Second Lieutenant Nicolas Espejo serves in the navy of a landlocked nation. The 23-year-old commands at Puerto Busch, an isolated riverbank naval base on a sliver of Bolivian territory between Brazil and Paraguay, close to the exact heart of South America. The sea is 2,000km away down the Río Paraguay, the wide, deep watercourse that bisects Bolivia’s neighbour to the south, passes through Argentina as the Río Paraná, and empties out past Uruguay into the Atlantic Ocean.

I’d travelled perhaps a quarter of that distance upriver to get here: three nights from the Paraguayan town of Concepción. The two-deck cargo boat moved slowly, disgorging crates of bananas, fencing, sacks of flour and a motorcycle at villages along the way. At night, someone on the bridge trained a torch through the black, revealing passengers waiting to be collected from the riverbank. One of them, a grave teenager in a white turtleneck, was heading to the seminary at Fuerte Olimpo in northern Paraguay. “So you’re going to be a priest?” I ask. He points upwards, towards the Southern Cross, and says, “It’s not my decision to make.”

I was apprehensive about turning up at a military base unannounced and empty-handed. So in Bahía Negra — 30km downriver from Puerto Busch — where the boat turned around, I spent the last of my Paraguayan guaraníes on rum and knock-off cigarettes. Then another adolescent with an outboard motor took me upriver to my destination, past abandoned ranches and caimans lurking in knots of pink waterlilies. He left me on the bank and I walked down the track to the base, where a shirtless Lt Espejo was playing football by the river. Unperturbed by my arrival, he gave his name and rank, and then dived into the water to freshen up.

Map of Bolivia

With Espejo sat behind his desk, I ask him what he’s doing here in the Pantanal, a humid, inhospitable wetland that stretches hundreds of kilometres in every direction. His unit, a sergeant and six teenagers, are all from La Paz — Bolivia’s administrative capital in the chilly highlands in the west — and unused to the climate here. The recruits have white scars and bumps to go with their spots. “Us paceños are food for the mosquitoes,” Espejo jokes, looking out from the base as a heavy rainstorm rolls in across the river.

There are some consolations. The sailors’ new living quarters — a spartan block of rooms raised on concrete supports — are luxurious compared with their accommodation up until a few years ago: a rusty pontoon now housing only a few broken bunk beds and a colony of bats. During their plentiful downtime, the Bolivians hunt and fish. Espejo swipes through recent prizes on his smartphone: piranha, huge catfish and capybara, an oversized rodent that is said to taste like chicken. They exercise together; the officer has just taught one of the 17-year-olds how to swim. And at night, encased in their mosquito nets, they dream of the sea.

Their dreams — and those of a nation that lost its only coastline in a war with neighbouring Chile nearly 150 years ago — are edging a little bit closer to reality. Last September, the International Court of Justice at The Hague agreed to adjudicate a lawsuit brought by Bolivia, which aims to force Chile to negotiate returning sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean. The decision prompted celebrations across the rapidly developing nation of 10m people. But if that fails, there’s a back-up plan.

A stone’s throw down the river bank in Puerto Busch, a team of 40 builders, thick wads of coca leaves in their cheeks, are building an international seaport to rise out of the mud. Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, hopes to export metals from El Mutún — one of the largest iron deposits in the world — all the way down the Río Paraguay to the Atlantic. At present, the only way from Puerto Busch to El Mutún, 60km to the north, is a slippery mud track. The solution, Morales announced last October, is a $7bn loan from the state-run China Development Bank, which will pay for a railway to span the swamp, raised metres above its surface, connecting Puerto Busch with the rest of Bolivia. And Puerto Busch, the plan goes, will connect Bolivia with the world.

“This is an exit to the Atlantic Ocean,” Espejo says, as we walk over to the construction site. “The best way right now to get out to the sea, to abroad, is via the Río Paraguay. It’s the most sovereign access that we Bolivians have.”

Barges flying Brazilian, Paraguayan and Argentine flags already shuttle the length of the river to the Atlantic, a journey of over a week. But the addition of Bolivian vessels, even if just commercial ships, is eagerly awaited by the country’s navy, currently confined to patrolling jungle waterways and puttering around Lake Titicaca on speedboats.

