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Is Bolivia One Step Closer To Becoming A Maritime Power?

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Bolivian President Evo Morales traveled to Peru yesterday to meet with his Peruvian counterpart President Ollanta Humala. Bolivia's access to the Port of Ilo and surrounding territory and the expansion of port facilities were presumably key issues to be discussed. In 1992 then Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori offered Bolivia access to this territory with a 99-year, potentially renewable lease. The understanding was that Bolivia would cover the cost of building the requisite infrastructure. Though the treaty was never ratified its status was of relatively little importance as La Paz lacked the funds to invest in the project. In recent years the Bolivian economy has improved to such a degree that it has the capital which it lacked in the past. For this reason the implementation of the agreement is a key geopolitical imperative for La Paz as it would functionally change Bolivia from a landlocked country to a maritime power.

Bolivia has been fairly successful in recent years. The country's economy grew an estimated 6.5% in 2013, the budget is balanced, inflation is under control, and debts are manageable. Though the country's success has been aided by the high price of commodities in recent years and thus is subject to market fluctuations (it is already estimated that 2014's growth will be lower than in 2013) the fact that La Paz has foreign reserves worth an estimated $14 Billion gives the country room to maneuver. Such a nest egg could help fund the expansions of Ilo's port. Bolivia is also attempting to reduce its dependency on primary commodities. In August 2013 Bolivia and the Netherlands signed a letter of intent in which they agreed to cooperate in developing Bolivia's substantial lithium deposits to manufacture batteries in Bolivian territory. Though a letter of intent is not a firm agreement, access to adequate port facilities would make Bolivian batteries more competitive thus the development of Ilo could help to transform this letter of intent into a legally binding document. The development of the port could also afford Bolivia the opportunity to set up Export Processing Zones and profit from the types of manufacturing that has helped countries, such as China, develop. Linking the port to the Interoceanic Highway (which connects Brazil to Peru) would also help Bolivia further expand its manufacturing industry and make the country's exports more competitive.

Access to the sea has long been a contentious issue in Bolivia. The 1879-84 War of the Pacific saw a victorious Chile seizing Bolivia's coastal territory. Bolivia has long sought to address this issue. In April 2013 Bolivia filed a case against Chile with the International Court of Justice. Despite Peru's success in reclaiming land from Chile last month we must note that the cases are different so Peru's victory is not a precedent which will see Bolivia reclaiming the territory that it lost during the war. Access to Ilo mitigates this issue. No matter what happens the combination of access to adequate port facilities, a well managed economy, developing infrastructure, positive growth, and valuable resources will go a long way towards restoring the investor confidence which Bolivia lost in 2006 when President Morales put the country's energy sector under state control. Many investors are pulling out of emerging markets for a variety of reasons such as tapering. Exiting emerging markets without taking the time to differentiate between them is short sighted and could stop investors from putting their money in a place where it could contribute to economic development and provide impressive returns. Bolivia may very well be one of these places.