Bolivian Navy

Boyfriend is a strange one to travel with. Scenery does not interest him, wild life doesn’t catch his fancy. Put him in a beautiful beach house right by the Pacific Ocean, or a lovely cabin up in a mountainous forest, and he will look out of the window once and say, “Oh, cool. Ocean.” Or, “Oh, look. Trees.” Then he will go right back to whatever electronic device or book he has brought along to keep him company in the wilderness, while I swim in the ocean and ride the waves and keep my eyes open underwater, so I can see the tiny creatures that live there. (Ok, maybe I don’t do all of that. Actually, I don’t even know how to swim. Whatever. Get over it.) The point is, I appreciate nature for its beauty. Boyfriend, on the other hand, is only interested in facts – historic, political, and demographic trivia about a place. What’s that? You went to Argentina and were reduced to tears by the breathtaking beauty of Tierra del Fuego? Did you know that Argentina has the second highest beef consumption in the world, at 55 kilos per head per year?

So it was nothing out of the ordinary when I came back from Peru and enthusiastically showed Boyfriend pictures of the stunning altiplano, the deep canyon that houses condors, and the shimmering lake high up in the mountains, and all he wanted to know was if I had seen the Bolivia Mar.

The what?

Aha.

“Did you know the main purpose of the Bolivian Navy is to regain Bolivia’s access to the sea? But that’s never going to happen, so in the meanwhile, Peru has loaned Bolivia a strip of land on their coast, to use for trade. It’s called the Bolivia Mar.”

I did not see the Bolivia Mar. But when I was on a boat on Lake Titicaca, one of the locals told me how Peru and Bolivia (who share the lake) still fight over which one of them claims the bigger chunk. Because even when the war ends, it doesn’t really end.

You see, in 1879 Peru, Chile, and Bolivia (which had a small but important coastline then) got involved in a bit of a kerfuffle called the War of the Pacific. And like a lot of other wars, it was fought over one mineral or another. Peru’s Tarapaca and Arica regions, and Bolivia’s Antofagasta, were very rich in mineral deposits, a privilege that Chile didn’t enjoy to the same extent. Minerals are a key source of a country’s wealth, though (remember Nauru?), so the three countries had reached an agreement where Peru and Bolivia allowed Chilean companies to mine these areas.

For a while they lived together happily. But in the late 1870s, Peru moved to nationalize all the nitrate mines in the region, and Bolivia followed by levying a tax on the Chilean nitrate mining companies. Chile, in a moment of total freak-out, occupied the Bolivian territory that hosted its mines early in 1879. Bolivia immediately declared war. As for Peru, it quietly slunk away into the background, hoping not to be noticed.

"Oh, you guys are fighting? Ok, umm... cool, I guess... I'll just... you know, be around."

“Oh, you guys are fighting? Ok, umm… cool, I guess… I’ll just… you know, be around.” Image source.

In March 1879, however, Bolivia demanded Peru’s involvement, citing the mutual defense pact between both countries. So in April 1879, Peru got involved in the war too.

"Say, what, now?"

“Say, what, now?” Image source.

The war carried on for four years, and was fought at sea, in the mountains, on land, and in the desert. Peru and Bolivia fought together, and fought hard, but the weaponry at the disposal of the Chilean armed forces was far more advanced than anything the other two countries had. Peru even brought guerilla forces into the equation, and tasted momentary success with the Campaign of the Breña, but eventually surrendered to Chile in October 1883. Bolivia continued longer, but in 1884, drained of resources, it was forced to sign a truce with Chile.

Obviously, this wasn’t the end of it.

One of the outcomes of the war was that Chile took over the Antofagasta region of Bolivia, and Bolivia lost the entirety of its 400 kilometers of coast.

Bolivia before the War of the Pacific

Bolivia before the War of the Pacific. Image source.

Bolivia in more recent times

Bolivia in more recent times. Image source.

Once a flourishing country with robust trade, Bolivia found itself landlocked, with no access to a port. This affected the Bolivian economy, and it affected the livelihood of its people. But most importantly, it affected Bolivian pride.

After the war ended Bolivia reduced the size of the navy and incorporated it into the army. But in the mid-twentieth century the navy was reestablished, with the view of keeping alive the hope that one day, Bolivia shall regain the sea. Every year on Dia Del Mar (Day of the Sea), Bolivia remembers the war, and reinforces the idea that the sea is theirs by right. Naval exercises are performed on Lake Titicaca (Bolivia’s biggest and most significant water body), and the demand that Chile return Bolivia’s coast is renewed.

Of course, this demand will probably never be met. In 1913 Chile offered Bolivia the use of its northernmost port at Arica, and built a railway from La Paz to Arica on its own dime. In 2010, Peru offered Bolivia the Bolivia Mar (Bolivian Sea) – ten miles of its coast in Ilo – to build a port, and a road that leads to it. These measures aided the Bolivian economy, and helped paper over some of the differences between the countries, but access to the sea is still a matter of Bolivian national pride. Speaking on Dia Del Mar in 2011, Bolivian President Evo Morales said he would take the dispute to International tribunals. In 2013, he actually took the dispute to the International Court of Justice. Unfortunately, Chile’s reaction was sorta like this:

Wait... did I say four? I meant A HUNDRED AND TWENTY FOUR!

Wait… did I say four? I meant HUNDRED AND TWENTY FOUR!

A lot of countries have sore memories of historical incidents that continue to bother them for decades, even centuries. For Bolivia, access to the sea is one such issue. And even though they technically have access to the sea, thanks to Peru’s Bolivia Mar, the country still longs for its own strip of the coast. And I guess I understand. Not that nations can or should be compared to people, but if my kitchen was taken away and I had no where to cook and eat, I’d be very upset. You could build another kitchen in my neighbor’s apartment for me to use, and that would solve my problem to a certain extent, but the kitchen wouldn’t be mine. Besides, I’d have to build a tunnel through the walls to get me there in the first place, which would just be a pain in the neck.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.

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