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Bolivia demands for access to the ocean

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LA PAZ, Bolivia, Mar 24: Less than 130 years ago, Bolivia had a stretch of Pacific coastline. Today, the landlocked, poor South American country is thinking more than ever about getting it back.

Every March 23, Bolivians reflect upon the loss of its mineral-rich coastal territory to Chile in a 19th-century war, the source of a bitter grudge against the neighboring country.

But the mood was unusually optimistic in commemorative events yesterday as thousands gathered in a downtown square to press their demand for access to the ocean at a time of improved relations with their wealthier neighbor.

''We feel that perhaps, after so many years, we'll get something back we've wanted for so long,'' said Rosaria de Muzio, 58, among the flag-waving crowds watching the scores of baton-twirling, drumming military bands that marched through the streets of central La Paz.

''Perhaps the young people will see the sea in their lifetime,'' she added.

To some Bolivians, reclaiming their lost coastline simply means beach holidays. But it is more widely seen as the key to economic growth through exports, particularly of natural gas.

In a speech to a huge rally in a downtown square, new leftist President Evo Morales said there was even support in Chile for giving Bolivia sea access. Chilean governments have so far firmly rejected giving territory to Bolivia.

''We must understand how we've been prejudiced by the loss of the sea,'' Morales said.

''How lovely it would be to have beaches on the Pacific...

to travel there for a weekend. We have lost a maritime industry that could generate many economic resources for our country,'' he said.

The sea dispute is the root of thorny relations between Bolivia and Chile. The countries have had no diplomatic ties since 1978, but in recent months both sides have expressed willingness to improve the situation -- though the issue of maritime access has still not made it onto the agenda.

''The word 'ocean' was not present,'' Chile's new socialist president, Michelle Bachelet, said of talks with Morales earlier this month, though Morales' presence at her inauguration was in itself an unprecedented sign of goodwill between the two governments.

Bolivian officials have said they would be open to selling energy to Chile in exchange for access to the sea. But the idea of ceding territory to Bolivia is unpopular in energy-poor Chile.

Yet there is more optimism in Bolivia now than there has been for years.

''The one thing that's for sure is that Bolivia is cherishing a new hope to resolve the old, unresolved issue of the maritime closure,'' said influential daily La Razon.

Referring to the political changes in Bolivia and Chile, La Prensa's editorial said: ''There is reason to believe a new time has arrived.''

REUTERS

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