On March 23, the land-locked country remembers the loss of its ocean in Day of the Sea.
They march in parades and listening to recordings of seagulls and ship’s horns.
Few battles are remembered in such a strange way as the Bolivian loss of the Port of Calama to Chilean forces.
On Day of the Sea, thousands of people march through the streets of La Paz carrying model ships and pictures of the ocean.
The Bolivian navy, which has no sea on which to sail, turns out in full uniform.
Bolivia has the largest landlocked navy in the world with 6,000 members docked on Lake Titicaca.
For Day of the Sea, they sing Bolivia’s official naval hymn:
“The tricolor flag hoisted on the halyard
Anchors raised, full steam ahead
Heading west, steely lookouts sight
The sea that is Bolivia’s birthright.”
In 1879, Bolivia and Chile went to war over fertilizer.
For years, a company with ties to the Chilean government had been mining saltpeter on what was then Bolivia’s coast — a barren, isolated strip of desert bordering the sea.
When Bolivia tried to impose a new tax on the company, Chile sent its military to occupy the Bolivian port of Antofagasta.
They invaded on Valentine’s Day. Perhaps distracted by Carnival, the Bolivians underestimated the Chilean forces.
They lost the war — known as the War of the Pacific — and all of their coastline.
“Tell Your Grandmother To Surrender”
With just under a hundred soldiers, Commanders Eduardo Abaroa (Bolivian) and Ladislao Cabrera (Peruvian) faced over 500 Chilean soldiers at the Battle of Calama.
Abaroa was obstinately defending a small bridge over the Topáter River, when on the 23rd of March 1879 the Chileans ordered him to surrender.
His response was “Me, surrender? Tell your grandmother to surrender!”.
They chose not to and promptly shot him dead.
“Sovereign access” to the Pacific coast
In 1904 a three-way agreement was signed.
According to the treaty, Bolivia ceded its coastal territories to Chile.
Over 120 years later Bolivia continues to insist on revising the treaty and Chile continues to resist doing so.
Meanwhile, Bolivia has a star for El Litoral (The Shore) on its coat of arms, and it hosts a yearly pageant to choose a beauty queen for the former territory.
And, of course, they celebrate Day of the Sea every March 23.
The International Court of Justice at The Hague is currently considering Bolivia’s claim to sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean.
Bolivia might prevail in its legal case; Peru recently went to the I.C.J. and won back some maritime territory it lost to Chile in the War of the Pacific.
Bolivians hope that with the help of The Hague, their ocean will be returned to them.