“It’s not a country without a naval presence. On the contrary, we have officers who are trained to sail with grants that come from Argentina, Venezuela, Peru,” Espejo argues, slightly defensively. “It’s not like you’d give us big ships and we wouldn’t know what to do with them.”

Work will be finished within months, according to the chief engineer, Jesús Ampuero, as his workers down tools to eat lunch and drink peanut-flavoured non-alcoholic chicha. “It’s going to be a pilot project to see how it functions as an export port,” Ampuero explains. “Although it’s small, this is very important for the country. It’s our first port.”

Morales’s master plan is extraordinary — and counterintuitive. Bolivia’s western half — home to the bulk of its population and most of its mineral resources — is little more than eight hours’ drive from the Pacific Ocean. From here, the country already exports and imports a large amount of goods through the ports of Peru and northern Chile (which offers exemptions and reductions on several tariffs), linking it with key markets in the US, Colombia, China and Japan.

By contrast, the Puerto Busch project will require Bolivian ships to steam for around a week down the Río Paraguay, whose upper reaches have been known to silt up and become impassable, just to reach the south Atlantic. From there — aside from Brazil and Argentina, with which Bolivia already has good land transport links — the nearest large trading partners are thousands of miles away in Africa, Europe, or back in the Pacific around Cape Horn.

But the development of Puerto Busch — and Bolivia’s tireless efforts to sue Chile for a sovereign route to the Pacific, ignoring the access it already enjoys — seemingly respond to more than mere economic or practical logic. A clue is the motto daubed on military bases across the country, from the Amazon to the Andes: “The sea is ours by right. To recover it is a duty.”

A mural in San Pedro de Tiquina, Bolivia, depicting the war of the Pacific
A mural in San Pedro de Tiquina, Bolivia, depicting the war of the Pacific © Frank Schultze/Eyevine

In La Paz, 1,500km to the west, 3,500 metres higher, and 20 degrees cooler, you can get around with the Coastal Bus Line, drop by the Coastal Shopping Centre, and head out to the Coastal Nightclub. You can also visit the Coastal Museum: a colonial house painted ocean-blue, dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the coastline Bolivia formally held upon independence from Spain in 1825, and lost to Chile in the war of the Pacific (1879-83).

I come across its manager, Dante Vera, sweeping up after a throng of primary school children. “We want to perpetuate the memory in all our visitors,” Vera says, showing me old rifles, uniforms and faded flags. “We’re taught about it from when we’re children, and as students.”

Most countries have at least one victorious campaign, or a glorious independence struggle, to provide a cohesive foundational myth. Not so with Bolivia, says Jorge Abastoflor, a member of the Bolivian Academy of Military History. Instead, implanted in the Bolivian psyche from an early age is the country’s defeat in the war of the Pacific.

Abastoflor singles out the “Map of Catastrophe” that hangs in primary school classrooms across the country, depicting Bolivia’s territorial dismemberment. “It’s effectively the first history lesson that Bolivian students receive, and it’s the hardest to overcome,” he explains. “It makes even optimists automatically link the history of Bolivia with territorial losses for the rest of their lives.”

Over a million square kilometres of territory were also sloughed off in multiple wars against Argentina (1862, 1883), Brazil (1867, 1903), Peru (1909) and Paraguay (1935). But Bolivia is still hung up on Chile’s historical annexation of the Atacama Desert and the abutting coastline in particular. In part this reflects the unique value of Bolivia’s erstwhile coastal province — unlike the other lost tracts of jungle, grassland and arid plain, the ports of the Atacama gave Bolivia a tenuous link to the currents of global commerce in an era of rapid industrialisation. “It was a particularly great loss because with the Atacama we had access to the sea. So once this was taken, we’ve lost our connection with other countries, with the rest of the world,” Vera says.

Without sovereign access to the sea, the story goes, Bolivia was closed off behind the impassable Andean mountain chains that form the modern border with Chile, condemned to isolation and underdevelopment. Chile, meanwhile, used the riches lying among the desert sands to become the wealthiest nation per capita in South America.

