Chile, Peru Resolve Maritime, Not Land Border, Dispute

The countries resolve a maritime border dispute that has its origins in the nineteenth century.

Presidents Ollanta Humala of Peru and Michelle Bachelet of Chile meet in Santiago, March 11
Presidents Ollanta Humala of Peru and Michelle Bachelet of Chile meet in Santiago, March 11 (Presidencia Perú)

Late last month, an agreement was finally reached between Chile and Peru on a maritime border dispute that dated back to 1985. This followed a ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague which gave Peru over 70 percent of the disputed maritime territory. It is hoped that this will usher in a period of reconciliation and signal an end to border disputes in the region. As Peru’s president, Ollanta Humala, said following the ruling, “Peru has closed the book on the border issue.”

The longstanding rift dates back to the late nineteenth century when Bolivia and Peru on one side and Chile on the other fought the War of the Pacific. Bolivia had a coastline at the time that stretched from Antofagasta to Tocopilla, now both in Chile. As Chile was the economically stronger power and had invested heavily in southern Peru’s nitrate industry and Bolivia’s coastal mines, these two countries felt threatened and reacted through nationalizations and increased taxation.

After Bolivia failed to honor its obligations under an 1874 treaty that had seemed to stave off war, Chilean forces assumed control of the coastal areas and advanced on the Peruvian capital, Lima.

Peace was made with the 1883 Treaty of Ancón. What was formerly Bolivia’s coastline was finally confirmed as Chilean land in 1904. It was only 25 years later that the territorial issue with Peru, “the Question of the Pacific,” resulting from the Chilean invasion, was resolved. The former southern part of Peru, consisting of Iquique and Arica, was retained by Chile while the city of Tacna, north of Arica, was returned to Peru.

Tensions between the three countries continued to simmer throughout the twentieth century and incidents flared up on a number of occasions. In 1975, the regime of Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet offered Bolivia a territorial exchange, handing over former Peruvian territory, just north of Arica, as a pathway to the coast. General Juan Velasco, Peru’s own dictator, whose ideology lay at the other end of the political spectrum, saw this as a direct contravention of the Treaty of Ancón which declared that no former Peruvian territories would be passed on to other states. War was averted when the Peruvian leader fell ill and his successor, General Francisco Morales Bermúdez, spared the region another costly conflict.

In 2011, Peru agreed to a possible Chilean return of former Peruvian lands annexed in the War of the Pacific in exchange for facilitating a resolution of the maritime dispute.

Bolivia’s current leader, President Evo Morales, has not given up hope of one day recovering his country’s access to the sea. In the wake of the International Court of Justice’s ruling, Morales made his own appeal both to the court in the Netherlands and, in a rare request, to Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, to revive Pinochet’s offer.

Like Morales, Peru’s Humala, before the last election, did not appear content with the borders his country reluctantly accepted following the War of the Pacific a century or so ago. As recently as 2011, in a speech made in Tacna, Humala spoke of his desire to “Peruvianize” Arica. Privately, Peruvians said they believed Aricans would be hankering for Peruvian annexation by 2050.

Peru’s booming economy, its political decentralization to the frontier region and considerable investments in Tacna have led to substantial population growth in the region which now has almost 100,000 more residents than Arica.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1970s, it was Arica that was thriving, in stark contrast to Tacna. However, the Chilean port has been in decline. The commune of Arica has the second lowest income per capita in Chile. The apparent neglect of the area, coupled with concerted Peruvian attempts to underline Tacna’s relative affluence, has left the Arican community disillusioned.

Arica is a cosmopolitan city and a hub for tourism with the majority of its inhabitants hailing from the three old border states. The locals say they are used to the political and diplomatic tensions that are imposed from above.

Now that the maritime borders are settled, Humala seeks to use the solution to set an example for border dispute resolution. With newly improved Chilean-Peruvian relations, it is to be hoped that the Bolivian land border claim can also be brought to a close amicably.

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