A hundred years after its construction, the Arica-La Paz railway remains a largely unused engineering feat. The 440 km line connecting the Pacific to the Andes Cordillera celebrates this century despite diplomatic tensions between Chile and Bolivia.
Last month, before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Bolivia filed a lawsuit against Chile to regain access to the Pacific Ocean, lost over 130 years ago. Chilean President Sebastian Piñera wanted to do part of the journey on the some 200 km rehabilitated on the Chilean side on Monday.
In 2005, this part had been rendered unusable by landslides caused by the rains and the bankruptcy of the private company managing the line. After 45 million dollars (43 million francs) of investments and two years of works the railroad is again in service but in a very partial way.
“He has no permanent activity. Since January we have only been doing test routes,” said historian Hermann Mondaca. “No steps have been taken for permanent transit, nothing is clear and nothing is working,” he said.
The functioning of the railway has become an additional bone of contention between Chile and Bolivia, which criticizes its neighbor for its lack of cooperation.
“La Paz-Arica trade (mainly soybeans, minerals and wood) is transported by truck,” said Guillermo Pou Mont, president of the Bolivian Chamber of Exporters. At the time of its splendor, the railway transported up to 330,000 tonnes of goods per year.
Tensions between Bolivia and Chile have also prevented the tourist operation of the line, which has not seen passengers for twenty years. “We could buy modern locomotives and serve tourism between the two countries,” said Mondaca. “A train like this could have enormous tourist value,” adds Sergio Gonzalez of the Chilean Arturo Prat University.
Miss to win
Bolivia, an Andean and Amazonian country, has been landlocked for more than 130 years after having lost 120,000 km2 of its territory, including a strip of 400 km of coastline, at the end of the lost Pacific War (1879-83) , with Peru, against Chile.
This lost opportunity has caused a considerable historical shortfall in Bolivia, today one of the poorest countries in South America.
Also “return to the sea” is a key theme in Bolivia, enshrined in the Constitution. It is a recurring theme in the government of President Evo Morales, the first Native American president in the country and one of the representatives of the Latin American radical left.