Bolivia-Chile Dispute Could Grow Geographically


LA PAZ, Bolivia – The International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague will already hear the case filed by Bolivia against neighbor Chile that aims to recover at least part of the land (inluding a Pacific port) lost well over a century ago but now, Bolivia has announced that it is seriously considering expanding the area desired to include the Silala water system.

Bolivia filed its case against Chile at the ICJ in April of 2013 with an eye on eventually recovering land lost to Chile during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883).

During that conflict, Bolivia and Peru were defeated by the invading Chile who annexed Antofagasta, Bolivia’s only port and point-of-access to the sea, along with 420 kilometers (260 miles) of coastline. Additionally, Chile annexed over 120,000 square kilometers (46,000 square miles) of the Bolivian littoral, some of the most mineral-rich lands found anywhere on the globe.

Chile invaded Bolivian and Peruvian territory in the Atacama Desert in order to secure these valuable lands, threatened by the thought that companies owned by US or British enterprises (that were operated by Chilean companies) in the region could be nationalized or confiscated by Bolivian and Peruvian authorities. Chile eventually triumphed due to its naval superiority and support from Great Britain, which allowed it to resupply its forces in the world’s driest desert from the coasts of the Pacific.

In the case filed by La Paz, Bolivia maintains that Chile promised Bolivia an opening to the Pacific Ocean through direct negotiations between the two nations in the 1970s, specifically during sporadic meetings held between 1975 and 1978, the first of which resulted in the re-establishment of diplomatic relations that had been broken since 1962 when Víctor Paz Estenssoro, then-leader of Bolivia, severed relations.

The series of meetings in the 1970s, held just minutes away from the Chilean border in the Bolivian town of Charaña, took place when both nations were led by a military dictatorship, Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Hugo Banzer in Bolivia.

The promises made by Chile to negotiate for coastal territory, Bolivia alleges, were never fulfilled. Furthermore, Bolivia says that Chile did something similar earlier after the 1947-1950 talks, which were much more informal, but the 1970s negotiations were binding as agreements were signed by both nations. Furthermore, Bolivia says that it was promised negotiations seven times by different Chilean leaders between the 1920s and 1980s.

Chile, meanwhile, stands by the 1904 Treaty that was signed by Peru and Bolivia under disadvantageous circumstances for the two on the losing end of the war that determined the boundaries which are still in place today. As such, Chile alleges that if the court rules in Bolivia’s favor, it would pose a problem for the stability of international borders and territorial integrity.

Despite Chile’s objection to the suit, the ICJ declared itself competent to hear the case after Santiago challenged the court’s jurisdiction. The decision by the court in September of 2015 to go forward with the case was understandably welcomed by Bolivia: “This is simply an unforgettable day, we knew that we were going to get justice sooner or later because we were never going to give up on our right to the sea,” Bolivian leader Evo Morales said then in La Paz.

Morales said he and his cabinet were intently watching the satellite transmission of the court’s decision that was announced by ICJ President Ronny Abraham. Morales said that he and his colleagues jumped with joy when they heard the decision that the court had rejected Chile’s objection by a count of 14 votes to 2 votes.

On the other side of the border in Chile, President Michelle Bachelet also gathered with her cabinet in La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, to show a united political front in response to the news from the ICJ. “This proclamation from the International Court of Justice does not affect our national territorial integrity in any way, it just means that the case will be heard and in this sense, Bolivia has not won anything,” Bachelet said.

Months ago when Chile decided to challenge the jurisdiction of the ICJ in the case, a member of the Bolivian legal team in The Hague, Payam Akhavan, said that Chile dragged its feet with soft promises of negotiation “thinking they could just keep the status quo without intending to fulfill their promises” prior to the filing of the case.

Akhavan pointed out that the latest diplomatic attempts prior to the case were made during Bachelet’s first presidential term (2006-2010) when she and Morales signed an agreement that established a 13-point agenda regarding negotiations for Bolivian port access, but nothing was ever achieved. “Bolivia became sick of waiting” and went to the ICJ, Akhavan said.

