Hot Air in Bolivia Spells Trouble for Chile

By Christian Scheinpflug

Sometimes it’s baffling how apparent hot air blows through the halls of foreign affairs ministries In South America, the row between Bolivia and Chile is the most acute example.

Even more so, Bolivia’s hot air doesn’t just carry brazenness southwards, but also some confusion to Chile’s establishment — think last week’s visit of Bolivian Foreign Affairs minister Choquehuanca.

Indeed, Chile seemed to have been surprised that Bolivia came up with a case in the first place. Chile’s Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz, in a speech at the think tank Canada 2020, accused Bolivia of “abusing the international mechanisms for the resolution of controversies” and “seeking domestic political gains at the expense of a common future of…prosperity,” because Bolivia is “motivated by internal problems.” Chile, conversely, honours the 1904 treaty that according to Muñoz “established our borders in perpetuity.” And for Chile a deal is a deal is a deal.

President Bachelet, in her 2014 speech at the UN, affirmed as much, saying that “international law is clear and unambiguous” when it comes to state borders. Messing with such principles would spell doom for world order.

Reading through those speeches, but also listening to almost every response to any of Bolivia’s provocations, my disbelief sometimes turns into pity.

Both Mr. Muñoz and Ms. Bachelet as representatives of the foreign policy elite show how far this elite (the practitioners at least) argue beside the point. Chile may have made a deal in 1904, but did Bolivia, too? Even if so, what’s a deal worth in a liberal utopia, a world order in which wishful thinking about international institutions and law accord them the same capacity as in a domestic context? And, if respect for international law is the first principle of Chile’s foreign policy, why does Mr. Muñoz suggest Bolivia has no right to use the corresponding mechanisms when it feels treated unjust? Last, if Chile thinks it has a responsibility to cooperate, could it expect Bolivia , or any other country for that matter, unquestionably adhering to that principle too?

Only because the deal works for Chile , doesn’t mean it’ll work for Bolivia. Chile may have gotten the better part of it, but absent the threat of legal persecution prevalent in domestic context, that doesn’t mean anything.

Bolivian politics may always have been too messy to reach agreement about ratifying and implementing the treaty. But Chile’s moves in the spirit of victor in war were more incompetent; and that counts for any government — left, right, dictatorial, democratic. Without a viable military option on part of Bolivia it was to easy to rebuff any concerns. So, even if Chile’s representatives like law and principles, they love military superiority. Makes for cosy living.

As Pinochet’s crude liberal capitalism inundated every nook and cranny of Chilean society with economistic thinking, turning citizens into consumers and then diplomats into merchants, foreign-policy planning began to see Bolivia as just another customer, always seeking the cheapest bargain.

Such thinking, and the wish to be everyone’s friend after Pinochet embarrassing the country internationally, bolstered ever more far-reaching concessions, regarding the access to ports and the job market. At this point, however, there simply is no more room for further privilege.

Fitting cosily into the liberal world order, economistic liberalism then blinded the Chilean establishment so much that Bolivia’s nullifying of the 1904 treaty came as surprise. How could Bolivia not want this bargain? Cooperation, trade, consumerism?

I noticed, grappling with this answer many Chileans pursue the same arguments as their foreign minister. But this is wrong. Mr. Morales enjoyed extraordinary popularity long before the demand against Chile. He is widely perceived as good and legitimate leader of Bolivia; no need to deliver populist nationalism. The same goes for the economic record. The World Bank has Bolivia’s GDP skyrocketing under Mr. Morales’ government, peaking at 6.8% in 2013. The drops to 5.5% in 2014 and 4% last year are nothing unusual in the current low-growth climate and more than most countries (certainly Chile) can hope for anyway. The inflation indicator supports wealth creation as real; no need for a foreign bogeyman to distract from economic failure.

So what’s the problem?

Geopolitics and national identity. Had Chile not taken a narrow economistic stance, but also considered security concerns and war trauma, more fruitful relations may have resulted. This may have been unpopular with a proud Chilean population, but even if, in a democracy leaders must still do — albeit also justify — the right thing.

Doing this involves acknowledging that newly founded, post-colonialism Bolivia had no access to the sea. But Bolívar and others recognised that the country’s geography impedes troop movement across sovereign territory. Thus, at least one neighbour always had to give permission, which seriously limits strategy. A country’s national security and defence shouldn’t rest to such a degree on the goodwill of its neighbours, especially not in those times de-colonisation when all borders in America were in flux.

Another aspect is the national trauma Bolivia deals with. A deserting General, weak soldiers and ruthless Chilean troops, picked up in the filthiest corners of Santiago, caused the loss of life, land and pride. These losses required explanation; and a heroic one it must be. Hence, truth — Chilean pillaging — fused with myth — Chilean theft. — To create a pity image Bolivian’s have of their past. While the truth cannot be rectified anymore, the hot air of myth to be blown to The Hague via the international mechanisms Chile holds so dear.

Had Chile recognised geopolitics and culture, it could have offered security cooperation. Bilateral relations could also have been shaped in a more humble climate in recognition of historical suffering. If Germany and France could do it, so could Chile and Bolivia.

None of this is viable in the current climate. There is even an argument that neither Bolivian security nor its people’s grievances are Chile’s business. Well, now these are The Hague’s at a multi-million dollar cost for Chile, and frankly, I’m not sure this will pay off.

At stake is not a stretch of land but a shift in balance of power. If Bolivia gains further concessions, its geography changes in a way that facilitates troop movements. As result a militarily stronger Bolivia would emerge over time.

Neither is this about the nature of a treaty. It is about the story Bolivia tells itself to come to terms with national trauma. Part of this story is a proud and unified people led by Evo Morales, who will enter history with an outstanding record. He acquired the support of the powerful Santa Cruz bourgeoisie, which keeps quiet regarding the president’s socialist rhetoric but gets a healthy dose of neoliberalism in return. If Chile recognised that Bolivia’s demand is part of its internal development — not cheap politics — it could have talked to that elite in similar fashion as Mr. Morales talks to the Chilean left. This would have substantially weakened the winds that blew hot air to The Hague.

Chilean policy-makers, always playing the eager pupils in the liberal classroom, often pride their country for having learned from past mistakes. Regarding relations with Bolivia, the result is still pending.

Christian Scheinpflug Santiago Times

Christian Scheinpflug earned an Master’s degree from the University of Leicester. In his thesis he investigates the Anglo-Chilean alliance during the Falklands War. He lives in Santiago and works as translator, editor, and political analyst.

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Christian Scheinpflug
About Christian Scheinpflug 37 Articles

Christian is an analyst and editor based in Santiago de Chile. He is member of the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI) and writes about Latin American geopolitics and Chilean foreign policy. He also volunteers as Lead Editor and Director of the Board for E-International Relations and tweets under @ChrScheinpflug.

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