Skip Navigation

The Brown Political Review is a non-partisan political publication that seeks to promote ideological diversity. All of the views reflected in BPR’s content are views held by authors and not reflective of the views held by the wider organization or the Executive Board.

Evo’s Choice: Bolivia’s Path to the Sea at a Crossroads

October 1, 2018. Bolivian President Evo Morales is not having a good day. The verdict is slow and painful. After a painfully long 80 minutes, an International Court of Justice (ICJ) judge delivers the news: “The Court, by twelve votes to three, finds that the Republic of Chile did not undertake a legal obligation to negotiate a sovereign access for the state of Bolivia.” The hope of 11 million Bolivians weighs heavier on Morales’ shoulders with each word. A promise, 140 years in the making, falls short once again. 

Bolivia is landlocked. Every year on March 23, hundreds of thousands of Bolivians demonstrate across the country during the “Day of the Sea.” For Bolivia, the only South American nation without direct port access, reclaiming the ocean remains a widespread hope. The biggest obstacle? President Morales. In the past six years, Morales has aggressively pushed for unrealistic concessions from Chile, which conquered coastal Bolivian land more than a century ago. For the sake of Bolivia’s economic development, Morales should prioritize cooperation with Chile and focus on bringing wealth to Bolivia. 

Negotiation with Chile is particularly difficult given the animosity that has defined relations between Bolivia and Chile since the collapse of the colonial Spanish Empire. In 1878, after Bolivia tried to increase taxes on Chilean mining companies, Chile invaded its neighbor. When the dust settled, Bolivia found itself landlocked, whereas Chile gained valuable coastline. 

Having lost much of its mineral-rich land, Bolivia was forced to rely on its limited resources to support itself. Throughout the 20th century, Bolivia’s export-reliant economy stagnated while Chile’s became one of the richest in South America. Meanwhile, Chile refused to cede any territory and Bolivians’ revanchist dream seemed an increasingly unattainable prospect. This changed in 2013 when President Morales filed a suit with the ICJ to determine whether Chile had a legal obligation to negotiate with Bolivia on the subject of the annexed land. Morales insisted that a Bolivia-friendly verdict was “inevitable.” However, the ICJ firmly rejected the proposition. In response, Morales declared “that Bolivia [would] never [give] up its ‘prosecution’ of its long-lost sea access.” 

 Morales’ lofty ambitions at the ICJ drove a wedge between Bolivia and Chile, reducing the likelihood of a deal. Ultimately, Bolivia’s approach eliminated the possibility of territorial concessions from Chile. In 2015, Chilean newspaper La Tercera reported that if Bolivia ceased its nationalist appeal at the ICJ, Chile would trade them a small section of the coastal city of Pisagua. However, the deal fell through because Morales refused to compromise. According to Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, Chile would have been willing to negotiate if “Bolivia [gave] up its absurd demand for access to the sea and to Chilean territory.” Morales remains a significant obstacle to reconciliation: He only wants to negotiate on Bolivian terms. His nationalist rhetoric and ambitions have alienated the Chilean government, preventing a favorable settlement for both sides.

The temptation to push for a one-sided deal without ceding to Chilean demands is enticing for Morales. Aggressive rhetoric to reclaim lost territory sparks popular sentiment and will likely boost Morales’ approval ratings as he runs for a fourth term in office amid fledgling support. Beating the nationalist drum will win hearts at home, but it won’t change the fact that the ICJ has made its decision. Chile is keeping its territory and has no pressure to acquiesce. For any real hope of change, Morales must set aside his nationalist motivations and negotiate in order to improve the economic welfare of Bolivians.

Furthermore, should Morales succeed in brokering an amicable agreement with Chile on this subject, it would represent a key step in normalizing relations between the two nations. President Morales has brokered maritime agreements before: In 2010, Peru granted Bolivia “dock facilities, a free-trade zone, and space for economic activities” at the small port city of Ilo. A deal with Chile would need to include land swaps or economic compromises. If Bolivia sought to repair its relationship with Chile, a similar agreement would become more likely. President Morales should thus come to the table with a more open attitude—a flexible policy position would likely allow for more productive compromise.

Although his approach is unlikely to gain Chilean sympathy, Morales’ goal is noble. Bolivia could reap significant gains if they had an expedited path to the sea, especially since the nation is the poorest country in South America. At the same time, across the globe, the growing consumption of fossil fuels in countries like China has created a lucrative market for petroleum gas, which also happens to be Bolivia’s top export. Should Bolivia gain access to these markets, it would likely benefit from increased commerce and growth. Specifically, involvement in these markets would allow Morales to invest revenue into Bolivia’s infrastructure. Pacific coastline would also expand Bolivia’s diplomatic options by making it eligible to join geographically-contingent free trade organizations like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Morales himself has indicated interest in increasing Bolivian involvement in international trade. A flexible approach would further this goal. 

But time is ticking for the Bolivian government to secure access to new markets. Worries about the reliability of Bolivian gas exports to Brazil and Argentina, which account for approximately 90 percent of Bolivia’s natural gas exports, suggest that the continental stalwarts are considering looking elsewhere for their energy needs. Even if a deal with Chile remained symbolic, fostering positive relations between the neighbors would ease tensions in the region and lay the groundwork for cooperation on issues like drug trafficking and environmental degradation.

 Bolivia’s attempt to force Chile to return a path to the sea is a pipe dream. For President Morales to be “on the side of reason,” he must soften his public rhetoric and nationalist ambitions. Seeking a deal on Bolivian terms undoubtedly resonates with Bolivians, but it discourages good-faith negotiations that would promote economic development and other tangible benefits. Normalizing relations would enable dialogue and signal to Chile that Bolivia is serious about obtaining a significant path to the sea. As long as Morales continues his aggressive rhetoric, his leverage will continue to slip, and Bolivia’s Pacific fantasy will remain just that.