Diplomacy Underground: Tunnel Proposed to Grant Bolivia Access to Sea

The tunnel, proposed by three Chilean architects, would allow for regular vehicle transport and include a gas duct to export gas; Bolivia is home extensive natural gas reserves.

Chile‘s foreign minister Mariano Fernández told reporters that he considered the tunnel plan "an avant-garde proposal that will be interesting to hear about… It’s an important subject for Chile, very important for Bolivia and it’s not easy to find ways to solve all our problems from one day to the next…"

David Choquehuanca, the Bolivian foreign minister, said he will not comment on the proposal until it is officially presented by his Chilean counterpart. As President of Bolivia, Evo Morales has been a strong advocate for access to the sea, and in recent years has been in negotiations regarding the demand with Chilean President Michele Bachelet.

Similar to many Bolivians’ demands for a fully nationalized gas industry and land reform, Bolivia‘s call for access to the ocean is bound up in a widespread desire to recuperate looted riches and natural wealth.

After a meeting between President Bachelet and Fidel Castro in Cuba in February, Castro wrote a column in which he criticized Chile for not respecting Bolivia‘s demands for access to the sea. He wrote that the Chilean "oligarchy" has been denying Bolivia‘s access to the ocean, and that the land taken over by Chile contains the largest copper reserve in the world, providing the Chilean economy with millions of dollars each year.

Humberto Eliash, one of the Chilean architects proposing the tunnel, told the BBC, "The poets say that a bridge should be built between Bolivia and the Pacific that goes above Chile. We worked with this idea and began to see if it could have some kind of reality." But instead of going high above ground, Eliash and his counterparts are looking underground.

The architect explained that many diplomatic, trade and migration-related problems are being resolved with tunnels in various parts of the world, including the construction of a tunnel between China and Taiwan. The architect also cited the plans to connect Spain to Morocco through a tunnel.

Some of the challenges faced by such a tunnel in Bolivia and Chile are financial; Bolivia would supposedly fund the costly and time-consuming construction project. The architects say that Bolivia could finance and complete the project within 10 years, and that the profits generated by the sea access could help recover the costs.

Part of the tunnel would pass under Peru, and the proposed area where the tunnel would resurface in the Pacific is a territory owned by Chile, Bolivia and Peru. These factors could all create political problems with Peru. And recently, Peruvian-Bolivian relations have taken a turn for the worse.

Peru has offered refuge to ex-ministers under former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. The ex-ministers are accused by the Bolivian government of being involved in the 2003 massacre of over 60 people in the Gas War, a popular uprising which developed in part due to outrage over a plan to export Bolivian gas to the US through a Chilean – formerly Bolivian – port.

Morales told reporters that relations with Peru are now at "high risk" after what he said was a "provocation and an open aggression" by Peruvian President Alan Garcia. The Bolivian government has demanded that Peru hand over the ministers to be tried in Bolivia.

If Chile formally proposes the tunnel option – which is far from the full recuperation Bolivians have been demanding for decades – it is difficult to say what Morales’ response will be. In previous speeches, he has said he will never give up fighting for Bolivia‘s access to the sea, and in early March promised that "if we recuperate Bolivia‘s access to the sea, I promise I will dance the [traditional] Morenada dance at Carnaval…"

On May 14, Bolivian foreign minister Choquehuanca told Los Tiempos reporters that he “laughed a bit” when he heard of the proposed tunnel. The minister said, “What’s important is that even imaginative people are speaking about a sea access for Bolivia.”


Benjamin Dangl is the author of "The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia" (AK Press), and the editor of UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com. Photo from Tribunalatina.com