Why Bolivia (a land-locked country) is so obsessed with the sea!

Even though Bolivia has no ocean, they’re completely enamoured with the idea. Everyone from young to old feels passionate about the need for access to the sea. Bolivia once connected to the Pacific ocean between Chile and Peru, but lost the land over a century ago in The War of the Pacific. However, Bolivians are still not ready to accept the result, and feel it is a great injustice that they don’t have the land that was theirs when “their country was born”.  I’ve become completely fascinated with this event, and took time this past week to do some digging into the history of this country that I currently call my home.

  

Boats are definitely the theme of the day! Everything from giant boats on top of cars with oceans of blue tarp to teenage boys with paper sailboat hats.

Yearly Celebrations for Day of the Sea

Day of the Sea is celebrated on March 23, commemorating the day of the Battle of Topater (the first battle in the War of the Pacific) in 1879. The Bolivians were trying to defend the town of Calama from Chile. It was in the battle that Colonel Eduardo Aboroa died, making him into a national hero. You can still see streets named after him in every big city in Bolivia, and one of the main squares in La Paz is also name Aboroa.  Every year on this date (or at least 3 full days this year in Sucre), the whole town is excited. Thousands of people come out to the main square to watch the spectacle. Politicians come and speak about important issues on a stage in front of hundreds of flags. Every marching band in town shows up in blue to navigate through the central streets. School children with hand-made signs march through town in blue to show their support.  Music videos are made about the sea and shown to spectators who sit for hours watching them on the big screen – nodding along and cheering in agreement whenever someone states (or sings) about Bolivia needing the sea. Everyone in the city shows up with pride to share their support in the need for Bolivia to regain access to the Pacific Ocean.

  

Left: Aw, what a cutie in his little sailor costume! Right: Boris and Julie found me these great paper flags with the Bolivian naval flag – yay parades!

Note: All photos in this post are from the three days of parades in Sucre during the Day of the Sea celebrations (March 21 – 23, 2017). This blog is a bit different from my other posts, and is a lot more researched. All facts are based on articles I’ve read, so it’s possible not all the facts are 100% accurate, but I tried to create a good summary from tons of resources for anyone who might be interested the topic.

  

The name of the game is marching bands, which come in all shapes and sizes.

War of the Pacific

The War of the Pacific is the one thing most referenced by Bolivians in their claim for access to the sea. Here’s a brief summary of the war, but you can read the entire history of the War on the Pacific if you’re interested in more details. The war took place from 1879 to 1883 and was Bolivia and Peru against Chile.  The war was fought in many different areas, including the Pacific Ocean, the Atacama Desert, and the Andean Mountains.  So, what caused the war? There are a number of different stories depending on who you ask, but here’s what we know for sure.  The area between Chile, Peru, and Bolivia is rich in natural resources. At the time, they were mining valuable guano (bird poo) which was used in fertilizer and sodium nitrate deposits (which is also called saltpeter) and is used in explosives. Although these may not seem like important resources, they were essential to the economy at the time and many companies in each country held monopolies on these resources. In February 1878, Bolivia imposed a ten cent mining tax on a Chilean company (even though they said they wouldn’t), up from an original tax of three cents. Chile fought it, but Bolivia wouldn’t budge. Little did Chile know that Bolivia and Peru had a secret pact, so as soon as Chile invaded Bolivia, Peru stepped into the battle.

  

Left: School children have various signs with everything from a simple “Sea for Bolivia”, to long histories of the war with Chile, complete with sketches of war heroes. Right: On March 23, they even published the old newspaper from 1879, complete with “Long live Bolivia and Peru, down with Chile!”

