Bolivia and Chile’s Tunnel Vision

Bolivia and Chile’s Tunnel Vision

Written by Benjamin Dangl

Source: The Guardian Unlimited

In the war of the Pacific in 1879, a conflict in part over access to guano for fertiliser, Chile took away Bolivia‘s only access to the Pacific Ocean. More than a century later, demands from Bolivia for the recuperation of this land are now louder than ever.

The most recently proposed solution to the diplomatic crisis seems to be straight out of a science fiction novel: the construction of a 150km tunnel from Bolivia to an artificial island created by the excavated dirt.

The tunnel, proposed by three Chilean architects, would allow for regular vehicle transport and include a gas duct to export gas (Bolivia is home to extensive natural gas reserves).

Similar to many Bolivians’ demands for a fully nationalised gas industry and land reform, Bolivia’s call for access to the ocean is bound up in a widespread desire to recuperate looted riches and natural wealth. However, this most recent proposal falls significantly short of the full access due to Bolivia, and seems to be yet another sign that Chile is not taking Bolivia seriously in its demands.

Tito Hoz de Vila, a Bolivian senator and president of the government’s commission on foreign relations, said the tunnel idea was “a mockery and insult to the intelligence of the Bolivian people“.

Bolivian President Evo Morales has been a strong advocate for access to the ocean, and in recent years has been in negotiations regarding the issue with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

Mariano Fernández, the Chilean foreign minister, told reporters that he considered the tunnel plan “an avant-garde proposal that will be interesting to hear about. … It’s an important subject for Chile, very important for Bolivia and it’s not easy to find ways to solve all our problems from one day to the next.” Yet this time-consuming and expensive project is far from a solution, and more likely another way to delay action on the part of the Chileans.

David Choquehuanca, the Bolivian foreign minister, said that he “laughed a bit” when he heard of the proposed tunnel. The minister explained: “What’s important is that even imaginative people are speaking about sea access for Bolivia.” Choquehuanca said he would not comment further on the proposal until it is officially presented by his Chilean counterpart.

After a meeting between President Bachelet and Fidel Castro in Cuba last February, Castro wrote a column in which he criticised Chile for not respecting Bolivia’s demands for access to the sea. He wrote that the Chilean “oligarchy” has been denying Bolivia its ocean port, and that the land taken over by Chile contains the largest copper reserve in the world, providing the Chilean economy with millions of dollars each year. This is another reason Chile should simply give over the land that is indeed Bolivia’s.

Humberto Eliash, one of the Chilean architects proposing the tunnel, told the BBC: “Poets say that we must build a bridge between Bolivia and the Pacific that jumps over Chile. We wanted to see if it could work in reality.” But instead of going high above ground, Eliash and his colleagues are looking underground.

The tunnel would be one of the longest in the world and take approximately a decade to complete. “In the beginning, we thought the idea was a little crazy, but now we think it can really be viable,” Eliash said. “I see this as a possible dream, not madness.”

But such a plan does appear to verge on madness, especially when he proposes that the impoverished country of Bolivia should cover the tab. Taking a decade to complete would also allow politicians to simply push away responsibility for fully addressing this urgent issue.

Eliash explained that many diplomatic, trade and migration-related problems are currently being resolved with tunnels in various parts of the world, including the construction of a tunnel between China and Taiwan. The architect also cited the plans to connect Spain to Morocco through a tunnel.

A major challenge faced by such construction in Bolivia and Chile is financial. The architects suggest that Bolivia fund the costly project, using the profits generated by the sea port to help recover costs.

According to the proposal, part of the tunnel would pass under Peru, and later resurface in the Pacific in a territory owned by Chile, Bolivia and Peru. These factors could all create political problems with Peru. And recently, Peruvian-Bolivian relations have taken a turn for the worse.

Peru has made the deplorable decision of offering refuge to ex-ministers under former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. The ex-ministers are accused by the Bolivian government of being involved in the 2003 massacre of 67 people in the Gas war, a popular uprising which developed in part due to outrage over a plan to export Bolivian gas to the US through a Chilean – formerly Bolivian – port.

Morales told reporters that relations with Peru are now at “high risk” after what he said was a “provocation and an open aggression” by Peruvian President Alan Garcia. The trial against Sanchez de Lozada and his cohorts began on 18 May in Bolivia.

If Chile formally proposes the tunnel option, it is difficult to say what Morales’s response will be. In previous speeches, he has said he will never give up fighting for Bolivia’s access to the sea, and in early March promised that “if we recuperate Bolivia’s access to the sea, I promise I will dance the [traditional] Morenada dance at Carnaval.”

Yet when Morales made that promise he was talking about full access to the land and ports stolen by Chile in an unfair war over a century ago. He wasn’t talking about an incredibly costly, dangerous, time-consuming and, thanks to relations with Peru, diplomatically impossible tunnel.

It’s time for the Chilean government to start taking its Andean neighbour seriously in its demands for recuperation of the land and resources that are rightfully Bolivian and stop suggesting proposals that will only worsen diplomatic relations, not help them.