An unquiet ocean

July 24, 2016 § Leave a comment

There must be something about being in Chile that makes me write blog posts. I wrote my last one here in September of last year, and now I’m at it again, a third of the way through a trip to Santiago and the south of the country.

My motivation this time is an important bit of international news that appears to have been neglected by English-language media, as far as I can see. This is, I suppose, understandable, given the extraordinary rush of major stories in the last month or so: Brexit, Nice, Turkey, Trump, etc. Still, I think it’s worth a few minutes’ attention.

I arrived in Santiago last Tuesday to find headlines declaring that Chile’s diplomatic relationship with its northern neighbour Bolivia to be at their lowest ebb in a hundred years. This is saying something: after the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), fought between Chile on one side and Bolivia and Peru on the other, relations have never been exactly rosy. Indeed, the two countries have had only consular relations (rather than full ambassadorial links) since 1978.

A glance at a map of the region provides a hint as to why this is the case. As a result of the war, Chile occupied large parts of what had been southern Peru and western Bolivia, thereby cutting off Bolivia’s access to the sea. Bolivia and Chile only officially made peace in 1904, and that treaty establishes the border between the two countries, as well as Bolivia’s rights to use the ports of Antofagasta and Arica in Chile.

This all sounds quite clear-cut. Yet the two countries have never fully agreed on the interpretation of this agreement,  and they have been involved in a case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague over Bolivia’s access to the sea for a number of years now (the case is ongoing).

Last week, the Bolivian President Evo Morales sent a delegation including his foreign minister, David Choquehanca, to carry out an ‘inspection’ of the ports of Antofagasta and Arica, apparently to check that Chile was fulfilling its side of the 1904 treaty. It appears that the Chilean authorities were not informed of this visit (so they claim), and they reacted furiously, revoking the diplomatic visas of the Bolivian consular delegation.

The Bolivian government, for its part, declared that Chile was failing to comply with the rules of the 1904 treaty, and laid claim to the moral high ground by stating that it would not rescind the visas of Chilean diplomats in the country. It has also accused Chile of ‘conspiring against [Bolivian] external trade and development’.

What to make of these crossed diplomatic swords? Here are a few tentative conclusions (I won’t comment on the validity of the Bolivian accusations, as I haven’t seen enough detail to make a judgement. There is a suggestion on the part of the Chilean government that Bolivia has failed to make the required payments for its use of the ports).

  1. Bilateral trade agreements are fragile (post-Brexit Britain take note).
  2. Historic international grievances remain a useful tool for governments wishing to divert attention from domestic problems and/or regain support (both Morales and the Chilean President Bachelet have recently suffered a series of scandals).
  3. Once started, this kind of conflict is difficult to control, and may escalate beyond the purpose it was initially intended to serve (see above).

I haven’t seen any suggestions that this conflict is at risk of becoming violent, but it nonetheless stands as evidence that the move away from international cooperation and towards the nationalistic affirmation of self-interest that we’re witnessing in Europe and the United States is not limited to those regions.

It also shows, though, that efforts towards international integration (e.g. based on trade) always have their limits and undersides. Since 2011, Chile has been a member of the Pacific Alliance, a trade bloc with some political integration, such as joint diplomatic missions (along with Mexico, Colombia, and Peru). Membership requirements include sovereignty over a portion of the Pacific Ocean; Bolivia is not a candidate for membership.





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