Landlocked Bolivia Has a Navy?
Bolivia wants its coastline back
In April 2018, Flavio Gustavo Arce San Martin — a vice admiral in the Bolivian navy — inaugurated an institute in La Paz for studying how to best protect and administer Bolivia’s maritime interests. It’s a typical institutional foundation for any navy.
Except Bolivia has no coastline, because the country is landlocked.
From 1879 to 1883, Chile went to war with Bolivia and Peru in the War of the Pacific over the Mars-like Atacama Desert — the driest region on earth not on a pole. Chile won. In the aftermath, Bolivia lost direct access to the sea, and these territorial reversals have lingered on in the 135 years hence. The three countries still have territorial disputes.
Yet today, Bolivia still has a navy of some 4,800 personnel including 600 marines, although the actual fleet is comprised of a handful of U.S.-supplied river and lake patrol vessels, with the largest concentrated in Lake Titicaca, the continent’s largest lake one of the world’s highest.
Bolivian sailors train with the Argentinian navy — which is in no great shape, but at least operates at sea. The Bolivian marines also function as special operations units, and Bolivian patrol boats have joined United Nations peacekeeping missions such as in Haiti.
Bolivia has thousands of miles of remote, navigable rivers snaking through the countryside — hence a need for a sailing force for at least police duties.
But the sailing force is not just for practical matters but political ones, too.
Bolivia still covets its lost territory, sometimes romantically. In March, the navy hosted a painting competition and awarded one portrait showing a sailor — representing Bolivia — facing westward and touching hands with a beautiful woman symbolizing the ocean, her blue dress blending in with the waves.
During the inauguration of the naval institute, Vice Adm. San Martin noted that one of the institute’s tasks will be to “study … alternative exits to the Atlantic Ocean.” One way could be a winding path down the Paraguay River connecting to the Parana River, passing through Paraguay and then Brazil on its way to the sea. Bolivia also has an agreement with Peru allowing use of a port on the Pacific.
Chile won’t give Bolivia its old territory back anytime soon. So the navy exists in large part as a reminder that Bolivia intends to keep the claim alive.
Meanwhile, the navy has functioned as kind of economic development and jobs program. In 2015, the sailing branch opened a technical center to train sailors in repairing and painting cars. Back in the 1990s, the sailors were reportedly learning how to grow spinach and raise guinea pigs — a Bolivian delicacy.