Some might call having the World’s largest landlocked Navy a waste. Some might call it a not-so-subtle reminder of a coastal claim. To Bolivia, it is an investment for the future; if Evo Morales has his way, the navy may no longer be landlocked.
Bolivia has not always been deprived contact with the sea. Before 1904, it controlled the coastal Antofagasta Region but was forced to cede the region to Chile after the War of the Pacific, an embarrassment that Bolivians have been slow to forget. While the dispute has caused tension for years, when the populist and nationalistic
Morales became President in 2005, he rallied Bolivia around it, filing a suit with the International Court of Justice in 2013. Chile contends that the land was ceded legally, an assertion that Morales disputes on the grounds that Bolivia was coerced by the Chilean military and British mining interests. Although this suit will take many years to be settled and is unlikely to result in any land transfers, it is a major source of discussion among Bolivian policy makers and a frequent headline for the country’s news outlets.
For years, this border dispute has been the crux of Bolivia’s campaign for coastal holdings. This situation however seems ripe for change. On November 25th, Morales and Uruguayan President Jose Mujica agreed in principle to an arrangement that will allow Bolivia access to the deep-water port about to be constructed in Rocha, Uruguay. According to Carlos Flanagan, Uruguay’s ambassador to Bolivia, the deal will allow Bolivia, as well as the similarly landlocked Paraguay, to access the port and its warehouse for free. Each country’s exact square-foot allocation will depend on how much trade each country conducts at the port. In exchange, the two countries are expected to contribute to the construction of the port.
The port is also expected to impact non-landlocked countries like Brazil and Argentina. The region currently does not have a deep water port of this size and its completion should be a major boon for the region’s participation in the global economy. In an interview with Los Tiempos, Ambassador Flanagan stated that Mujica envisions the project as “connected with the objectives of regional integration.”
This development is almost certainly a step in the right direction for Bolivia. With an economy largely based on natural gas exports, Bolivia has a very real need for this type of access. Still, it should not be seen as a coup for Bolivia’s coastal ambitions. The Port at Rocha could take nearly a decade to complete, leaving Bolivia dependent on a third party for international trade. Complicating matters even further is the fact that Bolivia and Uruguay do not even share a border, meaning that any traded goods will have to pass through Argentina. Also, Bolivia’s lawsuit at the International Court of Justice remains standing and active. This September, Morales addressed the UN General Assembly on the issue, making headlines just last week by contesting Chile’s motion questioning the court’s jurisdiction on the issue.
Besides the actual economic implications, using the port of another country simply does not conjure up the same nationalistic feelings as does reclaiming a long lost coastal holding. This is not the way that Morales operates. At the same time, there is far more at stake in Antofagasta than coastline: the region is also rich in mineral resources.
Uruguay’s deep-sea port will do very little to change Morales’s approach towards Chile. The dispute with Chile is such a large part of the national conscience that Bolivia’s flag still bears 10 stars standing for 10 departments despite having lost its tenth department over a century ago.
In many ways, this development bears the hallmark of Morales’ diplomacy: seeking Latin American camaraderie in order to solve domestic issues. As he once reached out to Venezuela’s leftist Hugo Chavez, Morales now reaches out to Jose Mujica to have South American problems solved by South Americans.