This study has sought to investigate the scope and role played by the United States in the maritime question of Bolivia. The framework for the analysis of this question comprises three interrelated segments examined in chronological order.

The first concerns the territorial status of Bolivia and its jurisdiction over its Pacific littoral. The second considers the stresses and constant conflict that have characterized the relations between Bolivia and Chile, resulting from Chilean expansionism at the expense of Bolivian territories, which reached its climax with the War of the Pacific and the loss of the Bolivian seacoast to Chile. The third focuses on the diverse Bolivian attempts to recover an access to the Pacific Ocean, which had become since 1884 an uninterrupted pattern for Bolivian foreign policy.

The archives of the State Department have been the main sources of information used in this research. Direct reading of US diplomatic documents has made it possible to establish in some instances, and to confirm in others, relevant facts regarding the maritime question of Bolivia. The analysis uses information contained in the dispatches sent by plenipotentiary ministers, consuls and special envoys in addition to intelligence reports and instructions given by the State Department.

The data and analysis used have provided information that contribute both to the knowledge of United States participation in the conflict and to the whole Bolivian maritime question. Particularly, it has allowed some conclusions to be made on the three aspects of the maritime question of Bolivia.

Firstly, diplomatic and consular reports and dispatches establish consistently that Bolivia was a maritime country and, in addition, confirm that the Audiencia de Charcas (Royal Tribunal of Charcas) - which was the root of the geographical, historical and juridical being of the future Republic of Bolivia - had sovereign rights over the coastal territory of the Atacama littoral in the Pacific Ocean. The border demarcations of the new American republics were a heritage of the Spanish colonial rule. Although in some instances these border demarcations were not clear enough, in this particular case, they were indeed clearly set up to run along the Salado river, which was the colonial border between the Audiencia de Charcas and the Kingdom of Chile, and subsequently, became the international borderline between the republics of Bolivia and Chile.

On the other hand, charts and diaries of American officers and sailors as well as consular communications bear witness to the fact that Bolivia exerted a recognized administrative jurisdiction and sovereignty over the province of the Atacama Littoral. Diplomatic correspondence also supports another important issue: the close and permanent links of Arica’s port with Bolivia. Aware of the significance of those links. the State Department gave instructions to the first plenipotentiary minister sent to Bolivia to search ways to transfer the port of Arica to the Bolivian state. Moreover, those dispatches underline the fact that Peru had recognized to Bolivia, in several treaties, some rights to Arica.

With reference to the second aspect of the maritime question, it must be noted that the State Department was kept well informed on the Pacific West Coast situation in South America and since 1842 had detailed reports of Chilean efforts for expansion over the Bolivian littoral. All through the War of the Pacific, American diplomacy was aware that Chilean expansionism was the root of the hostilities aimed at the appropriation of the Peruvian territory of Tarapaca as well as of the Bolivian seacoast. The latter, in addition to its wealth, was a geographical wedge separating Chile and Peru.

The United States was no mere spectator of the War of the Pacific. The warring parties several times invited US assistance in their search for peace in the region. For its part, the State Department expressed its readiness to play a role in solving the strife. From the mediation for peace requested by Bolivia to Minister Pettis in 1879, to the request for arbitration made by Chile to Minister Logan in 1884 to determine the amount of war reparations, the three warring parties attempted, at least nine times, to achieve US participation.

The United States never questioned Bolivian rights over its littoral. Nevertheless, displaying traditional Anglo-Saxon pragmatism, the State Department admitted Chilean hegemony over the region, avoided any quarrel with that country in defending a weak and defenseless Bolivia, and opted to ignore any solution contrary to Chilean interests. However, American diplomacy used Bolivian rights over the Atacama littoral in laying the foundation of their mediation efforts in the Puna de Atacama dispute between Chile and Argentina. It also used those same elements in defending American private interests claiming illegal acts committed by Chile, as in the cases involving the Alsop Company and the Sportsman cargo ship. Moreover, the US also helped Chile in designing a free transit system for Bolivia as a substitute to Bolivia's confinement.

