Image: Bolivian sailor
Dado Galdieri  /  AP
A Bolivian sailor uses an inflatable boat to help people reach their flooded homes in the northwest city of Trinidad, Bolivia, on March 5.
updated 3/25/2007 4:16:36 PM ET 2007-03-25T20:16:36

The landlocked Bolivian navy finally found its own sea to sail.

A murky inland ocean created by months of catastrophic flooding in Bolivia’s lowland east gave the navy’s fleet of riverboats a fresh sense of purpose when their crews stepped in to rescue stranded villagers and round up livestock drowning in millions of acres of inundated cow pasture.

But as Bolivians commemorate the loss of their Pacific coast in their annual Day of the Sea on Friday, the floodwaters have finally begun to trickle away, leaving freshwater sailors stuck on their old dream of regaining the seashore Chile seized in 1879.

“Just imagine if we had a sea,” said Sgt. Albaro Machaca, leaning on the railing on a riverboat parked at Puerto Varador on the swollen Mamore River in Bolivia’s still-swampy eastern lowlands. “We’d have had ships where we could have really learned to sail, to really become sailors. Just imagine the ships ...”

A source of international amusement but ardent native pride, the Bolivia Navy has neither a seaport nor an oceangoing vessel to call its own. Instead, the force patrols broad Lake Titicaca and Bolivia’s 5,000 miles of navigable rivers, chasing drug smugglers and delivering fuel and supplies to remote towns.

‘Carved into the Bolivian memory’
Beyond such practical duties, the 5,000-member force also serves as a living witness to Bolivia’s “mutilated soul,” as Vice President Alvaro Garcia described the wound of the lost coast during a Thursday memorial ceremony in La Paz.

Bolivia was nearly twice its present size when it gained independence from Spain in 1825, but corrupt leaders and misguided wars hacked its territory away in great chunks. Chile’s capture of the coast came during the War of the Pacific, fought over valuable saltpeter and guano deposits in the coastal deserts.

“Bolivia has lost a lot of territory,” Bolivian historian Fernando Cajias told The Associated Press. “But despite that it is still an Amazonian country, an Andean country, a country of the Chaco,” the vast plain it shares with Paraguay and Argentina.

“With Chile it lost a certain quality, the coastal, maritime quality, and that’s why it’s so carved into the Bolivian memory,” Cajias said.

‘We’re making progress’
The wide economic disparity between Chile and Bolivia has twisted the knife even deeper. Copper deposits that once belonged to Bolivia — known but largely unexploited in the 1800s — became enormously valuable in the next century, forming the foundation in Chile for one of South America’s most stable and prosperous economies.

Bolivia still has extensive natural resources including gas, tin and silver, but without a coast to export from it ranks as the poorest nation on the continent.

President Evo Morales has made a priority of recovering sovereign access to the sea, and unlike her predecessors, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has agreed to discuss the issue. Already, the pair have held three notably friendly meetings.

But she hasn’t wavered from Chile’s position that all territorial questions were settled in a 1904 peace treaty, and while Bolivian commerce may travel through Chilean ports, a sovereign seaport is out of the question.

Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca told the AP there’s “no deadline” for its maritime demands, and that for now, warmer ties between the long estranged countries is enough.

“We’re making progress,” Choquehuanca said. “Chile never wanted to even know that we had a navy, and now they’ve invited our navy to Chile for an exchange.”

‘Like a big blue carpet’
Indeed, the Bolivian navy exists today in part to shame its neighbor into making amends. Long a division of the army, the force was reborn as a separate entity in 1963 with a distinctly symbolic charge: “To cultivate a maritime conscience in the Bolivian people, that’s our mission,” said Commander Raul Viscarra, head of the navy’s Amazonian section. “To show the entire world that Bolivia has a navy, and that one day we must return to the sea.”

Like presidents before him, Morales gives press conferences in front of an antique map of Bolivia with its coast still intact. Sailors in gleaming dress whites guard him at many public events. School materials listing Bolivia’s nine states never fail to mention the tenth that got away, always including the flag and state seal for El Litoral (“The Coast”). And the winner of the annual Miss Litoral pageant appeared in newspapers this week smiling in a pink bikini.

The few Bolivians lucky enough to glimpse the ocean never seem to lose that first blush of childlike wonder.

“Man, it’s beautiful,” said La Paz taxi driver Rosso Cano, 28, who saw the ocean for the first time only two years ago during a trip to Peru. “So blue. It looks like a ... like a big carpet, like a big blue carpet you could walk right on top of.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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