A few days ago, a reporter called to ask me about what the Chilean mining story meant for Bolivian-Chilean bilateral relations. In the end, my quotes didn’t make it into the story that ran in The New York Times (no biggie, I understand how things get cut during the editorial process). But the issue of whether this would help improve bilateral relations between the two countries was intriguing.
I disagreed w/ the reporter’s basic premise that this event would serve as a catalyst for an improvement in sour relations. This despite the fact that Evo Morales was traveling to Chile to attend the final moments of the rescue of the miners—one of whom happened to be a Bolivian national. Why?
My reason is simple: Bolivia-Chilean relations have actually been improving for most of Evo’s presidency. I think one of his greatest foreign policy accomplishments has been his careful rapprochement w/ Chile. This is remarkable for two countries that have not had full diplomatic relations for a century because of a war fought in the 1870s that deprived Bolivia of a seacoast. In fact, it’s remarkable that under Evo, Bolivian relations have instead soured w/ Peru (Bolivia’s oldest regional ally, and which fought alongside Bolivia in the War of the Pacific). It’s even more remarkable if we note the bitter animosity between Evo and Alán García (ostensibly a social democratic leader of APRA) compared to the seemingly easy relationship between Evo & Sebastian Piñera (Chile’s first conservative president since the Pinochet era).
Only one other president has pursued such a “rational” relationship w/ Chile: Goni (former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada). Ironically, it was Goni’s willingness to negotiate an oil deal that would include Chile that helped stoke the populist backlash against him in September-October 2003 that led to his resignation. (I remember rumors that Chilean snipers were shooting protesters. They weren’t, of course.) Previous Bolivian heads of state—both on the left & the right, both civilian & military—stoked anti-Chilean sentiment. Even Goni’s successor, Carlos Mesa (a respected historian & intellectual) made Bolivia’s maritime demand a principal part of his administration. So why has Evo pursued friendly relations w/ Chile, first under Bachelet (a social democrat) but also under Piñera (a conservative w/ ties to Pinochet)? Why has Bolivia’s often mercurial president not extended his anti-American, anti-neoliberalism, and anti-conservative rhetoric to his Chilean neighbor?
I don’t pretend to have a complete answer. But I think there are two main reasons: First, Evo (unlike other presidents) doesn’t have to shore up his “street cred” by stoking anti-Chilean sentiment. Where Mesa had to “prove” his nationalism/populism by finding some issue to ride, Evo doesn’t need to. His personal biography insulates him from that need. Second, Evo realizes that Bolivia’s economic development depends significantly on good relations w/ his most economically successful neighbors: Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. Chile is one of the strongest economies in the region, and currently is a major trading partner. And, as Goni understood, a gas pipeline through Chile is easier both because of the shorter distance and because it doesn’t have to go through Brazil (itself an energy producer). Further, a pipeline through Chile means most of Bolivia’s gas would go to an open market, rather to one of two buyers (Brazil & Argentina).
It’s no surprise that Evo would go to the rescue. After all, he had also attended Piñera’s inauguration—a remarkable move in itself. Evo is fortunate. He doesn’t have to prove his populism in symbolic ways, so he’s free to pursue rational relations w/ a natural trade partner.
The mining crisis has helped. But it has helped a process of rapprochement ongoing for the past several years. What it did do, symbolically, was important. Mining is a significant part of the Bolivian political & national imaginary. Thinking of Chileans as “fellow miners” (rather than as “territorial usurpers”) will no doubt have significant effect on how Bolivians think of Chileans. And the herculean effort by the Chilean state to care for & rescue the trapped miners sends a powerful message of its own: This is how a state should care for its citizens. But also even for foreign nationals. There was no discussion in Chile about whether the Bolivian miner was a “legal alien” or not, or whether he should be rescued or treated any differently than the Chilean nationals. This must have had an impact. So, too, would seeing a Bolivian citizen celebrate the Chilean state.
But the effect will be more on the two country’s populations. The diplomatic relation between the two countries has already been improving. As it should have, long ago.