Bolivia misses the Sea

Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels.

In every country in South America, there is one specific topic with which you can interrupt the logorrhea of even the most verbose person. In Brazil, mentioning the numbers 7-1 is enough to make people cry. In Bolivia, you praise the beauty of the country, the diversity of nature from the Andes to the Amazon, before adding innocently: “Just sad that you don’t have the sea anymore.” Depending on his character, the Bolivian will break out in tears, in deep pondering or in torrents of hatred against Chile.

Even young Bolivians, who can’t possibly have any personal memory of losing the sea, talk about the War of the Pacific as if access to the Pacific had been wrested from their own hands. In that war, Chile fought against Bolivia and Peru. Chile won the war and gobbled up some nice pieces of land from both losers. Peru became smaller and Bolivia lost its Pacific coast.

Oh by the way, all of this happened already between 1879 and 1884.


With Lake Titicaca, Bolivia actually has far more beautiful waters than the broth that washes up dead fish and plastic waste on the shores of the continent’s other countries. But for the purposes of ex- and importing, a common sea with China would be more important. Bolivia does indeed suffer from its position as a landlocked country, the only one on both American continents (Paraguay can access the Atlantic via the Paraná River). Every export of minerals requires that treaties be negotiated with the neighbors, who use their position to suppress prices, divert part of the profits and make everything more complicated. Switzerland and Austria can be lucky that they don’t need to export anything, but that tourists and black money flock to them naturally.

The distance from the world’s seas weighs especially hard on Bolivia because the country lives from selling gas, ores and precious minerals to China. These goods are hard to transport by plane. The cocaine producers would prefer a coast with ports for submarines, too, which would be more comfortable than carrying the precious substance through zika- and malaria-infested jungles.

Visually, Bolivia does not suffer from the absence of the sea because the shore around Lake Titicaca is one of the most beautiful sceneries in South America. That it’s not attractive to stoned surfers isn’t necessarily negative. I even dare to establish the theory that Bolivia is more intellectual than most of the neighboring countries exactly because it doesn’t have the coast anymore. Without sandy beaches, Bolivians don’t constantly need to think about their appearance in swimsuits, leaving more time for literature and the arts. Brazil has boobs and bikinis, Bolivia has brains and books.

Nonetheless, every 23rd of March all of Bolivia finds itself in collective lamenting. On the Day of the Sea (Dia del Mar) the national flag is replaced by a maritime version. Replicas of sunk ships are being carried though the streets like an ostensorium.


To underline its claims, Bolivia maintains a navy. Not just any navy, but the largest naval forces of any landlocked country in the world. Because there is no sea, the 60 boats need to chug in circles on Lake Titicaca, from where nobody knows how they would reach the Pacific if there was ever a war again. Maybe they can be dismantled, transported by train and then put together again?


This arsenal may seem exaggerated, but it’s the reaction to a strategic mistake during the War of the Pacific: back then, Bolivia had no navy at all.

With having a big-ass navy come martial threats. This mural by Lake Titicaca depicts a Bolivian soldier ramming his bayonet into the neck of a Chilean soldier. The inscription says “What was once ours will be ours again”.


I wonder how Chilean tourists react to this.

But I don’t think there will be a war. So far, President Morales is content with delivering speeches along the line of “The whole world hears the legitimate cry of the Bolivian people against the injustice perpetrated by the imperialists”, and so on, because in Mr Morales’ worldview, anyone who doesn’t agree with him or do what he wants is imperialistic.

My Bolivian lawyer friends are quite happy that Bolivia wages judicial instead of naval battles. First, Bolivia filed a case with the League of Nations, and now with the International Court of Justice (the real one, not the one re-enacted by cute children). The obsession with the Pacific coast means that in Bolivia as a landlocked country, there are more master and doctoral theses about maritime law than in all other countries of South America combined.


To me, all of this looks as if the Bolivian government is trying to distract from real issues and wants to blame “imperialist Chileans” from the 19th century for the current lack of drinking water, infrastructure, housing and schooling. (My Hungarian readers know this concept from the tirades against Trianon, and the older German readers will remember when the Treaty of Versailles was blamed for any and all problems.) But the wish for access to the sea has indeed been ingrained in many Bolivians.