Now, in a new development, Morales has explained that he is seeking to take further judicial action against Chile concerning the Silala River and the immediate surrounding area.

Speaking at a ceremony to commemorate the 137th anniversary of the Chilean invasion of Bolivia, Morales led another Día del Mar, or the Day of the Sea, and passionately spoke about Bolivia’s long-lost land and access to the ocean in central La Paz at the Plaza Abaroa, a verdant public square packed with thousands of spectators. The plaza’s name comes from Eduardo Abaroa, a Bolivian national hero who lost his life while bravely resisting the Chilean invasion in 1879.

Bolivia’s interests with Chile have been represented mainly by the ‘National Bureau of the Maritime Claim’, a governmental group tasked with articulating the Bolivian perspective concerning the coastline before international forums and summits in the region and across the globe.

The group is led by former President Carlos Mesa (2003-2005) and includes President Morales, Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca and former President and current Ambassador to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé.

At the most recent Day of the Sea ceremony, Morales said that he “instructed the National Bureau of the Maritime Claim to consider legal alternatives in front of international judicial bodies concerning the defense of our waters of Silala.”

The Silala water system, which originates at a height of some 4,300 meters (14,100 feet) in the western Bolivian region of Potosí and empties into Chile, has previously been a source of diplomatic conflict between the two nations.

Bolivia claims that the Silala is a natural spring while Chile maintains that it is an international river. As such, Chile claims that it has a right to use of the river while Bolivia says that Chile has illegally and unilaterally diverted Silala’s waters for its own commercial use. Bolivia pointed to over 100 years’ use of the water by British-funded and Chilean-operated companies, initially with permission (shortly after the 1904 Treaty was signed) by railway companies and later illegally by copper and other mostly extraction-based and agriculture companies.

The concessions initially provided by Bolivia to Chile for use of the Silala were taken away as they no longer were used for their original purpose, but Chile has continued using the Silala’s resources. An agreement was reached in 2009 during the Bachelet-Morales talks for Chile to pay for just over half of the Silala’s use, but Bolivian lawmakers rejected the notion and it was completely discarded when the talks between the national leaders were called off by Chile.

Thus, Bolivia has not been able to take advantage of the Silala’s resources on its own territory and has threatened to block the water from reaching Chile. In return, Chile threatened to take legal action of their own and file a case against Bolivia should the Silala be blocked at the border.

The reaction by Chile to Morales’ announcement of possibly filing a separate case regarding Silala (one that could possibly include a demand of some $1 billion in concession backpay) was identical to the possible blocking in that a countersuit would be filed by Santiago.

In fact, some right-wing Chilean parliamentarians even called on Bachelet to sever diplomatic relations with Bolivia. While Bachelet discarded that notion, she did confirm in a conference with Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz that “in the case that Bolivia presents the Silala case, Chile will file a countersuit because my government will firmly safeguard our national interests, natural resources and right to sustainable development.”

As the initial ICJ case continues, the timetable is tentative: in July, Chile is to present its side of the argument and the process will continue from there. The decision of the court is expected to be eventually handed down sometime in early 2018.


  1. A very biased article. 1) Bolivia NEVER owned 420 kms. of coast… she claimed they did. Chile never recognized such claim, thus the conflict of 1879. 2) Antofagasta was founded and populated by Chileans. Bolivia never had a port, lest an oceangoing ship anywhere. The only Bolivian town on what is now Chile was Calama, more than 200 kms. inland. 3) Peru got tangled into the war because it refused to renounce its secret alliance with Bolivia… a loyalty that cost them dearly, as Bolivia later fled to the hills leaving Peru to face Chile alone. 4) Although the U.K. sympathized with Chile they played no role in Chilean victory: they even held paid-for warships from leaving England because they did not want to be perceived as allies to Chile. 5) The Treaty of 1904 paid a large compensation to Bolivia for their lost lands, had Chile to build a railroad to connect La Paz to the Pacific, and gave Bolivia perpetual and full access to Chilean ports —including free transit, port storage, preferential fees, etc.—5) All Chilean “offers” of “access to the sea” and “water issues” (Silala, et al) after 1904 have been derailed by the Bolivians themselves, or had been declared inviable as they would occupy former Peruvian lands, which require Peru’s approval. 6) Bachelet-Morales’ 13-point Agenda NEVER promised a sovereign piece of land to Bolivia. And, most importantly, 7) The ICJ will only decide if Chile has an obligation to negotiate (based on precedent) a Bolivian sovereign access to the Pacific. When and IF the Court rules in Bolivia’s favor, Chile is not obligated to anything but “negotiate” until the end of time, for the ICJ does neither establish deadlines nor can order Chile to give up a square centimeter of territory. In other words, this is nothing but a very deceiving ruse by Morales to gaining popularity among his countrymen.

