The complex relationship between Peru, Bolivia and Chile: A legacy of the War of the Pacific

Despite the World Court’s decision in favor of Chile, there remain unresolved border and territorial disputes between the three countries, all of them products of the War of the Pacific.


Note: This article originally appeared in Spanish on our partner website esglobal. To read the original article, click here.

In addition to being the most significant military conflict between South American countries in the last century and a half—along with the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay—the consequences of the War of the Pacific continue to reverberate throughout the region to this day. In fact, the complex relationship between Peru, Bolivia and Chile cannot be understood without understanding how this war affects both the national story of the three countries and the geopolitical realities of an already-complex region.

The War of the Pacific took place between 1879 and 1884. To this day, each of the three countries involved in the war have a different understanding of what took place. Initially, the casus belli was a Bolivian tax increase on a Chilean company—Saltires y Ferrocarril de Antofagasta—that violated agreements signed by the two countries in 1866 and 1874. Still, the origin stories differ.

In Bolivia and Peru, the conviction prevails that the war was a consequence of Chilean expansionist zeal, which had already reared its head as early as 1842, when disputes emerged over territory between the 23rd and 25th parallels. This aggressive territorial expansion also affected relations with Argentina during this period, as Chile tried to stake claim over an increasingly large portion of Patagonia.

Chile, with a closer reading of the immediacy of events, argues that the war was the only option, to the extent that diplomatic attempts to contain a possible escalation of tension were quashed by then Bolivian President Hilarion Daza—who also seized property and expelled thousands of Chileans residing in Bolivia—and the existence of a secret reciprocal defense treaty, signed in 1873, between Bolivia and Peru.

There’s one thing all sides seem to agree on: Chile won the war relatively quickly and easily. The Chileans had a civil-military relationship without fissures, the capacity to quickly mobilize resources, and a significant technological advantage over Peru and Bolivia, especially in terms of naval power and weapons. In contrast, Peru and Bolivia entered the war hindered by numerous domestic fractures and by an economic and institutional backwardness that nearly prevented the two countries from fighting the war at all. Bolivia would be defeated in just one year and Peru, although it was able to keep militia resistance active for years, would be defeated and affected, above all, by the occupation of Lima by Chilean troops for more than three years.

As expected, a point of friction between the three countries can be seen in how the War of the Pacific fits into each country’s national story. In the case of Peru, the defeat resulted in the loss of the territories of Arica and Tacna—known today as the “captive provinces”—and the birth of a handful of national heroes: Miguel Grau, Francisco Bolognesi and Andrés Avelino Cáceres. All three men distinguished themselves as military geniuses who dedicated themselves to the defense of the homeland; to this day they live on in national anthems and symbolism.

In Bolivia, the War of the Pacific is an open wound, a product of Chilean betrayal that stripped Bolivia of the region of Antofagasta, its access to the Pacific Ocean, and—as a result of the April 1884 armistice agreement—its dignity as a nation. When I talked to members of the Bolivian military high command, they repeatedly used words such as “betrayal”, “stabbing,” “abuse”, and “injustice”. The War of the Pacific continues to influence how Bolivians perceive both their southern neighbor and themselves.

In Chile, on the other hand, the war is seen as nothing more than the strict and unavoidable consequence of a conflict triggered by Bolivian aggression. To this day, Chileans indignantly point to the Ancón Treaty with Peru and the armistice agreement with Bolivia, as well as subsequent agreements in 1904 and 1929, as evidence that renewed conflict between the 21st century is unjustified.

Still, despite the ruling in The Hague in favor of Chile, there remain unresolved border and territorial disputes between the three countries, all of them products of the War of the Pacific. Peru still claims a small, three-kilometer-long triangle along the border with Chile known as the “Point of Concord” or “Point 266”. Bolivia continues to demand access to the Pacific coast; lack of access is estimated to cost Bolivia 1.5 percent of its annual GDP, though Chile vehemently denies these claims and points to port collaboration with Bolivia in Arica and Antofagasta, which it claims costs $100 million annually.

The relationship between the three countries still seems nearly impossible to solve in a mutually satisfactory fashion, especially with regard to Bolivia and Chile. Beyond the existing dialogue scenarios, Bolivia continues to demand a negotiating framework that integrates cooperative exchanges by Chile. After the decision in The Hague, that seems increasingly unlikely. Between Peru and Bolivia (within the framework of the Andean Community) and between Peru and Chile (within the framework of the Pacific Alliance) relations are stable and positive. That’s a stark contrast to the relationship between Bolivia and Chile—to this day the two countries do not have a diplomatic representation in their respective capitals.

The Hague ruling did give some hope to Bolivia in that it urged the negotiation of a new agreement satisfactory to Bolivian interests. Still, with a result of 12 votes in favor and 3 votes against, this is a great diplomatic victory for Chile, as the ruling confers full validity on the agreement of 1904 and closes the door on future negotiations, which was Bolivia’s primary request. At no time did Bolivia’s requests before the court ask for the return of lands or the annulment of the previous agreement; instead, they simply asked for a negotiation in good faith with a view to achieving maritime and territorial sovereignty over part of what the country lost in the War of the Pacific. Since the court saw no legal basis in Bolivia’s requests, it ruled in favor of Chile.

The consequences of the War of the Pacific continue to affect the relations between the three neighboring countries. Although Peru and Bolivia continue to look back and consider the consequences of the war, Chile clearly wants to move forward and work towards building good relations with its neighbors. Still, it’s difficult to imagine a future tripartite agreement, and it’s likely that the tense relationship between Chile and Bolivia will continue into the foreseeable future. It’s likely that the Morales government in Bolivia will continue to use the issue to stoke nationalism and justify a rivalry with Chile, but that may backfire and take a toll on Morales in January 2019 presidential elections.

In conclusion, the still-reverberating consequences of the War of the Pacific are a good example of how the past informs the present, projecting narratives that determine the scope and meaning of geopolitical relations in Latin America. The complicated relationship between Peru, Chile, and Bolivia is but one example of many throughout South and Central America. These historical tensions may help to explain why the possibility of Latin American regional integration remains so fractured, even today.

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