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Landlocked Lament

It sounds like a contradiction in terms, and in many ways it is. But Bolivia - completely landlocked and at least 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean at its western-most point - is maintaining, and intensely proud of, its Fuerza Naval Boliviana, or Bolivian Naval Force.

The reason for this military anomaly goes back some 130 years, to the War of the Pacific. Following repeated squabbles over rights to mineral reserves and post-collonial border demarcations along the coast, a war between a Peruvian-Bolivian alliance and Chile broke out in 1879. After 5 years of fighting on land and at sea, Chile scored a convincing victory and acquired a large chunk of coastal territory at the expense of both of its opponents. With the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, Bolivia reluctantly acquiesced to the loss of its Pacific seaboard in 1904. Bolivia's navy is a rather modest venture. With its 5000 personnel and a relatively small number of patrol boats and auxiliary vessels - either marooned on Lake Titicaca, 3800 metres above sea-level, or sent out to patrol Bolivia's 5000 km of navigable rivers - the country's navy may not be much of a fighting force. But that doesn't mean that the sailors while away their days in idleness or lack essential maritime skills. Nor does the navy's confinement to their high-altitude training ground dampen the deep and fierce pride it inspires in most Bolivians.

Bolivian textbooks rarely fail to mention the country's 10th state, El Litoral ("The Coast"), when teaching the next generation about its past and national beauty contests always front a Miss Litoral. Bolivian presidents ensure that they are interviewed in front of an antique map of the country, showing it intact with a Pacific coast and every year, on 23 March, Bolivians commemorate the loss of access to the sea on the Dia del Mar ("Day of the Sea").

On this day, elaborate parades of sailors in starched white uniforms bearing all the symbols of a functioning navy, march in formation in central La Paz and complex naval manoeuvres are performed on Lake Titicaca. Wreaths are also laid at the foot of a statue of Eduardo Aboroa, the "Hero of Topater", Bolivia's the foremost military hero from the War of the Pacific.

Defeat in the war and the loss of territory still rankles and repeated efforts by Bolivia to revive the issue at regional meetings and diplomatic gatherings has historically fallen on deaf ears in Chile and Peru. Most recently, though, new administrations in all three countries have been edging closer to a compromise.

In October 2010 Peru's president Alan Garcia and Bolivia's president Evo Morales signed an accord which allows Bolivia to utilise a 5km strip of land south of Peru's port city of Ilo and 160km north of the Chilean border for trade and as a de facto naval base. Morales sounded a positive note when he said that "here we only lack maritime sovereignty."

Whether this arrangement will in any way calm the ardour with which Bolivians yearn for the sea remains to be seen.

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