Elevating tensions with its neighbor, the Peruvian government filed suit in international court against Chile on Wednesday, demanding a greater share of rich fishing waters in the Pacific Ocean. The act sparked outrage in Santiago, where officials vowed to defend the current maritime boundaries.
Peru filed its petition at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, a body set up to resolve disputes between United Nations member states. The move came after years of denunciations in Lima against the current Pacific boundaries, which were set in the 1950s.
Peru maintains that it has never recognized the limits and last year published an official map claiming expanded territorial waters. Peruvian President Alan Garcia said the move was a legitimate legal case and not a cheap shot at its neighbor.
“Peru takes this step with firmness and serenity, without stridency,” Garcia told the nation’s Congress, adding that good relations between Lima and Santiago “must be preserved.”
The president of the Peruvian Congress, Luis Gonzalez Posada, concurred, saying that the case was not meant to sound “the drums of war.”
However, officials in Chile characterized the maneuver as an unfriendly act.
“The government of Chile profoundly laments this presentation,” said Foreign Minister Alejandro Foxley, citing treaties and decades of practice recognizing Chilean sovereignty in the disputed waters.
Although the case immediately inflamed diplomatic ill will, few expect open conflict between the nations. The court case is expected to drag on for years.
At issue are almost 15,000 square miles of ocean off the coasts of southern Peru and northern Chile. The current maritime limit extends westward in a straight line from the two countries’ land border. Peru contends the boundary should proceed along a diagonal line to the southwest, thus expanding its territorial waters.
From Chile’s viewpoint, Peru agreed to the current limits half a century ago in a series of treaties. But Peru maintains there was never a formal accord.
The two countries share many economic and cultural ties, but have been political rivals since a 19th century war won by Chile resulted in Peru losing a vast swath of mineral-rich southern territory. Nationalist factions in both countries still allude to the bloody conflict, which is a source of pride in Chile and humiliation in Peru.
Chile in recent years has become an economic juggernaut, its success largely fueled by the export of copper. Peru has also experienced an export boom and rapid economic growth, but it remains a nation where much of the population lives in poverty.
In Peru, anti-Chilean sentiment occasionally bubbles to the surface in the form of resentment against pervasive Chilean investment and contentious issues including Chilean production of pisco, a grape liquor that Peruvians view as their own.
“The government should make Chile return pisco to us, instead of doing these things that no one understands,” said Jorge Romero Quispe, 45, a street vendor here.
Presidents Garcia of Peru and Michelle Bachelet of Chile have enjoyed cordial relations. Both are close U.S. allies.
Special correspondent Leon reported from Lima and Times staff writer McDonnell from Buenos Aires.