Bolivia showdown with Chile over border incident

Some 2,000 Bolivians marched Feb. 20 through central La Paz to the Chilean consulate to demand the liberation of three Bolivian soldiers held since Jan. 25 after crossing the border into the neighboring country. At the consulate, protesters delivered an open letter addressed to Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, demanidng that he comply with his "historic obligation" to answer Bolivian demands for sea access. The march was led by an alliance of popular organizations, including Bolivia's campesino federation, CSUTCB.

Marches were also held in other cities and towns, with some local mayors issuing statements calling for Chile to return to Bolivia territory taken in the 1879 War of the Pacific. The two countries have had no formal diplomatic relations since 1962, except for a period of three years from 1975 to 1978. (People's Daily, China; El Diario, La Paz, via FM BoliviaOpinón, Cochabamba, Feb. 21; AP, Feb. 20 )
The Bolivian soldiers were arrested after crossing the Chilean border, one of them carrying a rifle. Chile says the men were detained after entering the country illegally, while Bolivia maintains they were tracking car smugglers as part of an army operation, and has threatened to appeal to international justice if they are not released.

In a Feb. 14 speech marking the 134th anniversary of the war in which his country lost access to the Pacific, President Evo Morales hailed the detained men as "great defenders of the sea." It was the first time in decades that a Bolivian leader noted the anniversary. Morales has long called Bolivia's loss of the port of Antofagasta an "open wound."

The post-war border was set by a treaty signed in 1904, which Morales now rejects as "imposed." In 2010, Morales signed a deal allowing Bolivia to build its own port on Peru's Pacific coast, but the demand for return of its lost coastline remains a focus of powerful national sentiment. Landlocked Bolivia maintains a small navy, and schoolchildren are taught that regaining access to the sea is a patriotic duty. (BBC News, Europa Press, Feb. 14)

See our last post on the Chile-Bolivia border dispute.