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Goal coast Bolivia mourns oceanfront lost to Chile in 1879 war
David L. Marcus

01/10/1993
The Dallas Morning News
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(Copyright 1993)

TITICACA NAVAL BASE No. 4, Bolivia—If any nation is obsessed with its coast, it is Bolivia.

Schoolchildren sing about the “sea, sea, sea, the blue sea.’ Every summer, Bolivia celebrates the “Day of the Sea’ and selects Miss Coastline in a nationally televised beauty contest.

The Museum of the Coastline boasts an immense collection of books, maps and marine memorabilia—though it is dwarfed by the two-story library of the Maritime Action foundation. Then there’s the 6,000-man Bolivian navy, which sends officers for training to the best academies of Europe and the Americas. It’s ready to defend the territory from any invaders, large or small.

But the invaders will have to come by land. Bolivia lost its coast in 1879, in a humiliating battle with neighboring Chile.

Most of the nation, celebrating carnival holidays, didn’t even learn about Chile’s invasion for three days. By that time, the coast was history. The national lamenting hasn’t stopped since then.

“Bolivia wasn’t born as a landlocked country. We’re closed in, suffocating, cut off from the rest of the world,’ said Cmdr. Aldo Eduardo Jimenez, commander at the hillside naval base on Lake Titicaca.

The navy has 60 patrol boats—all confined to rivers and the world’s highest navigable lake. Although the sailors spend much of their time combating illegal drugs and doing routine patrols, one of the navy’s principal missions is coastal “conscience-raising,’ Cmdr. Jimenez said.

As Vice Adm. Miguel Alvarez Delgado, the navy’s chief of staff, put it, “Without a doubt, the navy is the Number 1 factor in maintaining this aspiration, this need and this inalienable right of the Bolivian people.’

Never mind that the commanders admit that they are outgunned by Chile’s navy and, in any case, are not looking for war. Never mind that Bolivia has lost every war it has fought with the five countries that surround it.

And never mind that no one alive in Bolivia today was born when the seacoast actually belonged to Bolivia.

Many reminders

Not a day goes by without Bolivians being reminded that, as one popular slogan puts it, “the sea is our destiny.’

Across from the art deco-style navy station on Lake Titicaca, beyond the giant monument of a ship’s wheel with the slogan “We will return to the ocean,’ is yet another symbol of Bolivia’s dreams.

It is a statue of a hero from the short-lived War of the Pacific. Engraved on the back are the famous last words he uttered when Chilean invaders ordered him to surrender.

“Surrender, coward? Let your grandmother surrender, jerk!’ (Actually, in the original Spanish, the insult was a lot stronger than jerk.)

On the base of the statue are paintings of Bolivian rebels in peasant sandals thrashing an elegantly uniformed Chilean soldier. “What was once ours will be ours again,’ a slogan boasts.

Until a few years ago, sailors say, they ended each day by saluting their officers and chanting “Death to Chile!’

Bolivia, the poorest nation in South America and certainly one of the most isolated in the hemisphere, blames the lack of a seacoast for most of its ills. And prosperous Chile is the target of a lot of blame.

“We talk about the “Yankee imperialists,’ but here there is no Yankee imperialism,’ said Gaston Velasco, president of Maritime Action, the nonprofit group that meets to reminisce about the seacoast that none of the members can personally remember.

“Hard-liner’ would be a mild description of the group.

“We are like a slave colony of Chile,’ said the 75-year-old Mr. Velasco, as he pointed at black-and-white photos of the coast and charged through rows of books about the “national tragedy’ of 1879.

The cluttered Maritime foundation is the repository of Bolivia’s deepest hopes and hatreds. “Viva Bolivia! Down with the savage government of Chile,’ a 100-year old poster says.

Dozens of 18th-century maps, stock certificates and coins show shore scenes—proof that the coast is and always will be Bolivia’s, Mr. Velasco said.

Books include The Hidden Phases of the War with Chile; Diary of the War of the Pacific; Heroic Stories of the War of the Pacific; The Memories of the Campaign of ’79 (Unedited Manuscript) and 600 other pertinent titles.