  2. On your first point Roberto that’s simply not true. The war was started because of the very treaty recognizing Bolivian sovereignty over that land. Your second point is a bit misleading, Andres de Santa Cruz founded a port in Antofagasta and it was destroyed by the Chileans in the War of the Confederation. It never recovered and was ignored after that war and at the time of the War of the Pacific was populated mostly by Chileans. Peru came to Bolivia with the idea of a secret alliance, whatever they did they knew what they were doing. If i’m not mistaken the secret alliance was not all that secret to Chile who tried to get Bolivia to side with them in a war with Peru (apparently the alliances were not that strong as Bolivia also sent invitations of alliance to Chile). I don’t think UK played any role, though they would end up profiting from the result. Chile paid a large sum, but that sum did not represent the actual value of the land, port privileges in Chile, some contend, have not always been carried out faithfully. as to point 5 its debatable by what you mean in “derail” from what I heard Chile sometimes comes with offers to return a coast with preposterous terms and then the Bolivians refuse. Point 6 is probably true I doubt Chile would promise anything when it was just an agenda for future negotiation. For point 7 if i’m not mistaken the claim is Chile must be obligated to negotiate in good faith a sovereign access (whatever that means) to the sea. You can’t simply negotiate without the intent of reaching a solution, otherwise it is not a negotiation in good faith. It’s not even a negotiation.

    • Counter-rebuttal to Carlos:
      About Point 1. The debate over which country owned that land was set aside because Spain united Chile, Peru and Bolivia against her attempt to recoup its South American colonies (aided by Argentina.) (1866) Bolivia did not have a single fishing raft to contribute to the defense, so it was Chilean and Peruvian warships who defeated the Spanish flotilla in Chiloe (southern Chile.) There were two friendly treaties signed after that (early 1870s) In a nutshell, one gave SHARED mining rights over the disputed lands to Chile with the profit divided evenly between the two countries; the other promised that the tax Chilean mining companies were paying to the Bolivian government was not to be increased for 25 years. When Bolivian dictator Daza decided to raise the tax, he knew Chileans would refuse to pay it, thus he would have an excuse to expropriate a fully functioning and very profitable infrastructure that included port and railroads.
      Second Point. In 1837 Santa Cruz created the administrative division, never a town. The capital was Cobija, a pre-Columbian fishing village (that was never developed). Antofagasta was founded by Chileans José Santos Ossa and Francisco Puelma (who called it La Chimba) to serve their mining operations (1866). Bolivia took over the already existing town in 1868 but never had Bolivians living there, except for a few bureaucrats and the garrison’s soldiers.
      Point 3. You are right. Argentina, for example, was part of the deal and, when Chile renounced to its Patagonia claim in their favor, she denounced it. And yes. The UK reaped most of the profits of the war.
      Point 5. One example: when Chile offered some corridor or coastal enclave (I am not sure what exactly was) in exchange for a strip of land in the Potosi edge, the Potosi Departmental government vociferously opposed the move and that’s where it died.
      Point 7. My assertion stands: “with the intent of a solution” could be an interpretation, yet the ICJ does neither provide for a timeframe nor a specific result (ie. Sovereign sea acces.)