The War of the Pacific

Also called the Saltpeter War, the 1879-84 war was one of the few major international conflicts in Latin America after independence from Spain. It had major consequences for Chile and its opponents, Bolivia and Peru.

Post-colonial borders were a constant issue between the new republics, and overlapping claims were the rule. The sovereignty of Bolivia over the area around Antofagasta and Calama and that of Peru over Arica were never in question, however. At the same time, Chilean entrepreneurs, supported in part by British financiers in Valparaíso, were the first to exploit the nitrate deposits. Contrary to border treaties, fiscally strapped Bolivia hit the Chilean companies with export taxes in February 1879. Chile retaliated by occupying Antofagasta, leading Bolivia to declare war. More than a month later, Chile declared war on Peru when it refused to remain neutral, linked as it was to Bolivia in a defensive pact. Neither side was particularly well equipped to go to war. With logistics hinging on dominance of the sea, the naval conflict initially took center stage. Capturing Peru's modern Huascar monitor late in the year allowed Chile to secure the supply lines, letting it more easily transfer troops to the north. Winning the battle of Tacna in May 1880, Chile forced Bolivia out of the war, and began to push Peru's troops back toward Arica, which it took 3 weeks later. Renewed failure to agree on re-drawn borders kept the war alive, and Chilean troops captured and looted Lima in early 1881. It took a long time to find an exit strategy, but one was finally found in 1883, and sealed with peace and border treaties years later.

Chile's victory left it with the Peruvian province of Tarapac√°, including Arica, and stripped Bolivia of key nitrate and copper deposits and blocked it from direct access to the Pacific Ocean, a painful loss for the Bolivian psyche that remains a cause of tension between South America's richest and poorest countries. More than 100 years after the war, the issue of sovereign access to the sea for Bolivia still festers and won't easily be solved. For Peru, the war also caused a national trauma, while Chile squandered the nitrate treasure it won on the battlefield. It's now trying not to repeat the same mistake with the giant copper deposits the Atacama Desert also holds.

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