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Bolivia - Foreign Relations

Bolivia sustains -- and blockades -- itself with myths such as the idea that the words national "sovereignty" and "dignity," repeated often enough, will protect Bolivia from alleged assaults from abroad and help ward off the evil spirits of globalization. These phrases are typically intoned when pressure from the wider world is overwhelming and Bolivia isn't sure what to do. In this sense, they are a kind of pretext for paralysis.

Bolivia traditionally has maintained normal diplomatic relations with all hemispheric states except Chile. Relations with Chile, strained since Bolivias defeat in the War of the Pacific (1879-83) and its loss of the coastal province of Atacama, were severed from 1962 to 1975 in a dispute over the use of the waters of the Lauca River. Relations were resumed in 1975, but broken again in 1978, over the inability of the two countries to reach an agreement that might have granted Bolivia sovereign access to the sea. Relations with Chile improved during the leftist Michelle Bachelet administration. They are maintained today below the ambassadorial level.

The development and disposition of Bolivia's natural gas has been a source of considerable controversy. Violent unrest and government crackdowns in late 2003 became known as the "Gas Wars" because they were precipitated by opposition to a plan to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) via Chile, with which Bolivia has had troubled relations since it lost its sovereign access to the sea during the nineteenth-century War of the Pacific.

The list of Bolivia's dreams is long, but must begin with the perennial demand that neighboring Chile return the seacoast it took in the 1879-1880 War of the Pacific. Even sophisticated Bolivians with a strong rational streak grow misty-eyed over the loss, invoking vague psychoanalytic concepts like the national sense of "amputation" when referring to the sea. A Minister of Economic Development alleged that the lack of ocean access cost Bolivian $600 million per year, a figure totally unsupported by the facts.

Bolivia's annual March 23 "Day of the Sea" celebrations, which commemorate the martyr Eduardo Abaroa's heroic failure to turn back a Chilean assault, feature parades with Bolivian Navy officers at the head and speechifying by political leaders about Bolivia's just cause for the sea and the ways they plan to get it back. Bolivia was born to independent life with a seacoast, with a free and sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean. The Organization of American States [OAS] in Resolution 426 of 1979 declared that it is a permanent hemispheric interest to find an equitable solution by which Bolivia can obtain a sovereign and useful access to the Pacific Ocean. Bolivia demands to Chile a right to its own sovereign and useful access to its Pacific Ocean.

It is doubtful these public demonstrations bring Bolivia closer to its goal. For one, the coast Bolivia lost in 1879, centered around the modern port city of Antofagasta, cuts deep into present-day Chile, and getting the same swath back now would involve slicing that country in two: an unlikely prospect. The geographic focus of Bolivia's more recent retrieval efforts is Arica, on the northern tip of Chile. The problem is that this area never belonged to Bolivia, but to Peru -- which complicates any possible negotiation with the addition into the mix, mandated by treaty, of that thorny third party. Bolivia's public posturing probably stands in the way of a pragmatic, real world solution -- such as the one suggested by former Chilean idea of strengthening the transportation, economic and political links between the two neighbors such that Bolivia, in the end, would acquire a kind of de facto (and wide-ranging) sea access. Bolivia's transcendental dream blocks this practical path not just to the coast, but also to the faster and greater economic integration and development the country so desperately needs.

Bolivia is a member of the UN and some of its specialized agencies and related programs, the Organization of American States (OAS), Andean Community (CAN), Non-Aligned Movement, International Parliamentary Union, Latin American Integration Association (ALADI), World Trade Organization (WTO), Rio Treaty, Rio Group, Amazon Pact, Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), the Community of Latin America and Caribbean States (CELAC), and an associate member of Mercosur. The UNASUR parliament will be located in Cochabamba, in the geographic center of Bolivia.

Almost any country (besides Chile) qualifies as inherently more "disinterested" than the U.S., which is seen primarily as an imperialist power bent on robbing Bolivia of its natural resources. Japan's Ambassador to Bolivia is constantly receiving kudos in the press for that country's (mostly tied) aid, and his benevolent European counterparts are not far behind. China's supposedly imminent wave of investment is also viewed through a strangely rose-hued lens, as somehow balanced, beneficent and having the better interests of ordinary Bolivians in mind (an idea vigorously contested by analysts familiar with the disciplined commercial focus of China and many Chinese.)

Venezuela's reportedly massive financial and other assistance, along with Cuban medical and educational programs, bask in a similar light -- as intending to benefit Bolivia (not President Hugo Chavez himself), as something other than "interference," and therefore as generally (with some exceptions) welcome. While any country can choose friends and pursue interests as it sees fit, judging by the evidence at hand, Bolivia may not have a clear idea of who its real friends, and what its real interests, are.

A common cry among opposition circles is that Hugo Chavez is pulling Evo's strings, particularly as Morales forcefully pushes forward to adopt a new constitution that would provide for indefinite reelection. Evo for his part does nothing to hide his admiration for Chavez; on the contrary he acts like a smitten school girl when he is with Chavez and constantly touts their personal/ideological bond. With checks and doctors, the Venezuelan and Cuban ambassadors are doing what they can to bolster Evo and push his change program. For example, it is estimated that by late 2007 Evo had distributed around $60-80 million in Venezuelan checks to municipalities since he came to office. That said, beyond the financial support and advisory role, there is little hard evidence to support the prospect of actual Venezuelan military intervention in Bolivia.

In the 1960s, relations with Cuba were broken following Fidel Castros rise to power, but resumed under the Paz Estenssoro administration in 1985. Under President Morales, relations between Bolivia and Cuba have improved considerably, and Cuba has sent doctors and teachers to Bolivia. Relations with Venezuela are close, with Venezuela providing funding until recently for some social programs.

There is a disconnect between the prominent role Cuba would like to play in Bolivia and the meager resources it commands. This requires the Cubans to play a secondary role to Venezuela and, in some cases like the literacy program, ask for Venezuelan help to implement their own programs. An ideological tension has emerged between Cuba and Venezuela for the heart of Morales' government. Due to their vastly superior resources, Venezuelans wield more influence with Evo's inner circle.





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