Bolivia and Paraguay fight history for access to the ocean

On Monday, Evo Morales visited Uruguayan president Tabaré Vázquez in Montevideo to negotiate an agreement for the landlocked country to use Uruguay’s ports in return for Bolivia’s natural gas. In the statement, the two president agreed to the

…necesidad de facilitar la libre navegabilidad en todo ese sistema fluvial regional, cuya desembocadura en el Río de la Plata…

[…need to facilitate the free navigability throughout the regional river system, which opens into the Rio de la Plata…]

This is an important play for the Bolivian economy, especially under the presidency of Evo Morales, who has likened the disputed land, controlled by Chile, as akin to the occupied territories in Palestine. Bolivia and Paraguay remain the only countries in Latin America with no direct access to sea. Paraguay by process of early state formation, Bolivia through force.

Territory prior to War of the Pacific

Territory prior to War of the Pacific


From 1879 to 1883, Chile fought Peru and Bolivia in what is now know as the War of the Pacific. The war began over land disputes and claims to natural resources. After four years, Peru and Bolivia laid down their arms, conceding to Chile’s (naval) might. From Peru, Chile would take Tarapacá and Arica, which it still holds to this day. From Bolivia, Chile would take the entire litoral, coastline, and the province of Antofagasta. Chile, magnanimous indeed, agreed to connect newly acquired Arica to La Paz and promise the nation use of Chilean ports. Unlike any country in Latin America, Bolivia must pay and make deals to place its goods onto the global market. This has had a distinct effect on Bolivian commerce and culture.

Paraguay suffered the same indignities as Bolivia, only a decade earlier. In what became known as the War of the Triple Alliance, Paraguay lost 300,000 people (estimates for total deaths up to 1.2 million, 90 percent of the population) to an alliance between Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Hard to believe, but prior to the twentieth century, Rio de la Plata politics divided Brazil and Argentina with multiple factions hampering the consolidation of a single political system. Thus, Paraguay, because of its protectionist policies and dictatorship of Francisco Solano López, was stronger than any of the other nations. The war began when a Brazilian ship attacked Uruguay, yet when Paraguay, allied with Uruguay, failed to come to the aid of the embattled country, declaring war on Brazil, Uruguay sided with Brazil and ally Argentina. In the end, the Triple Alliance crushed the entire population of Paraguay. The same convoluted politics that gave rise to this conflict (utterly reminiscent of European wars of the era) also kept Paraguay the nation alive, Brazil refused Argentina’s advances to divide the country into the three countries as it provided a buffer between itself and Argentina. Thus, Paraguay hobbled into the twentieth century.

Bolivia and Paraguay, dispute improved relations, both still lack access to the sea

Bolivia and Paraguay, dispute improved relations, both still lack access to the sea

In a common theme throughout world history – eventually, the two poorest nations will battle one another for the crumbs of the richest (and wettest) South American nations. In 1932, Bolivia waged a failed war with Paraguay over access to the Paraguay River. This was not only a failure due to its military defeat, but also a failure of information as the Chaco region (it was known as the Chaco War) was believed to be oil-rich. In essence, Bolivia and Paraguay fought for three years and lost over 100,000 people for nothing. It wouldn’t be until last April when Bolivia and Paraguay settled the border conflicts.


Today, both nations struggle with how to move forward in an increasingly globalized world – a globalized world that each nation is resisting. Paraguay has always had access to the Rio de la Plata and the Atlantic Ocean, yet due to its poverty, history of authoritarian governments, and lack of industry and reliance on imports, Paraguay lags behind all South American nations. Bolivia is able to sail the Paraguay River, but it’s hundreds of miles to the Atlantic. While Bolivia is no model for economic development, the administration of Evo Morales is attempting to reverse a history of corporatism and corruption in Bolivia. While Paraguay seems content (because what else can it say?) with its position between the Triple Alliance, Bolivia is still shaking its fist and demanding sea access.

Yet Chile is not willing to entertain the idea. It has offered land access, tunnel access and a 99-year lease to the land. All have been denied because it would not belong to Bolivia.

In the meeting on Monday, Vázquez confirmed his support for Bolivia’s historic claim to the Pacific Ocean as well as supported the reiteration of Urubapol, described by MercoPress as “a development mechanism which in the seventies and eighties had strong support from multilateral organizations and was geared to promote development in the three smallest countries of the continent: Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay.”

The tosses and turns of history – its long and painful arc – seem to circle sometimes. The reiteration of Urubapol today – under the control of left-leaning governments in contrast to the dictatorships of each nation in the past – could have long-term benefits to the three nations. And Bolivia’s relative strength will not hurt its position within the trading bloc nor Latin America as a whole. As pointed out by Otto at Inca Kola News,

    § 2007 GDP up 4.6%

    § 2008 GDP up 6.15%

    § 2009 GDP expected to grow “at least 4%”

    § U$8Bn in international currency reserves, which is all-time record levels and represents U$816 per capita.

    § Inflation now under control. The last two months have seen negative inflation thanks mainly to the drop in imported foodstuffs….

    § Programs that have rid the country of illiteracy by official UN world standards.

    § Free heathcare that is so popular visitors come from “the economic miracle” Peru to get their eyes fixed…

I could continue. But perhaps from all that list the “GDP +4% in 2009” is the killer stat, because if achieved (and that seems very likely the way things are going) Bolivia will have the best performing economy in the whole of South America in 2009.

Hell, maybe Hugo Chavez won’t be the only one having to wait for a day on a Bolivian beach with stats like that. Lugo, Vázquez – you’re invited too.


~ by Daniel on July 17, 2009.

3 Responses to “Bolivia and Paraguay fight history for access to the ocean”

  1. […] Bolivia and Paraguay fight history for access to the ocean « To …In what became known as the War of the Triple Alliance, Paraguay lost 300000 people (estimates for total deaths up to 1.2 million, 90 percent of the population) to an alliance between Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. … […]

  2. Thank you for the mention, Daniel.

  3. […] first reported here, Bolivia lost its access to the Pacific Ocean after the War of the Pacific in 1883. Of course, […]

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