Books about the War of the Pacific are bestsellers. Particularly popular is the theory that the peace treaty was “unfair” and that the country was betrayed by Bolivian politicians; something like the Bolivian Dolchstoßlegende.


When Bolivians go on holiday in Chile, they take flags with them and walk through the sea which was once “theirs”. This ritual is the Bolivian equivalent to the pilgrimage to Mecca. Once in a lifetime, you need to do it.


If I have given you the impression that all of Bolivia is in an irredentist rage, that would be wrong. As I have been trying to convey over the past year, Bolivia is a highly likable and personable country with a sense of humor. When you talk about this subject a bit longer, most Bolivians will concede that it would be impractical to rescind all wars. “Otherwise, the Spanish could come and claim that South America used to be theirs.”

And don’t you just have to love a country where naval officers are being paraded around in a ship made of painted bed sheets?



About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Bolivia, Chile, History, Military, Peru, Politics, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Bolivia misses the Sea

  1. Pingback: Bolivien vermisst das Meer | Der reisende Reporter

  2. John Rice says:

    Thanks, Andreas.

    Living to learn, at least I now know what irredentist means.

    Also good to understand you retain your good old Germanic roots, where might apparently equals right, and Bolivia should just suck it up, get over their loss and live with it.


    No matter that governing treaties agreed to by all parties were then later abrogated by Chile. It happened too long ago to do anything about it now. Quit complaining, and despite being the victim of aggression/war by Chile, just suck it up and fuggetaboutit–do I read you properly, Andreas?

    By similar reasoning, after waging and losing two wars of aggression, isn’t it rather amazing that Germany even exists at all today?

    Makes me wonder also about Israel borders and where they should be–as originally proscribed after 1947, or after 1967, or after 2000, or after present-day annexing of others’ property? How about before 1947?

    When does it become ‘too long ago’ to do anything about correcting wrongs, Andreas? When does it become irredentist?

    This philosophical mind wants to know, from a ‘real’ philosopher. Curiously,,,locojhon

    • Ever since I learned the term “irredentism” when reading a book about Italian history, I have been eager to put it to use. It has been hard to find every-day conversations where you can insert such words.

      Nowhere in my article do I say that “might is right”. But if Bolivia wants access to the sea, it has two options: (1) wage a war, which – based on what I have seen of the Bolivian and Chilean military – it would probably lose again, (2) negotiate with Chile. Going around complaining and waving flags and blaming everything on Chile for another few centuries ain’t gonna change nothing. Maybe there is option (3), which is to wait for rising sea levels, but they would need to rise so much that most life would have become extinct under the required temperatures.

      I actually often and maybe not surprisingly use Germany as an example when discussing this issue in Bolivia. Not because of the wars of aggression (and we should say that Bolivia provoked the Pacific War much more than any of Germany’s neighboring countries ever provoked a war), but because Germany is now doing fine, to put it mildly, despite losing huge chunks of territory after both World War I and II. Germany accepted it (you would call it “suck it up”, I would call it a recognition of reality), moved on, opened diplomatic ties, trade and academic relations with former foes and everybody is happy-hunky-dory.
      The different ways of thinking about borders are reflected in you calling me “Germanic”, when I think of myself much more as a European. (After all, I haven’t lived in Germany for 7 years.) Within the EU, borders don’t matter and people can move, work, live, study, marry, retire anywhere. I would respectfully suggest that this is the better way than wailing for 130 years.

    • And regarding your question about Israel, I refer the interested reader to my many articles about Israel, although I still haven’t published most of the ones from my last trip there in March 2015.

  3. List of X says:

    Fascinating. I guess it’s then only a matter of time until Bolivia elects a charismatic authoritarian (possibly named Donaldo Trumpos) solely because of his promise to win Bolivia not only the land access to the Pacific Ocean, but to the Atlantic, Indian, and Arctic Oceans as well.

    • You are giving me a great idea!

      I am going to return to Bolivia and start sowing mistrust against the weak incumbent government which would be content with only one coast. Bolivians deserve better!

    • List of X says:

      Yes! Let’s make Bolivia great again!

