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Chile and Bolivia appear before Hague court in Pacific outlet dispute

Bolivian government wants territory taken in 19th-century war returned

Tribunal sets deadlines for bench trial to hear national arguments

The Chilean ambassador, Felipe Bulnes, on Wednesday at the Hague.
The Chilean ambassador, Felipe Bulnes, on Wednesday at the Hague. AFP

For the first time, Chile and Bolivia have gone before an international judge as they begin to try to settle their more than a century-long dispute over the Bolivian government’s demand for an outlet to the Pacific Ocean.

Representatives from the two South American nations appeared before the International Court of Justice for a closed-door case conference held to set down guidelines for an upcoming trial before the Hague tribunal.

After fruitless attempts to settle the territorial dispute through diplomatic channels, the government of Bolivian President Evo Morales filed a lawsuit on April 24 against Chile.

The hearing, which lasted about an hour, was conducted to also set a timetable as to when the Chilean government should file its response to Bolivia’s complaint. Chile’s representative, Felipe Bulnes, who serves as his country’s ambassador to the United States, told CNN Chile that he didn’t think there were any “pending issues” with Bolivia.

The dispute began following the War of the Pacific, which took place from 1879 to 1883, between Chile, Peru and Bolivia, in which the Bolivians lost their coastline. In 1904, both Bolivia and Chile signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship that established the boundaries of each country – but both nations continued their disputes.

In 2011, Morales announced that he was prepared to go before the international forums to win back the land that was lost after the 19th-century conflict, and dialogue was suspended with the Chilean government of President Sebastián Piñera.

Since then, bilateral relations have been tense and both presidents have publicly engaged in a diplomatic war of words on the issue.

“It is humiliating when a Chilean brother tells us that he isn’t going to give us anything,” Morales said in an interview with Telesur earlier this week.

In a joint survey conducted by Chile’s Catholic University and the polling firm Adimark, 54 percent of Chileans said “they don’t owe anything” to Bolivia, while 28 percent believe that there should be an agreement to allow Bolivians to use their ports. Only 11 percent said that Bolivia should be given a strip of land.

The Chilean government is also awaiting a ruling from the International Court of Justice over a maritime dispute with Peru. That decision should come down around July 15 but the Chilean government says that the two cases are different and one should not affect the other. “The Bolivian lawsuit was filed with the court after all of the oral arguments in the Peru verses Chile case had been heard,” said Ximena Fuentes, a member of the Chilean legal team.