Cut in half

Every child in the country knows the sad past: When Bolivia declared independence in 1825, it was three times larger than Spain, its motherland. By the 20th century, its size had been cut in half because of fighting, diplomacy and outright bribery.

At the Lake Titicaca naval base, Cmdr. Jimenez solemnly opens an almanac that includes a “Map of Dismembered Territories’—with colorful patches showing Bolivia’s lost land.

Argentina defeated Bolivia in three major battles, chipping away at Bolivia’s southern border each time. Paraguay won a war and gained a chunk of land. To the west, Peru took a swath of territory. And to the east, Brazil won an important river without firing a shot. Diplomats merely paid off a Bolivian leader, Gen. Mario Melgarejo.

“History has been rough on Melgarejo: He has been depicted as a stupid, power-drunk, chronic alcoholic, totally ignorant and brutal dictator,’ wrote historian Charles Arnade, who did little to dispute the image.

Even worse, as far as Bolivians are concerned, Gen. Melgarejo signed away rights to the first precious piece of coast in 1866—all because a Chilean ambassador gave him a horse he coveted.

Bolivia still held on to its main port, Antofagasta, but not for long. On Feb. 14, 1879, when Chile’s marines stormed the port, the War of the Pacific ended almost as soon as it began.

The little-noted, unglamorous fact is that Chile coveted the coast because it was filled with guano, or bird-droppings. Chile shipped the nitrate-rich droppings to Europe, where they commanded a high price in the days before chemical fertilizers.

“The Bolivian who doesn’t hate Chile is a traitor, a bad son of Bolivia,’ Mr. Velasco said. “How are you going to like the assassin of your mother?’

Such harsh words are heard in the highest circles of La Paz, the capital. Last month, one of the oldest members of the Senate—a believer in the coast—demanded the resignation of the foreign minister for being too soft on Chile.

At the government’s Museum of the Coastline, the dedication page of an 1883 history reads, “Eternal Hate: How implacable is the Chilean! War or death, he’s always bloody!’

Familiar refrain

Every Flag Day, crowds gather at the museum to sing a national anthem, which includes the verse, “We’ll die before they enslave us. There’s no doubt who the “they’ is, or what war the refrain refers to.

But curator Laura Morales says she has seen visitors from Chile cry as they toured the five exhibit halls and the tranquil patio.

Ms. Morales, like many in the under-40 generation, can’t cry over spilled seawater. She says Bolivia has to “resign itself’ to landlocked eternity.

Officially, at least, the government is committed to retaking the coast by diplomacy. There is constant talk about appealing to the Organization of American States, the United Nations and other groups—even though most countries believe that the ownership question was settled by Chile 114 years ago.

In a gesture of friendship, Peru last year gave Bolivia access to the southern port of Ilo. Bolivian President Jaime Paz Zamora had three stamps issued—all featuring him on the coast—to commemorate the event. But the Maritime Action wasn’t placated.

At one government office, a high-ranking government official freely talks about the cocaine trade and other controversial topics. But when asked about the coast, he chooses every word deliberately.

The landlocked-equals-poor theory doesn’t wash, he contends.

“Many landlocked countries are developed—look at Switzerland.’

Then he becomes quiet.

“You’re not going to quote me on this? It’s a sensitive matter,’ he says.

PHOTO(S): 1. (The Dallas Morning News: David L. Marcus) Divers train at the hillside naval base on Lake Titicaca, Bolivia. The navy has 60 patrol boats—all confined to rivers and the world’s highest navigable lake. The sailors spend much of their time fighting the illegal drug trade and doing routine patrols because the country has no coastline. 2. (The Dallas Morning News: David L. Marcus) Cmdr. Aldo Eduardo Jimenez is chief of the Bolivian navy’s Titicaca Naval Base No. 4. Cmdr. Jimenez says one of the 6,000-member force’s key missions is to remind residents that landlocked Bolivia once had a coastline. MAP(S): Lake Titicaca; La Paz, Bolivia (DMN) ; PHOTO LOCATION: 1.-2. Bolivia (cf 57562).

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