Bolivia’s is landlocked. It is hemmed in from every side within the South American continent by Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, and Perú. There is no way for Bolivia to reach the sea without crossing through the territory of one of its neighbors. Yet, somewhat inexplicably, Bolivia has a robust Navy with upwards of 5,000 sailors.
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It’s not all that uncommon for a landlocked country to have a navy even though it sounds like a bad punchline to a stale joke. Generally these forces use smaller boats to patrol rivers or lakes, similar to how the United States assigns Coast Guard vessels to the Great Lakes or the Mississippi River. These forces can play a vital role in public safety, border patrol or smuggling abatement where roads may be uncommon or unavailable. What sets Bolivia apart, however is the oversized scale and aspirations of its naval forces.
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Bolivia hasn’t always been landlocked. It lost a coastline as a result of the 1879-1883 "War of the Pacific" and through ensuing treaties and negotiations. Bolivia found itself on the losing side of the conflict, and as a result lost sovereignty over large chunks of its former territory. This has been a sore spot and a thorn in their national pride ever since.
Bolivia is not a wealthy country and their is a general belief that prosperity might be just around the corner if only they could regain their seacoast. It is a nationalistic theme that remains a permanent fixture of its political system. Bolivia even holds an annual Dia Del Mar (Day of the Sea) where they ask Chile to return the coastline. Their Navy figures into this equation. It’s not an artifact or a holdover from the nineteenth century however, rather, it came into existence in 1963 both as a symbol of territorial aspirations and as an actual patrolling force.
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The Navy operates primarily out of their base at Copacabana on Lake Titicaca (interestingly this is situated on a peninsula separated from the rest of Bolivia and can be approached over land only through Perú). It’s a worthy body of water that would justify a patrolling force regardless — the largest lake in South America by volume — but it’s not the ocean.
No, Bolivia’s aspirations go much further. Interestingly the home port of one of their ships is Rosario, Argentina, nearly 200 miles upriver from Buenos Aires. Additionally Bolivia participates in international naval exercises, with their sailors training side-by-side with those of more traditional seafaring nations. They await the day they can return to open water, and feel they need to be ready for the eventual return of their coastline.
The Bolivian Navy gets a surprising amount of mainstream press attention both in the UK and the USA, probably because the thought of such a thing sounds like such a contradiction. Here are a few fairly recent articles on the subject if you’d like go into more depth:
- Bolivia’s landlocked sailors pine for the high seas
- Bolivia Reaches for a Slice of the Coast that Got Away
- Floods give Bolivia’s inland navy a fleeting sea
- Bolivia’s Landlocked Navy Dreams of Leaving Lake Titicaca