SANTIAGO, Chile, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- A dispute between Chile and Bolivia over historic claims to a Pacific seaport threatens to escalate into a regional conflict, say defense analysts who fear the quarrel has become a rallying cry for radical leftist forces in Bolivia and other parts of South America.
Longstanding demands for sea access lost in a 19th century war with Chile, which left the Andean country landlocked, have become the banner of a populist movement that overthrew a pro-American government in Bolivia last fall. The xenophobia that led to weeks of bloody rioting in Bolivia's capital, La Paz, was sparked by opposition to government plans for shipping Bolivian natural gas to the United States through the Chilean port of Arica.
"This is the 21st crisis we've had with Bolivia, which has been demanding its lost port since the 1920s," says conservative Sen. Jorge Martinez Busch, ex-commander in chief of the Chilean navy. "But this time it's complicated by the new phenomenon of an indigenous peasant movement with the capacity for mass mobilization, which is using the issue to arouse nationalist hysteria and support from other parts of Latin America."
The retired admiral also says the Movement Toward Socialism, known as MAS and based among the majority Quechua and Aimara cultures of Bolivia's coca growing regions, has international terrorist connections and is forming armed militias.
MAS is alleged to harbor ties with Maoist Shining Path guerrillas in Peru and Colombia's National Liberation Army, according to U.S. intelligence reports. Authorities in La Paz confirm that 11 ELN members detained in Bolivia recently through warrants issued by international law enforcement agencies have been released due to "domestic pressures."
MAS leader Evo Morales, who is groomed to become Bolivia's next president, recently canceled a planned visit to Santiago after saying on television: "I don't rule out a war with Chile." He is blamed for fanning anti-Chilean sentiment, which is manifested almost daily with flag burnings, demonstrations and boycotts of Chilean products.
At a recent international forum sponsored by Fidel Castro in Havana, Morales even spoke of turning South America into "the new Vietnam."
While Bolivia's regular army is considered no match for Chile's armed forces, which are traditionally among the strongest in South America, it's feared that a revolutionary regime in La Paz could resort to terrorism and such tactics as launching mass marches or "walk-ins" on Chilean territory.
"We are considering all possibilities and the military have contingency plans in place," says Martinez Busch. The Bolivian government on its part is insisting that Chile demilitarise its frontier by removing minefields guarding the border.
Recent polls show that any territorial concessions to Bolivia would be opposed by 80 percent of Chileans who tend to look upon their neighbors as backward. One right-wing congressman even wonders out loud whether Bolivia's chronic instability and underdevelopment is due to a "genetic problem."
Mindful of his powerful conservative opposition and the military, Chile's center-left Socialist president Ricardo Lagos is in no mood to entertain demands from La Paz. When questioned about the dispute at a January summit of Latin American presidents in Monterrey, Mexico, he simply invoked a 1904 international treaty giving Chile sovereignty over territory conquered from Bolivia and Peru.
"Chile has no matter pending with Bolivia," he stated flatly, turning down requests from his Bolivian counterpart, Carlos Mesa, for a private meeting. Instead, Lagos talked for an hour with President George W. Bush to discuss the implementation of a recently approved bilateral free-trade agreement.
According to Santiago's daily El Mercurio, some foreign ministry officials privately complain that Chile wasted an opportunity to reach an understanding with Mesa, a political moderate who served as vice president to deposed President Sanchez de Lozada before switching his support to the opposition.
Mesa had reportedly annoyed Lagos by advancing his country's territorial claims through televised speeches and drumming up support from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and such regional heavyweights as Brazil's President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.
Chilean hardliners believe that Mesa's days in office are numbered and that he is too weak to negotiate any credible agreement. His proposed plans to hold a national referendum on gas exports and other key issues have fallen by the wayside, they point out.
But some diplomats fear that humiliating Mesa only plays into the hands of Evo Morales and his radical supporters.
"Chile risks becoming regionally isolated," says Armen Kouyumdjian, a Santiago analyst on Latin American affairs for the London Royal Institute of Strategic Studies. "Many Chileans proclaim that most of the region is plotting against them when it's their diplomacy that is failing."
Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, who is alleged to be bankrolling Morales, aggressively pushes Bolivia's ambitions as part of a new revolutionary order he envisions for the subcontinent.
After he expressed his "dream of bathing on a Bolivian beach" last November, Chile withdrew its ambassador from Caracas and Venezuela reciprocated. Chavez called a special press conference at the Monterrey summit to lambaste Chilean intransigence.
"Chile invaded a poor country in 1879 following the interests of British imperialism and a business oligarchy," he told journalists. The Venezuelan president even accused Lagos of backing a 2002 coup attempt against him.
"Chile is hated by the international left because the success of its free market economy disproves their argument that neo-liberalism is failing," says Martinez Busch. Asked if he is worried by reports of Venezuelan plans to acquire 50 advanced Russian MiG fighter jets, the senator replies, "I'm more concerned about Brazil re-equipping its Mirages."