No war breaks out over guano, of which little remains. It is saltpeter that throws the Chilean army into the conquest of the deserts, against the allied forces of Peru and Bolivia. Eduardo Galeano (1987, 218)
The War of the Pacific was a war over resources, although territorial rivalry was its most immediate cause. The conflict also involved geopolitics, economic rivalry, greed, corruption, and personal ambitions. Indeed, the basic ingredient of the war—rivalry for power and economic dominance—first came into play with Bolivian independence. Because of this endemic regional rivalry, some historians have argued that the War of the Pacific was inevitable.
In the 1870s, the conflict of national interests and increasing disparities in economic and political power among the three neighboring South American countries of Bolivia, Chile, and Peru reached a critical climax. The new power distribution greatly favored Chile, and Chilean statesmen seized this opportunity to consolidate and further expand their nation’s influence and control along the Pacific coast.
Since its founding as a sovereign nation, Bolivia’s survival had been tentative. At first, Lima and Buenos Aires considered Bolivia’s very existence suspect. Bolivia, after all, had been capriciously carved out of the colonial audiencias that they had jealously controlled. Once established, Bolivia was troublesome and unstable. The new country seemed unable to rule itself, much less populate and effectively administer its vast and dispersed territory. Bolivia’s rich natural resources were the constant envy of its more powerful and aggressive neighbors in the Southern Cone. Debilitated by corruption and instability, Bolivia dismally failed to preserve its territory and resources when challenged by Chile.
In great part Bolivia’s geopolitics and unique national conditions facilitated this disastrous war and the loss of its Pacific seacoast. As late as the 1880s, the altiplano region remained the geopolitical center of the shaky new republic. The majority of the country’s territory, however, was neglected and isolated from the highland by formidable natural barriers—impassable and hostile mountain ranges, rivers, deserts, and jungles. Bolivians in these frontier regions were forced to fend for themselves. Moreover, Bolivia’s population was largely indigenous with only a thin upper crust of Spaniards and other Europeans. Neither social group had the necessary mobility or motivation to migrate to the less hospitable parts of the country.
These factors had a devastating impact on settlement of Bolivia’s Atacama province. Even after the discovery of guano and nitrate deposits in the Atacama Desert, which stretched from Peru in the north to Chile in the south, the Bolivian government was unable to incorporate and fortify this distant, sparsely populated coastal province. The unexpected bonanza in natural fertilizers brought a sudden influx of new settlers, prospectors, and entrepreneurs to the region; however, this population increase only compounded Bolivia’s problems since Bolivian citizens were now outnumbered 10 to one by Chileans and other immigrants, including thousands of Chinese coolies brought here by Peru and Chile as cheap, captive laborers.
With other nations and foreign firms competing for the profits from the bird droppings and saltpeter, Bolivia’s share of the bonanza steadily shrank. The remainder was squandered by the corrupt caudillos on profligate living and ill-advised foreign concessions and loans. Bolivian entrepreneurs’ resources were depleted or invested elsewhere, primarily in the highland silver mines. As a last resort, with the economy stagnant and the country heavily indebted, Bolivian governments permitted and encouraged British and Chilean capital to exploit the desert windfall on their behalf. In short, Bolivia’s inherent political and economic weaknesses directly contributed to the outbreak of the war.
Chile, on the other hand, stood in a position of relative strength. Unlike Peru or Bolivia, Chile’s exceptional political stability and economic growth since 1830 had helped make it the dominant power in the region. Chileans held regular elections for civilian governments and enticed foreign investors by the credibility of their sound political and financial systems. Chile’s cities were modern, and its people were mostly European immigrants, rather than Indians. Its economy was more diversified, and its territory was more integrated and cohesive. Chile had what both Peru and Bolivia lacked. Indeed, one Chilean president boasted in 1858 that the country had “the honor to have proved to the world that the Spanish American people can govern themselves by their own unaided efforts and can continue to prosper” (Bader 1967, 25).
This is not to say that all was well in Chile at the time. The country had its share of shortcomings and crises, and it was precisely a national crisis—the depression of 1878—that pushed Chile closer to war. By the mid-1870s, Chilean progress had come to a halt. Chilean exports had declined and the foreign debt had skyrocketed at the same time that droughts and diseases ravaged the country. Upward of 50,000 Chileans—mostly rotos, or landless peasant farmers of European descent—were forced to emigrate. Many would slave in the grueling guano and nitrate operations in Bolivia’s Atacama Desert.
Chile’s economic decline was an incentive to resolve the territorial dispute with Bolivia aggressively. Chile saw in the great riches of the coastal desert an immediate solution to the 1878 financial crisis and reliable long-term financing for the national debt and future commercial and territorial expansion. Decades later, Chile’s foreign minister, Abraham Köning, dissected Chilean motivations succinctly: “The area is rich and worth many millions” (Siles Guevara 1960, 68). Indeed, in the 20 years from 1880 to the end of the century, the gross value of the nitrate exports from the conquered regions reached nearly 3 billion pesos. On the eve of the war, corruption in Peru and Bolivia and the economic crisis in Chile had diminished the military preparedness of all three future belligerents. Chile, nevertheless, was relatively more prepared. For several decades Chile had been locked in a fierce military and commercial rivalry with Peru and had competed fiercely over control of the western seacoast. Now, Peru, like Bolivia, was virtually bankrupt, in political chaos on the eve of the war, and outclassed militarily by Chile. War decided this rivalry and assured Chilean hegemony on the Pacific coast.