Global Hit / Geo Answer

The World

Bolivia’s political forces are locked in a stalemate. President Evo Morales and the governors of resource- rich provinces can’t agree on how to run the country. But there’s one thing on which ALL Bolivians do agree. That’s the quest to regain the country’s coastline.

Bolivia lost access to the sea during a 19th-century conflict known as “The War of the Pacific.” Yet the country hasn’t given up hope to reverse the outcome. There’s even a song that keeps that hope alive. Ruxandra Guidi tells us about it, as part of our occasional series on unofficial anthems.

Colonel Eduardo Avaroa was Bolivia’s biggest hero during the War of the Pacific. The conflict pitted Bolivia against neighboring Chile from 1879 to 1883. At stake was control of Bolivia’s only coastal region. An area rich in natural resources on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

Avaroa was an engineer working in a silver mine there. And when war broke out he took part in Bolivia’s first offence against the Chilean invaders.

Legend has it that when Avaroa was asked to surrender, he replied “Surrender? Tell your grandmother to surrender instead!”

Avaroa died in the fighting. And Bolivia lost its coastal region and Bolivians haven’t forgotten the man or the cause. Every year Bolivians mark the anniversary of Avaroa’s death by singing this song.

“To the man who knew how to defend the nation,” say the lyrics.

Let’s give all of our love and respect to the man who knew how to die.”

Canto a Avaroa was written in the 1940’s by composer Luis Felipe Arce. It was and still is a hit with Bolivians of all ages. Rosario Mendieta says the Canto a Avaroa is as important as the national anthem, perhaps more.

Mendieta is a retired music teacher from Los Pinos, a middle-class neighborhood in La Paz. She says she remembers singing the tune every day before class in elementary school. She says Bolivians started singing the song about 50 years ago.

In the apartment building across the street from Rosario Mendieta’s, lives another old-timer who grew up hearing the Canto a Avaroa. But retired sociologist Gonzalo Sagarnaga says he’s not a big fan of the song.

SAGARNAGA: “I think the average Bolivian has — to a certain extent — a tendency to be a bit masochistic. Because he always remembers the dark and painful moments of our history. And that’s where we get our heroes. They are the product of bad circumstances, and they eventually became icons of this kind of wrong-headed patriotism.”

Wrong-headed or not — many Bolivians still feel emotional about their country’s lost access to the Pacific Ocean.

Almost 130 years after Avaloa’s death, relations with Chile continue to be strained.

Chile says Bolivia gave up the rights to its former coastal region when it signed a truce agreement and then a peace treaty in the years after the war.

But Bolivia keeps pressing.

Last year, during a visit to Chile, Bolivian President Evo Morales mentioned the issue. And to his surprise, the Chilean crowd reacted positively. He said — I would never have imagined to hear the people of Chile demanding the sea for Bolivia.

Later he referred to Chile’s “debt” to Bolivia — and the crowd chanted its approval. The calls for “A Sea for Bolivia!” seemed to fill President Morales with a sense of hope on that occasion.

But little has happened since then.

And Bolivians have little recourse for now — but to keep singing the Canto a Avaroa — their ode to the man who gave up his life in the failed effort to hold on to the country’s precious coastline.

For The World, I’m Ruxandra Guidi, La Paz, Bolivia.

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