Evo and Ollanta meet in Puno

28 June 2015

The meeting on the Isla Esteves in Lake Titicaca between Presidents Ollanta Humala and Evo Morales, along with their respective cabinets, helped resuscitate the frayed relationship between Peru and Bolivia. In truth, bilateral relations have been at a low ebb since the election of Morales in Bolivia in 2005. While Bolivia signed up (with Venezuela, Cuba and Ecuador) to the ALBA grouping, Peru has kept close to the neo-liberal Pacific Alliance (Chile, Colombia and Mexico) that came together more recently. The relationship probably hit rock-bottom under the presidency in Peru of Alan García (2006-11).

Peru has held this sort of bilateral cabinet encounter previously with Ecuador and Colombia; it is the first time it has done so with Bolivia. While the agenda in Puno focused on issues of narrow concern to the two countries (such as what to do about the contamination of Lake Titicaca), it also had some wider ramifications. At least three come to mind.

First was Humala’s fulsome support to Bolivia’s aspiration for a territorial outlet to the Pacific (‘salida al mar’). This is the foreign policy priority for Morales. Under the 1929 treaty between Peru and Chile, which finally put to rest Peru’s claims to territories lost to Chile in the War of the Pacific (1879-83), Peru must give its assent to any territorial changes within those territories. The only feasible ‘salida al mar’ for Bolivia would be a territorial corridor immediately to the south of the existing border between Chile and Peru. In protest at Humala’s declaration, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet cancelled a meeting she was due to hold this week in Lima.

Second was the decision to take joint action on drug trafficking issues. The amount of cocaine transported out of Peru and through Bolivia to Brazil and Argentina has increased significantly over recent years. This is of concern both to Peru and Bolivia because of the power wielded by drug trafficking mafias in both countries. Whether or not closer collaboration will lead to a significant reduction in drug flows is, of course, questionable.

The third important issue was the route to be taken by the proposed railway link between Peruvian ports on the Pacific and those of Brazil on the Atlantic. The course of the railway, to be funded by China, has yet to be agreed. That discussed by Premier Li on his recent visit to Brazil and Peru appears to bypass Bolivia. The Bolivian government has pointed out that the distances would be much reduced if the railway passed through Bolivia; a railway link already exists for a substantial chunk of the proposed linkage (between Santos in Brazil and Santa Cruz in Bolivia).

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