The third aspect of the maritime question is the repeated attempts to regain access to the Pacific Ocean. It must be noted that Bolivia asked, on several occasions, for State Department assistance in its efforts to gain a sovereign territorial outlet of its own to the Pacific. From the petition for mediation made by Minister Guachalla to Secretary of State Hay in 1900 to the request sent by President Hernando Siles to President Coolidge in 1926, Bolivia tried to elicit the support of the United States in promoting international justice. In doing so, Bolivia expected United States support in achieving an outlet to the Pacific when solving the question of Tacna and Arica.

The United States in its diplomatic play, either consciously or unconsciously, made even more intricate the situation of Bolivia within the framework of the Pacific question. The United States urged Bolivia in 1882 to neither take part nor interfere in the negotiations starting between Peru and Chile with US help, and subsequently abandoned Bolivia to its fate in the signing of the Treaty of Ancon in 1883. Bolivia was not a party to this treaty which de facto forced its geographical isolation. The same trend prevailed five decades later when the United States again asked Bolivia to refrain from interfering in the negotiations it was promoting between Chile and Peru, leaving Bolivia to suffer the consequences of the 1929 Treaty of Lima with no compensation for its restraint. Again, Bolivia was not a party to this treaty which now de jure forced its geographical confinement.

The constant trend of Bolivian diplomacy in the whole question, despite the political and ideological differences of those involved in the different administrations, has been the search for a sovereign outlet to the Pacific Ocean, and policies in this direction have been duly recorded in State Department archives. Either bilaterally or multilaterally, Bolivia attempted on other numerous occasions to have the United States play a significant role in securing the reliability of negotiations within the framework of the Inter-American legal system.

The State Department never questioned the legitimacy of Bolivia’s maritime claims, notwithstanding the fact that it never felt obliged to find a solution to it. Not only that, but it is obvious as well that American diplomats were always reluctant to oppose Chile's demands, probably considering that American interests in that country were more important than its interests in Bolivia. President Carter’s switch in American policy was thus a significant innovation in the history of this question.

The new US foreign policy, coincidental with a majority decision taken in 1979 by Latin American countries on this question, defined Bolivian landlocked status as a hemispheric problem that must be solved within a hemispheric framework. Since then, American diplomacy has supported nine consecutive resolutions approved by the Organization of American States (OAS) calling for negotiations between Chile and Bolivia aimed at granting Bolivia an appropriate, free and sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean.

Analysis of the relevant correspondence shows contrasting positions taken by the nations directly involved in the maritime status of Bolivia. On the one hand, one may observe that Chile ignored Bolivian demands and rejected, as a matter of principle, any revision of the Treaty of 1904. Meanwhile Bolivia considered a matter of survival its gaining sovereign access to the sea through the revision of that treaty or the concertation of a new one which would supersede it. The Chilean government attitude regarding the maritime status of Bolivia has been generally inflexible, persuaded perhaps by the need to show inflexibility in order to justify military conquest.


Bolivia, for its part, maintained ample flexibility in its claims, hoping to thus facilitate an arrangement that would bring about an access to the sea, without necessarily pressing for restitution of its former littoral. In other words, Chile's strategy in the conflict was to play a zero-sum game, in which it knew it had the upper hand. Bolivia, perhaps because it knew it was the weaker party, intended to play, without success, a non-zero-sum game, which could have resulted in gains for all those involved, including Peru.

It should be noted that Bolivia maintained its loyalty to the alliance with Peru as a matter of honor and against its own interests. Peru, on the contrary, followed its own interests in various rounds of negotiations with Chile, omitting proper consultations with its former ally and disregarding the consequences that its action could have on Bolivia. Moreover, Peru considered that the maritime status of Bolivia was merely a bilateral question concerning the latter, and Chile set itself up as the ultimate arbiter for any solution bringing about a corridor in former Peruvian territories connecting Bolivia with the Pacific Ocean. In the 1882 negotiations Peru already sought to keep control over any solution granting Bolivia access to the sea, a position that Chile ardently opposed. Paradoxically, in 1929 Chile itself granted motu propio precisely that privilege to Peru, at the expense of its own sovereignty.