  4. Bill says:

    ” I even dare to establish the theory that Bolivia is more intellectual than most of the neighboring countries exactly because it doesn’t have the coast anymore. Without sandy beaches, Bolivians don’t constantly need to think about their appearance in swimsuits, leaving more time for literature and the arts. Brazil has boobs and bikinis, Bolivia has brains and books.”

    At the risk of beating a dead horse (between us, anyway), I dare say you are generalizing from Bolivia’s more engaging Western third and inadvertently praising by association (or by ignoring?) Bolivia’s slavishly superficial Oriente whose principal contributions to Bolivian culture are beauty queens in bikinis and a carnaval that dutifully strives to be as Brazilian as possible. Santa Cruz has even built their “Cambódromo” amphitheater in an unabashed attempt to evoke Rio de Janeiro’s “Sambódromo.” Many cruceños would actually not mind being overlooked in a reference to Bolivia as they feel they have more in common with their bikini-clad neighbors in Brazil and would want to join them or become their own republic.

    This highlands-lowlands (or temperate-tropical) tension is not unique to Bolivia but rather common in Latin America. In Ecuador, the quiteños brand the coastal dwellers “monos” (monkeys). In Colombia, the tension is embodied by Andean Bogotá, the “American Athens” with its many universities, versus Caribbean Barranquilla with its beaches, bikinis, and — what else? — its hopping carnaval. In Costa Rica, the vallecentralinos of San José perceive their coastal countrymen similarly. In Mexico, those from the mountainous interior make fun of the “costeños” because of the way they talk. There are others, no doubt.

    Curiously, in all of these cases, the mountain dwellers speak a slower, more standard variant of Spanish and the lowlanders speak fast and don’t pronounce the S except at the beginning of words. The highlanders think the lowlanders are insipid party drones whose women are sluts, and the lowlanders think the highlanders are uptight and bookish with no personality. The Spanish tension of continental Madrid/Meseta Central versus Mediterranean Andalucía continues to play out in the New World.

    • Absolutely true regarding Santa Cruz in Bolivia. Each time I went there, I felt like in wannabe-Miami. Commercial, materialistic, superficial, unintellectual. You could see that most women had spent more than an hour in front of the mirror, but probably hadn’t read a book all year. At the Plaza, everyone was taking selfies instead of talking to each other.

      Thank you for all the other examples! In Ecuador, I also noticed the difference. In Peru less so, because the whole country doesn’t seem to be overly nerdy, to put it mildly.

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  9. Daniel Herold says:

    “In Brazil, mentioning the numbers 7-1 is enough to make people cry.”

    Not at all. Half Brazilians laughed their asses off at the defeat, and besides caring for football only when the national team plays – World Cup only -, half of us are more in tears about the political status of our country than football.

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  12. I was thinking about that the other day. I wonder if Austria misses theirs? Although I guess you could argue that it was a different country back when they still had a navy. Come to think of it, Austria has been involved in / indirectly caused some fairly major wars in the last 150 years!

    • Indeed, Austria hasn’t always been the cute and innocent country it is now.

      Your question could probably be better answered by Austrians, but I never had the impression that anyone in Austria misses the sea. Actually, I had the impression that most Austrians aren’t even consciously aware of that fact.

      I actually have two articles coming up about this in the next months:
      – One about the Military Museum in Vienna, which included a naval exhibition.
      – And one about the uprising of Austrian sailors at the end of World War I. I accidentally found out about this while I lived in Montenegro. As you know, I like cemeteries and so I went to visit the cemetery in Kotor, where I came across a memorial for four Austrian sailors, executed as the alleged leaders of the mutiny. I was intrigued and went to the archive in Kotor, where they had the complete files of the trials ensuing the mutiny. Because it was Austrian back then, everything was in German, and even more conveniently, everything was neatly typed up, not handwritten.

  13. Me encantó lo que escribiste, muy acertado. Siempre tendremos esa nostalgia del territorio que perdimos en las guerras pero Bolivia fue y es un país muy rico y diverso y ahora que ya no está Evo Morales como presidente definitivamente tenemos que estar mejor 🇧🇴❤️

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