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Are Bolivia and Chile Ready to Ease Rising Border Tensions?

Bolivian and Chilean border authorities are meeting for the first time since 2011, but their relationship is as strained as ever.
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JORGE BERNAL/AFP/Getty Images

LA PAZ – When Bolivian and Chilean border officials gather on July 25 – their first meeting in six years – they will have a seemingly simple agenda: to restore functional relations along their border without regular resort to courts, threats or name-calling.

It won’t be easy. The 528-mile border has been a source of tension since Bolivia lost its coastline to Chile in a 1904 treaty, and conflict has flared up in recent months, with 11 officials – soldiers, police officers and customs officers – detained by their counterparts on the other side.

The scuffle came with the requisite political posturing and mudslinging. Bolivian President Evo Morales accused his Chilean counterpart, President Michelle Bachelet, of being “held hostage to the oligarchy of former dictator Pinochet.” Her foreign minister called him a liar and propagandist. Even the event’s planning was marked by a war of words between the two camps over who first proposed it, and who ignored whose invitations.

Under these circumstances, just holding the meeting is a victory of sorts. But real progress will be measured in steps toward restoring functional relations at the frontier. This includes the establishment of protocols and mechanisms to prevent further incidents along the border, as well as advances in policing and cooperation around the movement of people and goods – all essential aspects of any neighborly relationship.

But Bolivia and Chile are not your usual neighbors.

“For more than 100 years, Bolivia and Chile have not had normal relations,” said Andrés Guzmán Escobari, an academic, former diplomat and prominent commentator. “The recent border incidents have worsened relations a bit more.”

Bolivian leaders have long used the maritime grievance as an opportunity to rally support. Morales’ “Mar Para Bolivia” campaign has sought to build international support for Bolivia’s efforts to reclaim its sea access. In 2013, the country filed a case against Chile in the International Court of Justice in The Hague to force Chile to negotiate sovereign Bolivian access to the sea.

Last year, Chile filed a separate territorial case before the Court over access to the Silala River, which originates in Bolivia and flows through Chile. Chile wants it to be declared an international waterway. Bolivia wants to charge its neighbor for use.

This second dispute, according to Guzmán, is “much more sensitive and delicate (and) could detonate the outbreak of a major conflict.”

The two countries broke off diplomatic relations in 1978, following a failed attempt to broker an agreement over the maritime issue. And though dialogue resumed in 2006, they still do not have full diplomatic relations or mutual embassies.

Improved relations and increased collaboration are clearly in the interest of both parties: Bolivia has estimated that 70 percent of the contraband smuggled into the country comes from Chile. Regardless, the recent flare up shows that long-running mutual mistrust between the two countries is unlikely to be resolved quickly.

The incident began when Chilean authorities arrested nine Bolivian officials – seven customs officers and two soldiers – on charges of robbery on Chilean soil in March. Bolivia maintained they were simply carrying out anti-smuggling operations.

A three-month prison stint followed, as did a campaign of nationalistic drum-banging for their release in Bolivia. Billboard posters emblazoned with the hashtag #LibrenALos9 (free the nine) were plastered across La Paz. Morales’ tweets about Chile – including a plea to Pope Francis to intervene in the matter of the detained officials – skyrocketed over 400 percent between April and June. One of out every ten of the president’s tweets alludes to Chile.

In the midst of the affair, Bolivia announced plans to station members of its army, air force, and navy at the border, in what was ostensibly an effort to fight the cross-border flow of contraband.

Chile eventually released “The Nine” on June 28, but not before charging them with robbery, intimidation, and illegally carrying contraband and arms, and fining them almost $50,000. Morales described their return as a “victory over the Chilean oligarchy.”

Less than three weeks later, it was Bolivia’s turn: their authorities arrested two Chilean police officers for crossing into Bolivia territory. The officers were released two days later, but not before a Bolivian senator boasted that the episode provided “a lesson in diplomacy” for Chile.

The only way out of this tangle of attack and retribution is through conversation, and steps like this meeting, experts said.

“Neighbouring countries don't go to therapy, as humans do,” said Paz Zarate, a Chilean international law expert. “And some of them, ideally, should.”

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McCormick is a freelance journalist based in Bolivia

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Bolivia, Chile, territorial dispute

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