One can reach the overall conclusion that the positions maintained by Bolivia, Chile and Peru have generally been consistent and constant all along the process, while conferring upon the United States a relevant role in settling their disputes. For its part, the United States wanted to play a leading role that would confirm its prevailing influence in the region, but without jeopardizing its vested interests in Chile.

The present study has found that the United States maintained at all times some participation in the issue of the maritime status of Bolivia. Consequently, it also shares some responsibility in it. The US in sponsoring the treaties signed, by Chile and Peru in 1883 and 1929, in which the geographical confinement of Bolivia was ratified, become involved in this problem to a degree larger than previously known. American diplomacy, by this act, accepted Chilean expansionism and sanctioned the despoliation of the Bolivian seacoast and of Peruvian territories.

Bolivian diplomacy based its diverse attempts to obtain friendly US participation in the question of the Bolivian maritime question not only on the firm belief that American diplomacy was founded upon firm moral and juridical values and espoused basic principles of justice and equality, but on the need to count on a friendly arbitrator that might assist, to a certain extent, in obtaining fair balance to the disadvantageous position of Bolivia when facing either Chilean or Peruvian superiority. Nevertheless, while Bolivian diplomacy in dealing with Chile or Peru was powerless, in relying on the US as the only fair possibility to compensate its weakness, it was - in addition - naive.

The dispute between Bolivia and Chile can be better understood as an ongoing conflict that started in the l9th century. As any other conflictive situation, it did not happen in a vacuum, nor did it suddenly occur. It was the result of a gradual interaction between these two countries, which clashed in their opposed interests on the Atacama riches. Such interaction was also influenced by the Peruvian presence in the area. Finally, all of this occurred under the influence of major powers, namely Great Britain first and later the US.

The conflict originated indeed in Chile’s decision to play a semiperipheral role in the region, at the expense of Bolivia and in competition with Peru, who also wanted such a role. Although the government of Great Britain was foreign to the controversy, as the 19th century hegemonic power it was involved just because of its economic dominance. The British merchants who owned trading houses in Atacama, Tarapaca and Chile as well as the British bankers who funded those in commercial activities in a remote South American West Coast were just playing their part by linking these two extremes within the world economic system.

The analysis has shown that in those years, Chile’s elite provided an ideal combination for benefiting the British. On the one hand, cheap labor settled on the Bolivia seacoast first and on Peruvian Tarapaca later. On the other, that labor was directed by Chilean decision-makers to exploit guano, nitrates and minerals, exporting most of them to Great Britain. In turn, they constituted a good market for British manufactures goods imported to the region. This configured a classic type of peripheral capitalism, when the Chilean bourgeoisie became an ally of British capitalists, performing political and economical tasks such as the administration of the territory and the management of cheap labor. Both tasks would guarantee the transfer of surplus to the core.

Finally, it can be stated that the lack of a solution of the Bolivian-Chilean dispute, in allowing Bolivia to recover a direct, useful and sovereign outlet to the Pacific Ocean, is the result of Chilean government efforts to maintain a subregional hegemony while benefiting from the Bolivian confinement as well as of the American diplomacy’s failure to properly address this problem. The US is partly responsible for the 1929 Tacna-Arica settlement that provided an incomplete solution to the dispute between Chile and Peru but in no way solved the Bolivian Maritime question.

The United States has played an important role in finding peaceful settlements in the American Continent. In many instances the participation of the US President, or of the Secretary of State has been a leading factor in finding solutions for pending problems thus enabling interested countries to reach a final solution through harmonious negotiations.

A lasting solution can only be based on Bolivia having a sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean, which in the long run will be in the interest of Chile, Peru, the United States and other nations of the hemisphere. Such a solution necessarily requires a favorable disposition and political will of the US government to participate in a search for such an endeavor.


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