Catholic News Service
Pope Francis greets Bolivian President Evo Morales during an arrival ceremony at at El Alto International Airport in La Paz, Bolivia, July 8. The airport is more than 13,300 feet above sea level.
Catholic News Service
Pope Francis greets Bolivian President Evo Morales during an arrival ceremony at at El Alto International Airport in La Paz, Bolivia, July 8. The airport is more than 13,300 feet above sea level.

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Pope Francis had barely touched Bolivian soil when President Evo Morales brought up the touchiest topic in the landlocked country's foreign policy: access to the sea.

"You have arrived in a country mutilated by its lack of access to the sea," Morales said in his July 8 welcoming speech. "Welcome to the great fatherland, which has been denied access to the sea through an invasion."

He later presented the pope with a gift, the "Book of the Sea," which explains Bolivia's historic and ongoing arguments in its dispute with Chile to take back its coastline.

Pope Francis responded with improvised comments in a speech at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in La Paz.

"I'm thinking of the sea: Dialogue is indispensable," he said, "building bridges instead of building walls."

Morales' attempt at pulling the pope into Bolivia's centuries-old dispute with Chile over access to the Pacific Ocean comes as the country takes its case to the International Court of Justice.

Bolivia lost about 250 miles of coastline after an 1879 invasion by Chile, which now claims the arid, but mineral-rich, area as its northernmost region. Chile considers the case closed and settled by a 1904 treaty.

But Bolivia's desire to reclaim what was once its territory remains strong and forms part of the national psyche. It still has an active navy, which mostly patrols Lake Titicaca and navigable rivers rather than the high seas.

Analysts say the maritime claim offers rare unity in a divided country, along with an explanation for why the country suffers some of the worst poverty in the hemisphere. Its place in the public consciousness predates Morales' 2005 election.

"This is a myth of Bolivian poverty and a way to explain it," said Rafael Archondo, director of the Jesuit-run news service Agencia de Noticias Fides.

Archondo said some argue that Bolivia is poor because it has lost almost half its original territory over the centuries, and studies suggest landlocked countries are economically less prosperous.

Attendees at the July 9 papal Mass in Santa Cruz backed the president's push for action on the sea access issue.

"Bolivia was born with a sea, it is our dream to get it back," said engineering student Edson Arancibia.

"It's important for us," said university professor Dora Villaruel, though she opined of the president raising the issue with the pope, "It wasn't the right time."