May 19, 2013
Saga in The Hague
Far from being an afternoon soap opera, the showdown in The Hague is actually a box-office hit in Chile and Peru. Both countries are following live and in real time the pleas presented by each in their border differences now before the World Court. The litigation was started by Lima in 2008 when it demanded a rectification of its territorial waters, a demand that would add 35,000 square kilometres now under Chilean jurisdiction. While Santiago argues that these limits were already defined by the treaties of 1952 and 1954, to which Ecuador was also a party, Lima claims that these were mere fisheries agreements which settle nothing.
Over and above the final verdict (expected in mid-2013), the one certainty is that The Hague soap opera, starring “Nationalism,” triggers important chapters of domestic politics in Chile and Peru alike, with at least one highly interested onlooker. Bolivia is also following this saga (along with a delegation of observers in The Hague) because upon this verdict hinges the future steps of La Paz in its eternal aspiration for a Pacific outlet.
As for aspirations, presidential elections have doubtless weighed heavily in the plot of this The Hague saga, together with media coverage and party politics in both Chile and Peru. And it seems will continue to do so, with an important chapter in the coming Chilean presidential campaign.
It was the government of the previous Peruvian president Alan García which went to the World Court early in 2008, thus betraying the idyll between the two Pacific countries which he had been harmonizing with the administration of his Chilean counterpart Michelle Bachelet. But this blow was not a simple reversion to the familiar litany of tension between Lima and Santiago but rather the consequence of and a reaction to the pressures of domestic Peruvian politics.
Elementary — early in 2007, Ollanta Humala (who had just been defeated the previous year by Alan García in the presidential runoff) had headed a march (nationalistic, of course, in line with his party) from Tacna to the so-called Concord line (latitude: 18 degrees, 21’ 08’’ south of the Equator) to the shore which Lima considers its southernmost frontier limit (which Chile places at a latitude of 18 degrees, 21’ 00’’ or barely 150 metres further to the north). This march by Humala (who has since become president) not only stood him in good stead in the opinion polls but ended up imposing this issue on García’s agenda (who in turn picked up several points in the polls).
A couple of months after this trek, in March, 2008, the Chilean RN (Renovación Nacional) centre-right presidential candidate Sebastián Piñera showed up in Lima in his first political foray abroad. Piñera proposed “compartmentalizing” the frontier controversy while moving full steam ahead with the commercial relationship between Chile and Peru. Although this has been the policy ever since Piñera took office in La Moneda government house in March, 2010, it stirred up a hornet’s nest at that time within the outgoing Concertación centre-left coalition — largely because his “pacifist” proposal left the latter’s tough line looking excessively radical.
The narrative — or soap opera — did not end there. Piñera decided to continue defending Chilean claims in The Hague by ratifying Alberto van Klaveren (the deputy foreign minister under Bachelet) as the head of the legal team. Although this reflected a tradition of state policies transcending party in Chile, there was no lack of voices interpreting this as a 100 percent political ploy on the part of Piñera. If the verdict goes against Chile, he is sure to remind the citizenry that the “defeat” originated in the Bachelet administration while he (Piñera) had simply inherited this botched cause. This ploy also neatly dovetails into the campaign calendar — the verdict will be issued in May or June of 2013 in the days and weeks preceding the June 30 primaries where Michelle Bachelet is currently the red-hot favourite to run for a second term.
It is thus hardly necessary to point out that The Hague issue helps to seal even further Bachelet’s mouth, which until now has been mute enough in the face of all the political jockeying. The same cannot be said for Piñera, who last weekend departed from the “continuity” script to refer to “errors in the defence of the Chilean case” (during the Bachelet era, of course). Even if this could be interpreted as covering his back against a possible “contagion” effect from The Hague’s verdict a fortnight ago (going against Colombia in its litigation with Nicaragua), even a result favouring Peru (forecast by the Chilean analyst Patricio Navia) would at least close the last of the disputes between neighbours. That is the good news.
This would also be the first time since the colonial times of the Captaincy-General of Chile and the Viceroyalty of Peru that Lima would be acquiring Chilean territory (maritime in this case). No doubt this would be capitalized by Ollanta Humala but also by Alan García (who, like so many other ex-leaders is now very much in demand on the lecture circuit) as the man who started this litigation, thus giving him a good platform from which to seek the presidency for a third time.
Every party has its pooper — in this case Bolivia. For the last year Evo Morales has been threatening to take Chile to the World Court seeking an outlet to the Pacific. For now he is just playing to domestic galleries but if Chile loses this case against Peru, The Hague’s verdict would hand over to Lima some of the territorial waters which La Paz is claiming from Santiago. And, as they say in Torre Tagle (Lima’s Foreign Ministry), Peruvians will never yield to Bolivians.
But if Chile prevails, the The Hague script already has its sequel — a spurned Bolivia will burst onto the scene.