 2013, three Bolivian soldiers were arrested while pursuing smugglers along the border with Chile and imprisoned there for more than a month. Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, was furious. He said that Chile had taken the soldiers hostage to send a message to Bolivia: Stay away from the ocean. The three soldiers were declared national heroes, and when they returned to Bolivia, they were greeted at the airport with garlands of yellow chrysanthemums.

A few weeks later, Morales’s government asked the International Court of Justice (I.C.J.) at The Hague to help settle the issue. Bolivia wants “sovereign access” to the Pacific coast — a partial restoration of the land that was lost in the 1879 war. As it stands, Bolivia can use some northern Chilean ports for shipping, but it pays taxes for the privilege and controls nothing. Bolivia has already made its case before the I.C.J., and Chile is scheduled to respond this month. Fifteen judges will then sit together in a wood-paneled room, in a city thousands of miles from the Andes, and decide whether the ocean Bolivia claims as its right will at last be returned to it.

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