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The former Bolivian coast.Every year on this date, Bolivians celebrate the Day of the Sea (el Día del Mar) in which they remember the loss of the department of Litoral to Chile in the War of the Pacific. The loss of this state meant that Bolivia lost its access to the sea and to this day remains, along with Paraguay, the two landlocked countries in South America.

Fought between 1879 and 1884, the war pitted Chile against the combined forces of Peru and Bolivia. Chile won the war by occupying Lima then annexing both Bolivia’s access to the sea as well as a portion of southern Peru. An account of the war can be found on Wikipedia.

March 23 is the date of the first battle of the war (although war was not formally declared until April 5, 1879). At the Battle of Topáter, a small group of Bolivian soldiers and civilians fought an advancing Chilean army group. Helplessly outnumbered and outgunned, most of the Bolivians withdrew. A small group of civilians, under the command of Eduardo Abaroa, held out to the bloody end. Aboaroa is known for his response to the demand that he surrender when surrounded: “¿Rendirme? ¡Que se rinda su abuela, carajo!” (“Surrender? Your grandmother should surrender, you bastard!”).

Bolivians attribute their poverty to the lack of access to the sea, and see regaining this access as a means to prosperity as well as a healing of national pride.

In 2000, I visited a road-building project in Noryungas Bolivia, called Proyecto O.S.C.A.R. (This project was started by a legendary friar in both the provinces of Bolivia and New York, a friar named “Tex” Dooling, OFM. In Bolivia, he is known as Miguel Dooling. In Holy Name Province, he is known as Dunstan Dooling. In both provinces, however, he is more familiarly known as simply “Tex” Dooling.) The project employs about 100 young men every year in the construction of roads into the wilderness. About 40 of these 100 are Franciscan “aspirants”, that is, men interested in becoming Franciscan friars. I was at the project during the month when the the young men do their military service. During the month, I heard over and over the cry by the assembled “soldiers”: “¡Viva Bolivia! ¡Hacía el mar! (“Long live, Bolivia! Onwards to the sea!”)

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