Bolivia misses the Sea

Andreas Moser
Oct 1, 2018 · 6 min read

In every country in South America, there is one specific topic with which you can interrupt the logorrhea of even the most verbose person. In Brazil, mentioning the numbers 7–1 is enough to make people cry. In Bolivia, you praise the beauty of the country, the diversity of nature from the Andes to the Amazon, before adding innocently: “Just sad that you don’t have the sea anymore.” Depending on his character, the Bolivian will break out in tears, in deep pondering or in torrents of hatred against Chile.

Even young Bolivians, who can’t possibly have any personal memory of losing the sea, talk about the War of the Pacific as if access to the Pacific had been wrested from their own hands. In that war, Chile fought against Bolivia and Peru. Chile won the war and gobbled up some nice pieces of land from both losers. Peru became smaller and Bolivia lost its Pacific coast.

Oh by the way, all of this happened already between 1879 and 1884.

With Lake Titicaca, Bolivia actually has far more beautiful waters than the broth that washes up dead fish and plastic waste on the shores of the continent’s other countries. But for the purposes of ex- and importing, a common sea with China would be more important. Bolivia does indeed suffer from its position as a landlocked country, the only one on both American continents (Paraguay can access the Atlantic via the Paraná River). Every export of minerals requires that treaties be negotiated with the neighbors, who use their position to suppress prices, divert part of the profits and make everything more complicated. Switzerland and Austria can be lucky that they don’t need to export anything, but that tourists and black money flock to them naturally.

The distance from the world’s seas weighs especially hard on Bolivia because the country lives from selling gas, ores and precious minerals to China. These goods are hard to transport by plane. The cocaine producers would prefer a coast with ports for submarines, too, which would be more comfortable than carrying the precious substance through zika- and malaria-infested jungles.

Visually, Bolivia does not suffer from the absence of the sea because the shore around Lake Titicaca is one of the most beautiful sceneries in South America. That it’s not attractive to stoned surfers isn’t necessarily negative. I even dare to establish the theory that Bolivia is more intellectual than most of the neighboring countries exactly because it doesn’t have the coast anymore. Without sandy beaches, Bolivians don’t constantly need to think about their appearance in swimsuits, leaving more time for literature and the arts. Brazil has boobs and bikinis, Bolivia has brains and books.

Nonetheless, every 23rd of March all of Bolivia finds itself in collective lamenting. On the Day of the Sea (Dia del Mar) the national flag is replaced by a maritime version. Replicas of sunk ships are being carried though the streets like an ostensorium.

Military marching bands play sad songs like ”Vaya, vaya, aqui no hay playa. Vamos a La Haya!“ (“Oh no, oh no, we don’t have a beach. Let’s go to The Hague!”). All day long, films related to the sea are being shown on TV (The Perfect Storm, Titanic, Pirates of the Caribbean, Vicky the Viking).

Irredentism has constitutional status in Bolivia. Article 267 elevates full sovereignty over the Pacific coast as a national objective — without any geographical limitations. When President Morales receives or visits foreign heads of state, he gives them a book that explains Bolivia’s claim to access to the Pacific. The present then probably ends up where the brochures of the similarly insisting Jehovah’s Witnesses are discarded.

To underline its claims, Bolivia maintains a navy. Not just any navy, but the largest naval forces of any landlocked country in the world. Because there is no sea, the 60 boats need to chug in circles on Lake Titicaca, from where nobody knows how they would reach the Pacific if there was ever a war again. Maybe they can be dismantled, transported by train and then put together again?

This arsenal may seem exaggerated, but it’s the reaction to a strategic mistake during the War of the Pacific: back then, Bolivia had no navy at all.

With having a big-ass navy come martial threats. This mural by Lake Titicaca depicts a Bolivian soldier ramming his bayonet into the neck of a Chilean soldier. The inscription says “What was once ours will be ours again”.

I wonder how Chilean tourists react to this.

But I don’t think there will be a war. So far, President Morales is content with delivering speeches along the line of “The whole world hears the legitimate cry of the Bolivian people against the injustice perpetrated by the imperialists”, and so on, because in Mr Morales’ worldview, anyone who doesn’t agree with him or do what he wants is imperialistic.

My Bolivian lawyer friends are quite happy that Bolivia wages judicial instead of naval battles. First, Bolivia filed a case with the League of Nations, and now with the International Court of Justice (the real one, not the one re-enacted by cute children). The obsession with the Pacific coast means that in Bolivia as a landlocked country, there are more master and doctoral theses about maritime law than in all other countries of South America combined.

To me, all of this looks as if the Bolivian government is trying to distract from real issues and wants to blame “imperialist Chileans” from the 19th century for the current lack of drinking water, infrastructure, housing and schooling. (My Hungarian readers know this concept from the tirades against Trianon, and the older German readers will remember when the Treaty of Versailles was blamed for any and all problems.) But the wish for access to the sea has indeed been ingrained in many Bolivians.

Books about the War of the Pacific are bestsellers. Particularly popular is the theory that the peace treaty was “unfair” and that the country was betrayed by Bolivian politicians; something like the Bolivian Dolchstoßlegende.

When Bolivians go on holiday in Chile, they take flags with them and walk through the sea which was once “theirs”. This ritual is the Bolivian equivalent to the pilgrimage to Mecca. Once in a lifetime, you need to do it.

If I have given you the impression that all of Bolivia is in an irredentist rage, that would be wrong. As I have been trying to convey over the past year, Bolivia is a highly likable and personable country with a sense of humor. When you talk about this subject a bit longer, most Bolivians will concede that it would be impractical to rescind all wars. “Otherwise, the Spanish could come and claim that South America used to be theirs.”

And don’t you just have to love a country where naval officers are being paraded around in a ship made of painted bed sheets?

(Click here for more articles about Bolivia.)

Andreas Moser

Written by

Travelling the world and writing about it. Degrees in law and philosophy, now studying history.

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