Thursday, 9 December 2010

Chile backtracks on Bolivian sea access deal

Chilean President Pinera celebrates the miners' rescue in October

Bolivian hopes of securing access to the sea through agreement with Chile took a major hit last week as Chilean Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno confirmed that the new government of President Sebastian Pinera would not be supporting the agreement that had tentatively been reached between his predecessor Michelle Bachelet and Bolivia's Evo Morales providing land-locked Bolivia with sea-access in northern Chile.

Putting Chilean security concerns over bilateral relations, Moreno, speaking on a Chilean talk show on Sunday 5th December, said that while they were willing to cooperate and collaborate with Bolivia, they would never be willing to cede sovereignty. Moreno said, “we will never accept something that divides the country in two…Sovereignty is not on the table.”

This has proved to be an unpopular move in Chile, as Pinera's approval rating continues to slide after peaking after the miners' successful rescue in October, and many blogosphere commentators have argued that good neighbourly relations are more important than control of a small area of territory.

Bolivia had a Pacific shoreline until it lost it to Chile in the 1874-84 War of the Pacific, in which Bolivia allied with Peru to fight Chile, but lost. Indeed Bolivia has lost vast swaths of its territory to its neighbours since its independence from Spain in 1925. Bolivian bitterness towards the Chileans has persisted since, although Bachelet and Morales took important steps to mending relations.

In 2006, a 13 point agenda was established that included La Paz's demand for access to the Pacific. It appears that just before he took office, Pinera stopped Bachelet from signing an agreement with Morales in which Chile would cede a 'non sovereign coastal enclave' to Bolivia in the northern region of Tarapaca.

In October 2009, Morales and his Peruvian counterpart Alan Garcia, signed a deal giving Bolvia a 99-year lease to four square kilometres of desolate shoreline near Peru's southern port of Ilo.

When finalising the deal in a ceremony with Garcia, Morales said, "This opens the door for Bolivians to have an international port, to the use of the ocean for global trade and for Bolivian products to have better access to global markets.”

Pinera, however, has in this case blocked Bolivian access, arguing that handing the enclave to Bolivia would bring great "migratory, free transit, administrative and infrastructure problems" for Chilean authorities. Foreign Minister Moreno said that Chile will “analyse all the proposals for a (Bolivian) better access to the sea, but will always guard the interests of Chile, and that interest will never be to have the country divided in two.”

It seems therefore likely that Bolivia may still gain access to a sea outlet, but only under clear Chilean sovereignty. Pinera has been taking a tough line on security, increasing border security and signing new contracts with defense suppliers. Senior officials have recently said that the immediate security threats to Chile include large-scale immigration from its poor neighbours, as well as organised crime and narcotics trafficking.

The toughening of Pinera's stance towards Bolivia must be seen in this light: he is clearly worried that giving Bolivia control - even in a non-sovereign capacity - will compromise Chile's ability to control its territory. It seems he is also worried that offering access once could revive Bolivian ambitions towards other territories lost in conflict.

Bolivia, however, is likely to continue to press for sea access. According to the Bolivian minister for planning and development, Viviana Caro, direct access to the ocean wouldl cut the distance goods have to travel to Asian markets by 40per cent. Bolivia is keen to become competative in the Asian markets, to take advantage of its plentiful resources of zinc, tin and silver.

Sources: UPI, MercoPress, Democratic Underground

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