On the Chilean Navy’s Nationalistic/Xenohobic Naval Chants and Historical Context

This week, Chile’s navy found itself gaining unwanted attention after video emerged of Chilean sailors chanting “I will kill Argentines, I will shoot Bolivians, I will slit the throat of Peruvians.” Unsurprisingly, Argentina, Peru, and Bolivia all issued statements on the matter, with one Bolivian official calling for international condemnation of the statements. And while Chilean head of the navy Admiral Edmundo González has promised the “maximum sanctions” for those who are responsible, some Chilean veterans say such chants have been common for decades.

This latter claim is not surprising, for Chile’s history of antagonisms with its neighbors goes back to the first half of the 1800s. After independence, many of the new countries forged out of colonial Spanish America had a difficult time creating a strong sense of nation or a unified government. Bolivia, under the leadership of Andrés de Santa Cruz, was one exception, and his ability to keep the military in line (aided by the fact he himself had been an officer in the wars for independence, first for the Spanish and then for independence forces), develop infrastructure, and maintain relative economic stability stood out noticeably in contrast to neighboring Peru, where political upheaval and economic turmoil persisted into the 1830s. In that context, Peru turned to Santa Cruz, who helped to unify Peru and Bolivia into a confederation from 1836 to 1839. However, fearing a unified Peru and Bolivia would easily overpower Chile (and needing a cause to unify its own citizens under the banner of nationalism itself), Chile declared war on the confederation, in spite of Santa Cruz’s efforts to negotiate with Chile. Joined by dissident Peruvian forces who resented Bolivia’s role in the confederation (and who increasingly relied on racialized language that denigrated Santa Cruz, whose mother was an indigenous woman), Chile ultimately defeated the Confederation, which splintered apart.

Nor was that the end of the conflict between the two countries. Since independence, Peru’s southernmost border extended down towards the Atacama desert, and Bolivia’s borders included a small strip of land that extended through the desert, giving it access to a port and the Pacific Ocean (and making Paraguay the only landlocked country in South America after independence.) While the three countries were actually allies against Spain in the Chincha Islands War of 1864-1866, by the 1870s, such ties were fading in the face of competition over resources. The Atacama region was an area rich with nitrates, and by the 1870s, the global market for nitrates for fertilizer was booming. Although Chilean enterprises were heavily involved in the nitrates trade in the three southern-most provinces in Peru and in the Bolivian path to the Ocean, they were increasingly worried their economic interests were under attack, especially after Peru nationalized some mines and Bolivia taxed Chilean interests in its territory. Thus, in 1879, Chile went to war with Bolivia and Peru in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883).

The borders of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, on the eve of the War of the Pacific (1879-1883).

The borders of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, including Bolivia’s accesss to the Pacific on the eve of the War of the Pacific (1879-1883).

Ultimately, Chile won the war, greatly extending its borders north and taking territories from Peru and Bolivia. The outcome left Bolivia without access to the ocean, making it South America’s second (and only other) landlocked country.

A map of Bolivia's post-independence territorial losses. To the left, the territories that Bolivia and Peru lost to Chile in the War of the Pacific.

A map of Bolivia’s post-independence territorial losses. To the left, the territories that Bolivia and Peru lost to Chile in the War of the Pacific.

These losses set the stage for antagonisms and tensions between the three countries well into the 20th (and, as the recent video demonstrates, 21st) centuries. Bolivia and Chile continue to retain only consular ties (rather than full diplomatic ties). Reacquiring the path to the ocean is a constant political goal in Bolivia, just as the refusal to cede its (post-1883) territory is a constant Chilean objective. The nationalist antagonism between the countries is still visible today. When Beto Cuevas, singer of the popular Chilean rock group, suggested Bolivia should have its territory back, he received widespread backlash from Chileans. Artwork in both Bolivia and Peru highlight the ongoing resentment of Chilean actions from the War of the Pacific, 130 years after it ended. Thus, it’s not surprising that Chilean soldiers were caught claiming they would “shoot Bolivians” and “slit the throat” of Peruvians; such claims are part of nationalist antagonisms dating back well over 100 years.

A piece of public artwork commemorating Bolivia's losses in the War of the Pacific. The image features a statue pointing towards the Pacific Ocean and a mural of a Bolivian soldier bayoneting a Chilean soldier in the throat. The painting reads (in part), "What once was ours, will be ours again," and promises Chile that Bolivia will one day return to those lands.

A piece of public artwork commemorating Bolivia’s losses in the War of the Pacific. The image features a statue pointing towards the Pacific Ocean and a mural of a Bolivian soldier bayoneting a Chilean soldier in the throat. The painting reads (in part), “What once was ours, will be ours again,” and promises Chile that Bolivia will one day return to those lands.

A mural in the Peruvian town of Quequeña, commemorating Peruvian losses during the War of the Pacific. It reads, "In this town, [Chileans] executed six compatriots and history cannot be changed. Eternal glory to the heroes and martyrs of Quequeña!"

A mural in the Peruvian town of Quequeña, commemorating Peruvian losses during the War of the Pacific. It reads, “In this town, [Chileans] executed six compatriots and nobody can change history. Eternal glory to the heroes and martyrs of Quequeña!”

As for Argentina’s inclusion in the chant? While Chilean-Argentine tensions do not go back as far as they do with Peru and Bolivia, they are nonetheless present. Even while the military regimes of Argentina and Chile collaborated in Operation Condor, through which security apparatuses exchanged information and arrested, tortured, and murdered “subversives” in each other’s countries, the two countries also found themselves with increasingly strained diplomatic and military ties. The source of the tensions were a few islands at the southern-most tip of the continent, in the Tierra del Fuego. Argentina first claimed the islands (under Chilean control) in 1904. In 1971, the two countries agreed to let international arbitration settle the issue, under Queen Elisabeth II’s supervision. When the Queen announced the arbitration committee’s findings, which ruled in favor of Chile, in 1977, Argentina refused to accept the ruling (intensifying anti-England sentiment in Argentina), and planned an invasion of Chile. In December 1978, the military launched “Operation Sovereignty,” which sought to send ships to attack Chile and send troops across the border. Lacking any evidence to actually support such beliefs, Argentine officials were certain Chile would quickly surrender, with one military official even allegedly boasting that Chile would be easily pushed into the Pacific Ocean and Argentina would occupy Easter Island. Whether troops actually crossed the border remains unclear; just hours after launching Operation Sovereignty, Pope John Paul II personally intervened, sending an envoy, and Argentina withdrew its ships. Though it temporarily relented, Argentina did not give up hope that it could occupy the islands, and when it invaded the Malvinas Islands in 1982, it allegedly had plans to then occupy the islands in the Beagle channel, plans that did not come to fruition after the British forces routed the Argentines in the Malvinas/Falklands War. Indeed, Chile had not forgotten 1978, either; when Great Britain and Argentina went to war, Chile diplomatically supported the British.

The Tierra del Fuego, the southern-most tip of South America, where Argentina and Chile disputed the possession of a handful of islands.

The Tierra del Fuego, the southern-most tip of South America, where Argentina and Chile disputed the possession of a handful of islands.

Thus, while Argentina did not suffer the territorial losses that Bolivia and Peru had, there is a recent history of Chilean-Argentine tension over territorial issues and the nationalism that is often easily tied to such issues. As a result, while Chile’s navy has come under fire for the claims of what sailors would do to Bolivians, Peruvians, and Argentines, such declarations are unsurprising, as they tap into nationalist sentiment and regional antagonisms that go back well over a century.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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