One of the best things about living in Chile are the frequent bank holidays, or feriados, which commemorate a variety of historical and culturally important days. One of the most recent of these feriados was on the 21st May, which annually remembers the Battle of Iqueque.
The Battle of Iqueque was a naval battle fought during the War of the Pacific between Chile against Bolivia and Peru, as part of a series of border disputes between the three countries. The discovery of mineral rich land in the Atacama desert sandwiched between Chile and Bolivia heightened tensions, and eventually culminated in the naval war from 1879- 1883. The exact origins of the beginnings of the war are murky. Many Chileans maintain the belief that the Bolivians were the aggressors, but Bolivians are taught a very different story. Regardless of the origins, the War of the Pacific ended in a Chilean victory, with Chile annexing large amounts of land in the aptly named Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1904, including the entire Atacama region, and left Bolivia without access to the Pacific.
The Battle of Iquque, fought on the 21st May 1879 was actually a defeat for Chile, which is ironic considering its status as a day of great national pride in the country. The reason for this lies with the Chilean naval officer Aturo Prat, who in a classic case of heroic self- sacrifice, boarded the Peruvian ship the ‘Huascar’, in a doomed attempt to win the battle. The subsequent death of Prat along with a hundred other soldiers was considered a turning point in the war. Prat became entrenched in the public mind as a symbol of Chilean patriotism and bravery and encouraged many thousands of young Chileans to enroll in the war. This adoration of Prat has continued to this day, with many plaza’s and streets named after him, numerous statues, and has even earned him the coveted spot on the $10,000 Chilean peso note. Oh, and a national holiday to commemorate his death. Not a bad legacy.
But not everyone see’s the 21st of May as a day of celebration. Unsurprisingly, Bolivia and Peru have very different perceptions of the War. The effects the War of the Pacific has had on the diplomatic relations between Chile and its Northern neighbors still continues today. Ever since Chile annexed the Atacama region, blocking Bolivian access to the Pacific, tensions between the two nations have varied from strained to downright antagonistic. Although Chile grants Bolivia full, unrestricted access to the Pacific free from tariffs, the Bolivian government has repeatedly demanded the restoration of land connected to the Pacific – demands which Chile have repeatedly denied. As a result, the two countries have not had diplomatic relations for 60 years, and in March 2018, Bolivia took the dispute to the International Court of Justice in an attempt to re-gain sovereignty over their former land.
“For 139 years, Bolivia has suffered the historical injustice of becoming landlocked,” former president Eduardo Rodriguez Veltze told judges.
“Restoring Bolivia’s sovereign access to the sea would make a small difference to Chile, but it would transform the destiny of Bolivia.”
The economic ramifications of the disputed territory which Veltze refers to here are perhaps the most controversial aspect of the land issue. Whilst Chile’s economy has gone from strength to strength in the last twenty years earning its status as the largest economy in Latin America (and the only Latin American country to be included in the OECD list), the Bolivian economy is much smaller in comparison. This has been largely blamed on their status as a landlocked country, which helps to explain why this is still such a hotly contested topic.
There is much Anti- Chilean sentiment evident in Bolivia as a result of this centuries old dispute. Chilean shops in Bolivia are covered in graffiti saying: ‘Warning! Chileans own this shop.’ Recently during the International Court Case, Eva Monales, the current Bolivian President unveiled the world’s largest flag (124 miles), littered with Bolivian national symbols to canvass support for the campaign. He called it a “flag of maritime vindication”. Furthermore, every year on 23rd March, a naval parade is held in Bolivia. Thousands of Bolivians turn out to celebrate the ‘Day of the Sea’, carrying pictures of the ocean and with the Navy in full uniform- all despite their lack of a coastline. No doubt this propagandistic and highly emotional parade is an all too painful reminder of their loss of national pride.
The contrast between the heavily romaniticised holiday in Chile commemorating the heroic sacrifice of a noble naval officer, and the mournful ‘Day of the Sea’ in Bolivia shows the lasting impact of the Battle of the Pacific and the repercussions it has had for both countries. The celebrations in Santiago and throughout Chile on the Día de las Glorias Navales is a slight two fingers up to its Northern neighbour… and reinforces that Chile will not let go of its economically prosperous northern territories which symbolizes their historic naval victory, without a fight.