Security and Foreign Policy

Challenges Ahead as Bolivia and Chile Vie for Coastal Access

A century after Bolivia forfeited its coastal access to the Pacific Ocean, it has been consistently exerting international pressure and corralling support to regain access. Tanner Kenney explains the challenges Bolivia faces both domestically and internationally.


The South American nation of Bolivia and its citizens have long sought to regain the coastal access to the Pacific Ocean forfeited to Chile in the Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1904 following the War of the Pacific, a dispute over contested land that spanned the late 1800’s. In the process, a new 535 mile-long border between the nations was created, and Bolivia lost a staggering 120,000 square kilometers of land “rich in natural resources[,]” including some 250 miles of coastline. In recent weeks, Bolivia has appealed to the International Court in The Hague to rule in its favor and return the still-contested land to the nation.

Under the regime of President Evo Morales, Bolivia has played a much larger role on the international stage than ever before – beyond its appeal to the IC for the resolution of the Atacama Border Dispute, the country has called on the United Nations to convene and discuss the threats posed to the community by American President Donald Trump and his desire to attack Syria. Additionally, it maintains strong relationships with nations such as Germany, Australia, and France as well as the European Union and hosted the Dakar Rally in 2018.

But successful international cooperation for Bolivia has only taken place in recent years and comes after generations of economic struggles and quality-of-life hardships for its people. Politically, the country barely maintains a relationship with the United Sates following the expulsion of Ambassador Philip Goldberg in 2008 and USAID in 2013. As such, the nation has fought to have its voice heard by highly developed nations outside of those referenced above with a rich history of cooperation. However, the nation has long been progressive in its stance on climate science and is an advocate of environmental conservation and remediation, promoting the protection of “Pachamama” – Mother Earth – through its constitution.

Additionally, it is just as important to address the negative effects versus the potentially positive outcomes associated with either returning the land to Bolivia or the maintenance of the status quo, primarily as the scenarios relate to the diplomatic relationship between the two nations due to the economic impact of the path chosen. Just prior to the announcement of the IC filing, Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned as recordings of his corruption were made public, leaving the entirety of Peruvian politics in a state of flux. This is to say nothing of the nation’s economic and international ambitions, in the coming months.

This could not only delay negotiations between the parties through the IC, but postpone them indefinitely, as well – whilst dealing with Bolivia’s petition to the IC, Peru will be led by President Martín Vizcarra until elections are held yet again in 2019. And while “[c]rowds of cheering supporters greeted Vizcarra when he landed on a commercial flight from Toronto[,]” a multitude of Peruvians took to the streets during his swearing-in ceremony protesting corruption and calling for the removal of all members of the national government.

On the other hand, President Morales – although oft-criticized for his public and private proclivities – has been a mainstay in Bolivian politics since his ascension to the national spotlight as an advocate for coca producers and now wishes his presidency to continue ad infinitum. However, his caustic language and hardline stance against the Chilean government as well as the people it represents will make negotiations difficult.

Moreover, President Morales has been a vocal Bolivian representative at The Hague as its case against Chile for coastal access proceeds. But the socialist nation’s leader should not be compared to Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro. Bolivia’s economic profile is more diversified than the Venezuela’s oil and gas- centric model and includes mining, tourism, agriculture, and more alongside some of the world’s leading commodities. The Bolivian economic structure would benefit greatly from the return of the land in question through the addition of fisheries, ports, resorts, marine transportation routes, and beyond.

In returning Bolivia’s coastal access, Chile would allow for a greater number of Bolivian researchers, students, and conservationists to study the rich, yet endangered, biodiversity of the region such as Green Sea Turtles and the “free-living benthic marine fauna of Chile[.]” Moreover, should the Chilean-Bolivian coastal dispute be resolved in an amicable fashion, there are endless possibilities for collaborative research into the ancient civilizations of Tiwanaku. However, ceremonial gestures from friendly neighbors aside, Bolivia is in dire need of coastal access and the two nations are far from an amicable resolution, but an open dialogue is the only way for this to occur – any mediated decision will be looked upon unfavorably by one party.

The land should be returned to the Bolivian people, if not in whole than in large part, as the nation’s indigenous peoples enjoyed unfettered access to the region for generations prior to the establishment of national governments. However, Bolivia entered the War of the Pacific of its own volition and agreed to the terms of the Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1904. Moreover, with regards to economic cooperation, “Bolivia has spurned big opportunities merely to spite Chile.” But much has changed in both nations, and around the world, in the 100+ years since the end of the battle and the economic disparity between the two countries is primarily due to the terms of the cease-fire.

President Morales’ presence at the hearings at the IC in The Hague could result in two, diametrically opposite outcomes – one wherein the nations are able to agree to improve upon the free-transit agreement that is already in place, or another that sees the confrontation prolonged indefinitely, perhaps resulting in further disagreement between the two, leading to a breakdown of the status quo. Observers have posited that Chile “could offer Bolivia a lease on an enclave over which it would retain sovereignty, similar to China’s former arrangement with Britain over part of Hong Kong. But no solution short of sovereignty will satisfy Bolivia.”

To ensure a successful resolution to Bolivia’s petition, agreements and concessions must be made by both nations. This process may include tariffs on Bolivian products that Chile also produces in order to prevent arbitrage as well as power-purchase agreements to lower prices of energy in Chile whilst creating new customers for Bolivian natural gas. There are countless routes for Bolivian-Chilean cooperation, in the future, and the negotiations between the two at the International Court may provide the perfect setting. But one thing is for certain, and that is this disagreement will not end swiftly or easily – great care must be taken, moving forward.

Tanner Kenney is an energy and media professional with a background in journalism and received his M.S. in Global Affairs, Environment & Energy Policy from NYU’s Center for Global Affairs. Recently, Tanner has focused on the advocacy of sustainable development through renewable energy technologies, transportation efficiency, and inclusive public policy.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.


  1. Peru, Argentina and even Spain should be actively involved in the negotiations, especially Peru, as the long dispute traces its origins to the first War of the Pacific, colonization and the final division of New Castile / Peru after the wars independence, which were inspired in South America entirely by Napoleon’s invasion of the Iberian peninsula post the disastrous French Revolution. Btw, the indigenous people of Bolivia enjoying unfettered access to the Pacific is not exactly accurate, as the Atacama desert had been for generations barely populated outside of miners and small mostly Peruvian / Chilean settlements; that is, once they all ceased to be citizens of the same Spanish colony or vice-royalty.

  2. The Pacific war was declared by the British Empire against Bolivia. The Bolivian-Peruvian coast was measured studied by British miners, and business men who controlled the most powerful navy at the time at their service. The Nitrate King Thomas North, who became the richest man in the world later would throw a ball for Queen Victoria to thank her.

Leave a Reply