Bolivia: Locked in Its Past

By Carlos Malamud*

The International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice in The Hague. / International Court of Justice / Wikimedia

The International Court of Justice (ICJ)’s rejection of Bolivia’s case against Chile over access to the Pacific Ocean shocked Bolivian public opinion – and was a significant blow to President Evo Morales.  The ICJ judgment, issued on October 1, countered the beliefs of practically every Bolivian, educated since childhood that the Chilean port of Antofagasta was theirs.  In the Bolivians’ calculus, the complaint they brought to The Hague was already a compromise: they didn’t demand new borders or sovereignty, but rather argued that Chile had an obligation to negotiate a settlement.

  • The ICJ’s decision – by a vote of 12 to three – that Chile had no obligation to negotiate underscored, once again, that the Morales government had stirred up unrealistic expectations. While Morales, who was in The Hague for the announcement, declared that “Bolivia will never give up,” his Chilean counterpart, Sebastián Piñera, lamented that the ICJ case “made us waste five years which could have been spent building a healthy relationship between the two countries.”  Nationalism permeated both sides’ positions, but the Chilean government showed greater restraint, even if demonstrators in Antofagasta did show certain triumphalism after the verdict was announced.
  • In terms of politics, Morales was more ambitious preceding the Court’s decision than Piñera. The Bolivian president’s lawsuit wasn’t just about territory; he had the clear political objective of keeping himself in power indefinitely.  Had he won the case in The Hague, his ability to remain in office would have been practically guaranteed – as a national hero and savior for having regained Bolivia’s access to the Pacific Ocean.

The Bolivian government’s rhetoric has hurt its image.  In the week before the verdict was announced, Morales’s vice president, Álvaro García Linera, in his well-established role as mobilizer and opportunist, spoke of “Chilean aggression” and predicted a “major defeat” for Chilean diplomacy at the ICJ.  In his customary paternalistic style, he called for full compliance with the Court’s decision (although he himself did not do so later).  After the decision, Morales acknowledged that the Court said Chile was not obligated to negotiate, but – instead of clearing the way for better relations in the future – renewed his call for negotiations.  The Chilean government is not about to talk about anything unless Bolivia demonstrates that it is serious.  One important move would be for Bolivia to rescind, unilaterally and immediately, the suspension of diplomatic relations with Chile in 1978.

Bolivia’s defeat has already had serious political consequences.  It is a serious blow to the re-election aspirations of Evo Morales in 2019, which he was pursuing despite its unconstitutionality as reinforced by the defeat of a constitutional amendment allowing a third consecutive term in a referendum on February 21, 2016.  It also prompted ex-President Carlos Mesa – a rival with good chances of success – to announce his candidacy in elections next year.  Morales has already lashed out at Mesa, linking him to the “Chilean oligarchy” and speaking of his “betrayal of the fatherland.”

  •  Beyond the ICJ judgment, Bolivia will eventually have to free itself of the isolation – mental as well as geographic – that prevents it from finding better ways of promoting its interests. Bolivia has means – in Peru and Chile toward the Pacific, and in Santa Cruz toward the Atlantic – with which to find solutions and reinforce its potential for growth.  But that entails lowering the flag of nationalism, something that is still unclear they’re prepared to do.

October 10, 2018

*Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid.  A version of this article was originally published in El Heraldo de México.