Throughout February and March, tensions rose, culminating on March 23, 1879 (the day Bolivia celebrates Day of the Sea). This is the part that’s most interesting in the Bolivian story. Bolivians all state that Chile attacked them in the middle of the Carnival season while everyone was drunk and partying. Apparently, the Bolivian politicians of the time told the soldiers to wait until after they were done partying to address these concerns, which is why Bolivians think they don’t have access to the sea. At the time, Bolivia had no navy, so Peru raged a sea battle against Chile while Bolivia defended itself over land in the deserts.  Eventually, Peru and Bolivia lost. Peace treaties were signed between Chile and Peru, and between Chile and Bolivia in 1883 and 1884 respectively. In the end, Chile won the war and took large sections of land from both Peru and Bolivia, making Bolivia a land-locked nation in the process.  Bolivia lost 46,000 square miles of land, and 400 km of coastline (including all ports and the world’s largest copper deposits which have subsequently contributed to Chile’s wealth).

  

Left: I’m glad to see girls in the bands this time (most festivals here just have male bands). Right:  Various politicians got on stage in front of the main square to speak to the crowds about the case in the International Court of Justice.

1904 – Treaty of Peace and Friendship

After ending the War of the Pacific, a treaty was signed between Chile and Bolivia in 1904. The Treaty of Peace and Friendship has been in place ever since, but Bolivia still disputes it, and says they signed it under duress.  The treaty specifically stated the exact border between the two countries. In 1889, a railway was constructed between Antofagasta (Chile) and Uyuni (Bolivia), and in 1913, another was created between Arica (a sea port) and La Paz. The Arica-La Paz railroad was transferred to Bolivia for free in 1928 for their use in transporting goods through Chilean land. Chile also granted Bolivia the right to commercial transit through its territory and ports forever.  Although Bolivia can use the two ports and two railways mentioned without paying any duty or fees, Bolivian continues to aspire to owning the land connecting Bolivia to the sea.

  

Left: Bolivia loves bands!  Right: Some girls even had construction paper handcuffs to show how they felt about not having access to the sea.

1932-1935 – Chaco War with Paraguay

After losing the War of the Pacific, Bolivia didn’t have direct access to the ocean, but they could still ship goods through the Paraguay River, which led out to the Atlantic Ocean. However, the Chaco war (1932 – 1935) against Paraguay changed all that.  The War of Thirst was over a piece of land called the Gran Chaco, which was known to be rich in oil reserves. Both countries are among the poorest in South America and had already lost a great deal of land in previous battles to neighbouring countries.  Royal Dutch Shell was already invested in oil in Paraguay, with Standard Oil in Bolivia, and Argentina wanting to import the oil from the region.  Confrontations had been occurring along the river since 1885 but didn’t finally erupt until 1923 when both sides felt they had imported enough weapons to win a war.

During the war, Bolivia’s population was 3 times as high, but they implemented old-school techniques and only used part of their troops, while the Paraguay army used innovative strategies and mobilized their entire army.  The Bolivian fighters were also made up of mostly indigenous populations who apparently didn’t really want to fight, knew nothing about the Chaco region, and didn’t adjust well to the hot and humid lands (since they normally live in the highlands of the Andes).  Paraguay also had a network of railroads, whereas Bolivia had to march everyone hundreds of kilometers, and thousands of feet down in altitude to engage in the battles (many died of dehydration).  After two years of fighting, Bolivia surrendered in June 1935, with a peace treaty being signed in 1938, but no final treaty marking boundary lines until 2009!  By the end of the war, Paraguay was now in control of two-thirds of the disputed territory, with oil being found on both sides of the divide.  Both countries suffered major losses of 2-3% of their population, with 2 Paraguayans and 3 Bolivians dying for every square mile of the land that was being fought over.

  

Left: Bolivian naval flag. Right: The cleaning ladies are super organized and actually follow the parade route right after the marching groups!

1964 – 1978 – Suspension of political relations with Chile

In 1964, the president of Bolivia suspended diplomatic relations with Chile. Negotiations lasted from 1973 to 1975 in order to return previous relations.  The Chilean government agreed to give Bolivia a small strip of land along the border. However, treaties with Peru stated that they needed to approve any such agreement. The Peruvian president did not agree and decided all three nations should jointly run the port of Arica.  This suggestion was refused and diplomatic ties between Bolivia and Chile were once again severed.

  

Soldiers of all kinds were on  parade.

