Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

BOLIVIA-CHILE: How Close Is the Sea?

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Aug 8 2007 (IPS) - Bolivia’s recently sacked consul in Chile, Roberto Finot, triggered a flurry of speculation about how close the two countries are to agreeing on a mechanism that would grant Bolivia access to the sea, which it lost to Chile in a 19th century war.

Finot told the press that the two countries, which broke off diplomatic relations in 1978, were near agreement on a solution.

But the Chilean government of Michelle Bachelet refuted his claim, and Bolivian President Evo Morales decided to remove him – although he later echoed the former consul’s remarks.

“I don’t believe that a concrete solution, with all of the necessary details and articles, is close to being reached because there are deep political, economic, legal and constitutional considerations to be worked out,” Loreto Correa, a researcher at the University of Santiago de Chile’s Institute of Advanced Studies (IDEA), told IPS.

But the expert on Chilean-Bolivian relations clarified that “we are closer than we were five years ago, when this was unthinkable in Chile, or 10 years ago, when it was nothing but a futuristic myth.”

The 1978 break in ties was sparked by the tension caused by La Paz’s steady pressure on Chile for a “sovereign outlet” to the Pacific ocean, which it lost in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883).

After defeating both Bolivia and Peru in the war, Chile annexed the Peruvian province of Tarapacá and the Bolivian province of Antofagasta, both of which are on the Pacific ocean.

Ties between Bolivia and Chile are currently maintained below the ambassadorial level.

Last Monday, the Chilean Foreign Ministry was informed that Finot had been removed from his position as consul in Santiago as a result of “internal decisions by the government” of Morales.

On Friday Aug. 3, in a meeting with the foreign press in the Chilean capital, the diplomat had described the state of bilateral relations as a lengthy “engagement” that was about to lead to “marriage.”

Although Finot said the future “marriage” was linked to “a genuine desire for integration,” he admitted that it would depend on a solution to longstanding problems – a reference mainly to Bolivia’s demand for access to the sea.

But he stated that the two countries were “very close” to reaching an agreement, which would involve Chile’s granting Bolivia a “sovereign corridor” to the Pacific to the north of the city of Arica.

Although he did not give any timeframes, he suggested that the arrangement might be in place by 2008. So confident was he that he even claimed that an agreement was almost reached in late 2006, but that “it slipped out of our hands; we let that one get by us.”

But the words of the former consul, who spent eight months in his post in Santiago before being replaced temporarily by vice consul Freddy Torrico and reassigned as a consultant to Bolivia’s Foreign Ministry, did not please officials in Chile.

Chile’s under-secretary of foreign relations, Alberto Van Klaveren, said the same day that Finot’s remarks took him by surprise.

“I want to make it very clear that Mr. Finot has not participated in the conversations that I have had on this issue with my Bolivian counterpart, the deputy foreign minister of Bolivia, Mr. Hugo Fernández,” he said.

According to Van Klaveren, the consul’s statements were interpreted as “an expression of desire on the part of Mr. Finot, which is very legitimate, but does not correspond to the degree to which our conversations with our Bolivian friends have advanced.”

Nevertheless, Finot repeated his words on Sunday Aug. 5 in an interview with the La Paz newspaper La Prensa.

“I was not present (in those meetings) but if I did not believe in that possibility, if I was not completely convinced that it is possible and that it must happen, I would not be serving any purpose here,” he said.

“It is my own interpretation; it is an assessment that I make based on all of the interlocutors that I have here in Chile,” said Finot.

Correa said the negotiations have been cloaked in extreme secrecy.

Chilean lawmaker Jorge Pizarro, of the co-governing Christian Democracy Party, told the daily El Mercurio that “I suppose the Bolivian government got tired of the loquaciousness of the consul and his constant expressions of his personal points of view with respect to such touchy issues as the dialogue between Chile and Bolivia on the question of access to the sea.”

Although it seemed clear that the diplomat was sacked because of how his loose tongue could affect the course of the negotiations, President Morales himself told Congress Monday that “we will soon have an outlet to the sea.”

“You have to understand Morales’ remarks in the larger context,” said Correa, who believes the president held out that promise to keep things calm against the backdrop of the “serious problem” faced by Bolivia: demands for autonomy pressed by some of the wealthier eastern provinces, where the country’s natural gas resources are found.

She said Finot’s statements could also be explained from that perspective.

“But in spite of everything, I believe that relations between the two countries are in a very good position at the moment. There is a willingness to carry out the agreed agenda,” said Correa.

The main landmark in the new stage of bilateral relations was the July 2006 signing of a 13-point “broad common agenda which excludes no issues.” Bolivia’s hopes largely revolve around the sixth point, which established that talks would be held on the question of access to the sea.

For Chile, on the other hand, what would seem to be more important in the short-term is “building mutual trust.”

Political and military authorities from both countries have held a series of historic meetings.

However, Rodrigo Yánez, an expert in international relations with the Freedom Institute, which is linked to Chile’s right-wing opposition alliance, told IPS that “the kind of signals that are being sent out” with regard to the issue are worrying because “they could generate expectations that become difficult to manage.”

“While the Chilean Foreign Ministry publicly declares that we are not close to an agreement,” Bolivian authorities at the highest level, like President Morales himself, state just the opposite, “and with conviction,” said Yánez, who is also a professor of international law at the Catholic University of Chile.

This indicates that “something is not being done properly,” he argued.

In the analyst’s view, Chile “is interested in moving towards a solution for access to the sea for Bolivia,” and the alternatives range from granting it a “corridor” or “enclave” to tax breaks for Bolivia. But he stressed that “the conditions are not currently in place” for an agreement that would involve handing Bolivia a piece of sovereign territory on the coast, as that country is demanding.

The biggest hurdles, said Yánez, are the strong opposition to such a solution by Chilean society, the existence of a maritime border conflict with Peru (which the Peruvian government of Alan García will take to the International Court of Justice in The Hague), and the lack of consensus among political and social leaders of all stripes.

Juan Carlos Concha, a member of the international relations commission of Chile’s Communist Party, which is close to Bolivia’s governing Movement to Socialism (MAS), believes the public in Chile is divided over the question.

“On one hand, there is still prejudice. Starting in school, we are taught to look down on Bolivians, as well as the indigenous Mapuche and Aymara people, but I believe that is beginning to change thanks to President Evo Morales’ competent, practical administration,” he told IPS.

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