This leads to a seductive, if less proven argument, which may explain why Bolivians feel cheated over the Atacama, above all their territorial losses: that foreign capitalists in cahoots with Chilean aristocrats deliberately fomented the war as a means of seizing Bolivia’s resources. “The Atacama is one of the richest deserts in exploitation of nitrates, of guano, of silver,” Vera says, and pauses. “The region wouldn’t have become part of Chile without the help of England, because the guano and nitrates were really important for the creation of gunpowder and weapons.”

The evidence for this is skimpy, argues US historian William F Sater in Andean Tragedy: Fighting the War of the Pacific, 1879-84 (2007). Chile and Peru, Bolivia’s ally, did fight the naval war on British-built ironclads, using them to evaporate each other’s commanders with naval mines and shells. But many Chilean and British merchants had invested heavily in Bolivian projects, including a railway to connect the Atacama with the mountainous altiplano — and thus had little interest in war disrupting them; once the conflict broke out, London declared an arms embargo against both sides, and the US tried to broker a peaceful solution.

In reality, responsibility for the war rested at least equally with Bolivia’s leaders — namely Hilarión Daza, a career soldier who came to power in 1876 after picking the winning side in several of the dozens of coups that roiled the country in the decades after independence.

Three years later, he raised taxes on foreign mining operations in the Atacama — breaking an earlier agreement that settled a dispute with Chile over the border — and seized Anglo-Chilean mining property. Within a month, Chilean soldiers disembarked from a gunship and seized the coastal town of Antofagasta. The conflict would drag on for four years, claiming thousands of lives.

Daza was overthrown soon after marching his troops over the Andes. He went into exile in Europe, and was stabbed to death upon returning a few years later. Bolivian territory west of the mountains was formally ceded to Chile in the 1904 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, in exchange for Chile promising to build a railway between the coast and La Paz and offering Bolivia privileges in its ports (a railway was built in 1913, but Bolivia has complained that the Chilean side is badly maintained; meanwhile the Chilean government argues that Bolivian exporters today enjoy more than fair access to its maritime facilities at Antofagasta, Iquique and Arica).

Although hands-off during the war, international business interests soon piled in again. In Antofagasta, now in Chile and the region’s principal port, the palm-fringed plaza is dominated by a replica of Big Ben, donated in 1910 by the British merchant community. “The British colony to the city of Antofagasta on the first centenary of the republic 1810-1910,” it reads.

President Morales, thanks to a hugely successful record on poverty reduction and economic growth since his election in 2006, enjoys striking approval ratings. In February, his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party will submit to a referendum a constitutional change allowing him to run for a fourth term and potentially remain in office until 2025. His popular support is buoyed by the centrepiece of his foreign policy: righting the perceived wrongs of the past and returning the sea to Bolivia. But this aim, in many respects, strikes directly against the foundation of international law and global order: that borders should be difficult to move, even if (or especially if) they are agreed upon via treaty after military conquest.

In April 2014, Bolivia filed a petition with the International Court of Justice, arguing that Chile had failed to honour a commitment to negotiate with Bolivia over returning sovereign access to the Pacific. Alongside its claim, Bolivia distributed copies of the Book of the Sea — a 150-page document claiming it had been forced into signing the 1904 treaty, and outlining injustices reportedly suffered by Bolivian companies exporting goods via Chilean territory. Chile responded that the treaty fixed the borders permanently, and denied that any subsequent promises to negotiate had been made. It released a YouTube video in which Chile’s leftwing President Michelle Bachelet — not a “real socialist”, according to Morales — addresses the camera, smilingly but firmly outlining the favours Bolivia already receives in Chile’s ports.

Paz Zárate, a Chilean analyst in international law, explains to me via telephone that, “The best-case scenario for Bolivia was that the court would declare that Chile has previously created an obligation of negotiation with a very specific result, which is granting Bolivia access to the sea.” Chile might conceivably then hand over a sovereign coastal enclave or corridor to Bolivia; a similar ICJ case ended in 2014 with Peru being awarded a swathe of maritime territory. The ICJ decision in September overruled Chile’s objection that the court, established in 1945, had no jurisdiction over the maritime issue, as it was settled by the 1904 treaty. The news was hailed as a victory in Bolivia, and seen by some in Chile as a defeat. Government buildings in Bolivia flew ocean-coloured flags in anticipation of the result, and fishermen in Arica, northern Chile, hung black flags from their boats. Morales called the ruling a “decisive victory”, while his vice-president claimed it was Bolivia’s “first victory in 136 years of defeats and failures”.

