It’s hard to imagine a situation where a country’s president, a crowd of school children and war veterans, and a group of people dressed in zebra costumes would all be reverently listening to the recorded sound of a sea gull squawking. But that’s what I witnessed in La Paz.
If you spend any time in Bolivia, you’ll discover that Bolivia and Chile aren’t the most friendly of neighbors. The countries have not had diplomatic relations for more than twenty years and it is not unusual for Bolivian businesses to discriminate against Chileans. A Bolivian telephone company recently offered a deal with discounted international rates available for all countries except Chile. Much of this animosity dates back to the War of the Pacific when Chile occupied Bolivia’s only stretch of coastline. Bolivians weren’t exactly overjoyed about becoming a land-locked nation and have ever since been demanding the return of their coast.
March 23rd is observed as el Dia del Mar (The Day of the Sea) in Bolivia. On this day in 1879, a small force of Bolivians died defending the port of Calama from invading Chilean forces. Bolivia has lost territory in several wars (the country is now less than half the size it was when it declared independence in 1825), but the loss of sea hurts the most. Bolivia still maintains a navy and La Paz has a museum dedicated to Bolivia’s former coast.
The Bolivian President, Carlos Mesa
The Bolivian president made an appearance and said reclaiming Bolivia’s coast was a priority of his government. The crowd was very stirred up by all of these displays of patriotism. There were calls of “Long Live Bolivia. Death to Chile” and dummies wrapped in Chilean flags were dragged through the streets. Then the Chilean flag was burned. Perhaps not the best way to ensure better relations in the future.
At midday the crowd observed five minutes of silence while the sounds of the sea were played over loudspeakers. It was a strange experience watching thousands of people listening to the recorded sounds of seagulls squawking and a ship’s horn tooting.
Not everyone took the anniversary so seriously though. Standing near me on a ledge overlooking the crowd were a group of young men who were having a contest to see who could be the first to call out the color of the bras of girls who walked below them.
Veterans of the Chaco War
After the parades were finished and the day of remembrance had passed, there were other reminders of how much Bolivians want their sea back. When Bolivia played Chile in a soccer World Cup qualifying match, some of the crowd wore little plastic boats on their head to remind the Chilean players about their claim.
La Paz’s main post office also featured a ship made from plastic bottles. And to ensure future generations don’t forget about the grudge, Bolivian school children were involved in a project to create the longest letter in the world. Thousands of children’s letters were stapled together to create a letter more than 130km long. The letters were addressed to Kofi Annan, asking him and the United Nations to intervene to return Bolivia’s coastline.
It is unlikely Bolivia will reclaim its territory in the near future. Chile settled the region and after 125 years it would be difficult to change this. But that doesn’t stop Bolivians from hoping that one day they’ll be able to gaze out at a beach they can call their own.
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