2000s – Discovering Gas and Building Pipelines

At the beginning of the 2000s, gas reserves were discovered in Bolivia. In order to export these resources, pipelines needed to be built. Tensions broke out into strikes, riots, and blockades in September of 2003, leading some to called the subsequent period “Black October”. Due to the historic tensions with Chile, many people advocated for the pipeline to go to the Peruvian port of Ilo. This route is longer and more expensive, but would not have to deal with Chile and some say it would benefit isolated communities in the north of Bolivia. A cheaper alternative would be connecting to the Chilean port of Mejillones.  Some claim that since this route is 260 km shorter, it would also be $600 million cheaper (but others claim it would only be $300 million less).  Peru has offered a number of incentives to get the pipeline, including free land to a port, right to passage, and a 99-year special economic zone that would be administered entirely by Bolivia.

  

Left: Flags for the country, department (state), and the naval flag hang together in front of Casa de Libertad (where the Bolivian constitution was signed). Right: Students hold pictures of boats while marching.

Taking Chile to the International Court of Justice

For the past few years, Chile and Bolivia have been in a legal battle located in The Hague, home of the International Court of Justice (ICJ).  There are actually two separate cases. Chile has instigated proceedings in 2016 against Bolivia regarding the use of the Silala river, which starts in Bolivia and flows through Chilean territory and into the Pacific Ocean. Bolivia claims that it has 100% of the rights to the water since the river starts in Potosi (Bolivia), but Chile claims the river is international waters since it crosses the border before entering the ocean. The other case was started by Bolivia in 2014 and aims to restart negotiations with Chile over access to the Pacific Ocean.  One interesting thing is that the court case isn’t actually to force Chile to give up it’s land. It simply asks Chile to reopen negotiations with Bolivia. Politicians claim that Chile has stated they will sit down to discuss the matter on six separate occasions but have failed to do so yet.  Either way, the ICJ has agreed to hear both cases and neither has been finalized and ruled on yet. Many people think these cases are a waste of time, but Peru recently won a case in the same courts over maritime territory lost to Chile during the same war.

 

Crowds gathered both day and night for three days to see all the excitement!

Being a Land-Locked Country

Bolivia has fought in many different wars and has lost or given away sections of its lands to many of its surrounding countries. Bolivia is less than half of its original size from when it gained independence in 1825, since it has lost land to Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay on all sides. Like Bolivia, there are 49 other land-locked countries around the world. Something interesting I learned is that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea gives land-locked countries the right to access the sea without being taxed – I had no idea!  Nine of the twelve lowest ranked countries on the Human Development Index are land-locked countries. Coastal areas/countries do tend to be wealthier and more populated, but I think Bolivia takes it a bit too far. If you ask some people, they will tell you that not having access to the ocean is the cause of all their economic problems – including education, healthcare, lack of jobs, etc. This is great for politicians because they have another country to blame, but if they suddenly get access to the sea in the future I highly doubt that all of these things will improve overnight.  There is some research to show that land-locked countries can do well (like Switzerland) but that it can also lead to a lot of poverty. For example, Paul Collier in The Bottom Billion lists this bad geographical situation as one of the four “poverty traps”. However, it has also been shown to have some benefits like a more robust local food system due to less reliance on importing from other countries.

  

The night ended with traditional Bolivian dancing to a military band.

Export and Trade

There are many great things about having a coastline – tasty seafood, beautiful beaches, and easy travel by ship.  Some Bolivians think the best part is just the limitless potential since looking out into the sea seems so infinite. One of the real benefits though is ease of export. Transporting large goods is possible by plane, truck, or train, but it can either take a long time or be prohibitively expensive. Since Bolivia produces lots of natural resources (aka. heavy products that take up a lot of space), shipping containers are the only reasonable way to get them to places like China.  It’s been shown that exports in Bolivia are about 60% more expensive than neighbouring countries because of the long journey to the sea. I think part of it is also that Bolivia doesn’t want to pay lots of money to maintain it’s aging infrastructure to the ports, like roads and railroads – which it is notoriously bad at keeping in use.  However, it is proven that landlocked countries tend to trade about 30% less than other countries due to these type of restrictions.

