Latin America

Peru’s support for Bolivian sea access claim creates tensions with Chile

Chilean President Bachelet cancels next week’s meeting with Peruvian leader Humala

Landlocked Bolivia’s ongoing battle with neighboring Chile to gain an outlet to the Pacific Ocean has grown into a regional conflict after Peruvian President Ollanta Humala gave his support to Bolivian President Evo Morales in the international legal dispute.

The surprise backing led Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to cancel her planned meeting next week with Humala in Paracas, Peru.

In a statement issued after talks with Morales, Humala offered his “solidarity” and “understanding in [...] the situation that is affecting Bolivia.”

Peruvian President Humala offered his “solidarity” and “understanding” to Bolivia’s Morales

“In this context, the two leaders reaffirmed the significance of the rules of international law and the principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter, in particular the rejection of threats or use of force, and the advocation of a peaceful settlement of disputes,” the statement read.

Humala and Morales met in Puno, Peru, on the shore of Lake Titicaca, on Tuesday for a bilateral summit to discuss common issues.

In 2013, Bolivia filed a complaint against Chile at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague after the Santiago government declined to hold talks about returning territory that the landlocked country had lost during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883).

The government in La Paz estimates that it lost 400 kilometers of coastline and 129,000 square kilometers of land after the 19th-century conflict.

At a hearing in May, lawyers for Chile argued that Bolivia must abide by the terms of the 1904 Treaty of Peace and Friendship that put an end to the war and remains in effect to this day. Under that agreement, Chile gave Bolivia perpetual rights for the transit of goods and people across its territory to the ocean, the lawyers said.

The ICJ is expected to hand down a ruling later this year.

“In the name of the Bolivian people I must express my great satisfaction to the Peruvian people and President Humala for his solidarity and support over the sea issue, which the Bolivian people claim,” Morales said.

A number of other Latin American leaders, including former Uruguayan President José Mujica, have also sided with Bolivia over the matter. 

The row over an issue that is fundamental to Chile’s sovereignty comes after Bachelet’s approval ratings have slipped considerably in the polls following a string of corruption and party financing scandals in recent months.

While the Chilean leader has been careful not to express her anger in public, she allowed Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz to speak on behalf of her government. “We are not clear about the [statement’s] wording because there is a mention, a reference about the use of force that we fail to understand. Then of course, however, we will have to assess what is the underlying meaning and the importance of international law.”

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The tension between Chile and Peru was made clearer when Bachelet called off her meeting with Humala.

The Chilean leader is not the only one facing problems at home. Humala has also come under fire over his wife’s personal expenses, a party financing scandal, and ongoing social protests over a government-back mining project in a pristine national park. His approval rating has dropped to 17 percent.

As for Morales, the Bolivian leader is not facing any controversies back home, but his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party lost badly in the last local elections.

Many of his opponents have accused him of using the Pacific outlet case to divert Bolivians’ attention from the real problems they face. But a final solution in this legal battle seems to be far off.