Hot Air in Bolivia Blows Trouble to Chile

By Christian Scheinpflug

This post appeared elsewhere in a slightly different version on August 2, 2016.

Hot air often blows straight through the halls of foreign affairs ministries. In South America, the row between Bolivia and Chile is the most immediate example. Hot air coming in from Bolivia turns up the heat on Chile’s establishment, as could be seen during last week’s visit of Bolivian foreign affairs minister Choquehuanca.

Chile seemed to have been surprised that Bolivia really pushed through with its claim. 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.” 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. And a deal is a deal is a deal.

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, accepts that principle too?

Only because something works for Chile , doesn’t mean it’ll work for Bolivia. Chile may have got the better part of it, but absent the threat of legal consequences as in the domestic context, that doesn’t mean much. Bolivian politics may 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 at least as incompetent. Without a credible military threat from Bolivia, Chile could easily dismiss any concerns.

As Pinochet’s crude liberal capitalism inundated every nook and cranny of Chilean society with economistic thinking, turning citizens into consumers and diplomats into merchants, foreign-policy planning began to see Bolivia as just another customer. Such thinking, and the wish to be everyone’s friend after Pinochet embarrassing the country internationally, also fostered far-reaching concessions, like Bolivia’s favourable access to Chile’s ports and job market. Now, however, no more room for such concessions exists.

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?

Many Chileans apply the same thinking as their foreign minister about internal problems driving Bolivia’s demand. But this is wrong. Mr Morales enjoyed extraordinary popularity long before the demand against Chile. He is widely perceived as legitimate leader and has no need to deliver populist nationalism. The same goes for the economic record. The World Bank has Bolivia’s GDP skyrocketing, 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 can hope for anyway. The inflation indicator shows wealth creation is real — no need for a foreign bogeyman.

The problem then boils down to 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 so, in a democracy leaders must still do the right thing.

Doing this involves acknowledging that post-colonialist Bolivia had no access to the sea. But nations founders recognised that the country’s geography impedes troop movement across sovereign territory. Thus, at least one neighbour always had to give permission to troop movements, which ultimately limits sovereignty, as the country’s national security rested on the goodwill of its neighbours. This was even more unacceptable Latin America’s early years, when de-colonisation put borders in flux.

Another aspect is the national trauma Bolivia has dealt with from the end of the Pacific War. A deserting General, but also weak soldiers and a ruthless enemy that recruited its troops in Santiago’s filthiest corners, caused the loss of life, land and pride. These losses require an explanation — and a heroic one, no less. Hence, a national myth arises and is 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. But this train has left the station. There is even an argument that neither Bolivian security nor its grievances are Chile’s business. But now they are, costing Chile millions of dollars.

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 the remaking of its armed forces, and militarily stronger Bolivia would emerge over time. But Bolivia’s demand is also about the story it 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 about 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 Bolivia’s stance.

Chilean policy-makers, always the eager pupils in the liberal classroom, often pride their country for having learned from past mistakes. But regarding relations with Bolivia, the results aren’t yet in.

Christian is a columnist at Chile Today. He’s also director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI) and co-editor of E-IR’s book on International Relations Theory. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrScheinpflug

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