  

Hundreds of people sat in the central square to watch Bolivian music videos about the sea, like this lady in the desert singing about this old man pulling a mermaid in a bathtub through the desert to the sea.

Other port options

Since there have been so many problems over the years with Chile, Bolivia is considering other options for trade. Once such option involves sending ships from the ports along the Atlantic Ocean instead. This would require relationships with Brazil or Argentina. Apparently, Evo (the Bolivian president) is planning to invest more money over the coming years into railways into Brazil. Only a few years ago, a large highway was completed all the way from Peru, through Bolivia, to Brazil. It remains to be seen whether or not 70% of exports will still flow through Northern Chile as they have in previous years.

  

Bolivia has even created informative videos and Band-Aid style music videos with celebrities in the studio – all centered around their history and need for the sea.

Having a Navy

Despite having no access to the ocean, Bolivia still has the largest navy of any land-locked country.  They often state that the purpose of the navy is aspirational. When you see a navy, you think of the sea, which is exactly what Bolivia wants out of its population. With over 5,000 people and over 150 boats, the Bolivian navy mostly works on Lake Titicaca (the largest navigable lake in the world). The boats also patrol the vast maze of rivers throughout the Amazon rainforest in the North-East of the country.  Some members have done limited training missions on boats in the ocean (in partnership with Peru and Argentina), which they seem really proud about.  However, some articles state that the government can’t actually afford to maintain the boats. The sailors are now part of the tourist industry, and do day trips on the lake with visitors to help pay for the boats.

  

Left: Sexy military hats!  Right: Releasing hundreds of blue balloons into the sky.

Bolivian Sentiments

Ever since the historic war, Bolivians have blamed Chileans for the fact that their country is landlocked. There’s definitely a feeling of hostility between the two countries. Ask any Bolivian what they think of a certain aspect of Chile and they’re certain to give you a negative answer. In one article I read, a man even compared their entering the war during Carnival as equivalent to someone coming into your house and punching you in the face while you’re dancing at a party. Bolivians teach their children to remember these wars, and even wear boats on their heads during football (soccer) matches with their neighbour.

  

Left: The whole crowd was wearing these white shirts saying “Mar Para Bolivia, El Mar Nos Une” meaning: Sea for Bolivia, The Sea Unites Us.  Right: The naval flag of Bolivia being displayed on one of the main buildings in the central square of Sucre.

Overall, I think Bolivia has a really complicated relationship with their past. The citizens are very eager to go back to the “good old days” instead of thinking to the future and what they could do as a country. However, it’s also sort of nice to see the passion in the people, coming together over something as simple as a love of the sea.


If you want to know more about Day of the Sea and the past/current relationships between Bolivia and Chile, there are SO many resources our there. If you’re interested in the topic, check out some of the links below:

Day of the Sea:

International Court of Justice:

History/Present Relationships of Bolivia:

Videos:

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About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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2 Responses to Why Bolivia (a land-locked country) is so obsessed with the sea!

  1. Hi Amanda.
    What a brilliant post. I learned a lot from this post. I knew that there were historical tensions between Chile and Bolivia (and Peru) but I didn’t know why exactly. I read everything you wrote with great interest. That is truly interesting that Bolivians are still passionate about gaining their lost access to the ocean from all those years (centuries!) ago and organize these massive events voicing that until today! I learned about the UN Convention on the Law of Sea last year when India blocked all supplies to Nepal (where I’m from). On Facebook and other social media, many Nepalese circulated photos and texts stating this law. I think that landlocked countries are more at a disadvantage than advantage. They always need to ensure good relationship with neighbors (which Switzerland is good at) that sometimes can be a bully (India to Nepal) for trade reasons which causes a lot of dependency. I personally love sea and beaches, I wouldn’t mind some coastline in Nepal, not that we ever had any coastline unlike Bolivia, haha.

    Like

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Pooja, I’m glad you learned so much from reading my blog 🙂 I also didn’t know the entire history before doing research this blog so I wanted to share what I learned with others. It is pretty intense that the desire for the sea still exists within the world population many generations after the war.

      Like

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