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Landlocked Bolivia Wants Coastal Key From Chile

The government is staging rallies to compel its nemesis next door to return a corridor to the sea lost 125 years ago in the War of the Pacific.

March 21, 2004|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

IQUIQUE, Chile — Landlocked in the heart of South America for the last 125 years, Bolivia wants its beach back, a stretch of sand much like the one in this Chilean city where the world's driest desert meets the sea.

Chile conquered all 250 miles of Bolivia's coastline in the 19th century War of the Pacific. Now the controversy is simmering anew, thanks to the insurrection by nationalistic Indians and workers that overthrew Bolivia's president in October.

New President Carlos Mesa has made "an ocean for Bolivia" the centerpiece of his administration, winning favor with those who were angered by his predecessor's proposal to export Bolivia's natural gas reserves through a Chilean port.

This month, Mesa announced that the Bolivian government would stage a series of public rallies across the country -- and in Bolivian embassies abroad -- beginning Tuesday to remember the dead of the War of the Pacific and to call for Chile to grant Bolivia a corridor to the sea.

Many analysts believe poverty-racked Bolivia may once again descend into anarchy if Mesa fails in his campaign to restore his country's long-wounded national honor. And here in Iquique, the site of a key battle in the war, a few people think giving the Bolivians some land isn't such a bad idea.

Enrique Anguita, a hotelier, says he's willing to sell a piece of property he owns near the city's port to the Bolivians for $5 million.

"Esto es [this is] strictly business," Anguita said, mixing Spanish and the international language of commerce, English.

Few people expect Bolivia to take Anguita up on his offer, although pro-Bolivian statements made by a few civic leaders in northern Chile have given the Bolivians hope.

Mesa has said he wants a diplomatic solution to the problem. In January, his government announced that it would present its demands before the Organization of American States. Mesa made his case most dramatically at the Summit of the Americas that month, confronting Chilean President Ricardo Lagos in a room full of regional leaders. He cast the controversy as a matter of social justice between South America's poorest nation and the continent's rising economic powerhouse.

"There is a country that has lost an essential part of itself, a loss which brought incalculable economic loss and difficulties which it still suffers today," Mesa said. "I agree that we should look forward, toward the 21st century. But we can only go forward with a definitive resolution to a just Bolivian claim."

The leaders of Argentina and Venezuela have said they back Bolivia's claim, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez saying, "I hope one day to swim at a Bolivian beach."

Lagos has said repeatedly that his country will not cede territory to Bolivia. Chile considers the matter resolved by a 1904 treaty that officially brought hostilities between the two countries to a close, 25 years after their war began.

Accepting negotiations with Bolivia "is as absurd as imagining that Mexican President Vicente Fox would ask for mediation with George W. Bush in order to recover Texas and California," Lagos told the French newspaper Le Figaro during a visit to France this year.

Nevertheless, Mesa proposed that Chile grant Bolivia a corridor along the Peruvian border -- setting off a new round of denunciations, satirical cartoons and general outrage in Santiago, Chile's capital.

"If we did give them a corridor, there's nothing to guarantee that in five years or so they wouldn't be asking us for more territory," the daily newspaper La Tercera said in an editorial.

Leaders of the Chilean city of Arica, which is adjacent to the proposed corridor, also denounced the plan, saying it would balkanize the region and cut the city's trade links to Peru.

"A great fire will be ignited," Carlos Valcarce, Arica's mayor, warned in an interview with foreign correspondents.

"This region will rise up. It will become a kind of Bosnia of Latin America."

Another alternative is a corridor to the former Bolivian port of Antofagasta, but that would split Chile in two, leaving 400 miles of Chilean coastline severed from the rest of the country.

Though most Chileans say they would never accept the surrender of territory to Bolivia -- 80% are against the idea, according to polls -- in Iquique people are more ambivalent, thanks in large part to the region's economic links to its neighbors.

Hotel owner Anguita said that by law he can sell his property to anyone, although only the government can decide whether it could become Bolivian territory.

"As a Chilean, I offer this [property] as a means to dialogue," he said. "The two countries should be talking. It seems to me you have to start somewhere."

Neither Iquique nor Arica to the north was ever part of Bolivia -- before the War of the Pacific began in 1879, both were Peruvian ports. Peru was Bolivia's ally in the war, and both lost territory to Chile, nearly all of it desert that is rich in nitrate deposits.

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