But amid the triumphalism, analysts such as Zárate pointed out that the court’s ruling limited the scope of the case. It will now only rule on whether Chile has to negotiate “in good faith”, and will not define what the outcome of the negotiations has to be. Bolivia faces an uphill struggle even to secure this outcome. Nevertheless, its negotiators said soon after filing the case that just bringing it before the ICJ was a victory: proof that it was a modern, peaceful member of the community of nations.

“I think the effect that this legal case had was to show that no stone will be left unturned, and they would try to pursue the legal avenue in a UN forum, and that will give them an opportunity internationally to discuss the injustices Bolivia has suffered,” says Zárate.

As Morales goads Chile with his plans to swim in Bolivian seas and sunbathe on Bolivian beaches, Chilean public opinion hardens and it becomes harder for the Bachelet government — already struggling with economic slowdown, political scandal and an ambitious social reform programme of its own — to make any kind of concession on the maritime issue.

A final ruling is unlikely to be delivered much before 2020. Meanwhile, Morales has led the way in a coarsening of Bolivia’s tone. At the president’s third inauguration in January last year, Chilean representatives were spooked by the singing of the Naval March, which namechecks Chilean ports and says they “will return” to Bolivia.

In July, Morales suggested that Chilean spies were behind miners’ strikes in the deprived Andean city of Potosí. The vice-president has promised that Chile “will have to kill every last Bolivian” and make them “disappear as a culture” before Bolivia forgets its maritime claim. “The rhetoric has turned more aggressive, and that contradicts what going to the court is about: the peaceful settlement of this case,” Zárate argues. “When I look at Bolivia, what they have achieved in the last decade . . . I feel as though it’s becoming incredibly modern, and in contact with the world, and not isolated, and doing good things for its people. But I think they’ve lost their touch recently,” she adds.

“Beyond this case, Bolivia and Chile are going to be neighbours for ever, so you need to watch your language, and look beyond your generation and your administration,” Zárate warns.

The increasingly bitter tone of the discussion is, perhaps, a missed chance for Chile to begin to understand Bolivian feelings of anger and isolation. “There’s a sense of injustice perpetrated in the Bolivian psyche . . . This is may be a wasted opportunity to understand this deep psychological issue that explains a lot, if not everything, about Bolivia and Chile,” she says.

Still, the new port at Puerto Busch may provide some consolation for Bolivia’s maritime dreams. “There will be big ships that come to export the iron,” says Espejo, warming to his theme. “And we naval officers will be able to prove that we can sail on the Atlantic Ocean, and they’ll see what we can do. We’re still not landlocked, Bolivia. We have this, here; this river.”


A story of prizewinning prose

Laurence Blair
Laurence Blair

The 2015 Bodley Head/FT essay prize attracted hundreds of entries from young writers around the world. The competition, in its fourth year, aims to discover new talent in long-form non-fiction writing.

The six-strong judging panel chose Laurence Blair, 24, from London, as the winner of this year’s first prize. A visit to the Coastal Museum in La Paz and, later in 2014, a trip across the Atacama Desert led to Blair’s winning essay, which deals with Bolivia’s sorrow for its lost coastline. Blair says: “What I find most interesting about the war of the Pacific and its long aftermath is the very hard questions it throws up about the formation of modern nations: how borders are drawn up; what impact that has on a country’s development; and whether international law is equipped — or should be — to deal with these complex historical grievances.”

Simon Schama — historian, FT contributing editor and one of the judges — says of Blair’s winning entry: “He has invented a new genre: magical journalism, at once fantastical (caimans amidst the waterlilies) and pragmatically droll. It’s full of weird wit but also a deep sensitivity to the wounds of national sentiment.”

The essay will be published as an ebook by Bodley Head, as will the two runners-up: “Head in the Cloud” by Sophie McBain, and “Lady Singham’s Mission Against Love” by Snigdha Poonam.

Photographs: Fabio Cuttica/Eyevine; Frank Schultze/Eyevine

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