THE republics of South America have looked outward to the sea rather than in the direction of their immediate neighbors. In the first place, they are essentially producers of raw materials whose principal markets are in the United States and Europe rather than in other South American countries. Thus, at least until recently, there has been no powerful economic motive for the development of intra-continental communications and South Americans have been more interested in steamship lines to New York and Liverpool than in railways into the neighboring countries. This is contrary to the situation in Europe where, with one or two exceptions like Greece, the best customers are other European nations.

Again, the South American countries, at least those which have a sea coast, are primarily concerned with the development of their own systems of internal communications. Brazil's effort to consolidate her vast national territory is a typical example in this respect. The building of the Northwestern Railway west across the huge state of Matto Grosso to the Paraguay River, and of the north and south line between São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul; the plan to connect Rio de Janeiro with Para by a long extension of the Central Railway; the subsidizing of coastwise shipping and of steam navigation on the Amazon; the Rondon telegraph line between São Paulo and the far-off Madeira River; the wireless stations in the Amazon Valley--all these are phases of Brazil's imperative problem of internal communications. And the same necessity dominates the policy of nearly all the South American countries.

Another factor aggravating the isolation of the South American republics one from another is that in almost every instance their centers of population and of industrial development are distant from their frontiers. Moreover, the border zones between the different countries are, with few exceptions, wildernesses of mountains, desert or jungle. The Andes Mountains not only present a natural barrier which stretches the length of the continent between the east and west coast countries, but they also act to keep apart Pacific coast nations such as Peru and Ecuador. Brazil is circled by a ring of wilderness that is only broken in the south, where railway lines cross the border into Uruguay and Argentina. Between Paraguay and Bolivia there lies the Gran Chaco, a terra incognita claimed by both nations. Even though a single line of railway may cross these wastes (as between Argentina and Chile) it does not represent any considerable movement of travel across the frontiers. The "international" trains generally run on a weekly or bi-weekly schedule and few of the natives ever visit the contiguous countries unless on urgent business.

The Argentinians are the only people who have shown any special tendency to travel for other reasons, though of late there has been an increasing current of travel between Uruguay and the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. South Americans who have the means and inclination to travel generally go to Europe or the United States rather than to other Hispanic-American countries, where customs and cultural life approximate conditions in their own home lands. Paris above all, but London, Madrid and New York as well, exert a stronger lure to the South American traveler than do other capitals in South America. Those who visit Rio de Janeiro, for example, generally do so on their way to or from Europe or the United States. Also, the young men of Latin America in search of higher and specialized education go to American, British or Continental universities and not to the schools of other South American countries.

Strong forces are surely working, however, to break down this isolation of the South American nations, and a good beginning has been made in the establishment of international communications. A new and significant factor is the growth of intracontinental trade relations. Some nations with well-developed manufacturing industries are showing an interest in foreign markets for their surplus production, either actual or potential. Others need the coal and lumber or wheat and cattle produced by their neighbors. This is especially marked in the case of the socalled ABC nations. Argentina exports to Brazil very considerable quantities of wheat and fresh fruits, enjoying on the latter a tariff preferential. On the other hand, Brazil sends to the River Plate yerba mate, lumber, coffee and increasing amounts of manufactured goods. The inevitable expansion of Brazilian manufacturing industries to the point where there will be a considerable surplus for export promises a search for outide markets that will be a new feature in South American relations. Brazilian manufactures, for example, are already finding their way into the back-doors of Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru. Again, from the opposite side of the Andes, Chile exports flour, fruits and wines to other South American countries.

Intercourse like this will require improvements in the international system of rail communication. At present it is very inadequate. There is a railway connection all the way from Victoria, on the Brazilian coast, around by Buenos Aires, over the trans-Andine Railway, and thence by the Chilean "Longitudonal" line and the Antofagasta and Bolivia line to the Pacific Coast at Mollendo, in Peru,--the only break being at Lake Titicaca, where there is a night's journey by steamer between the termini of the Bolivian and Peruvian railway systems. However, a through journey from Victoria to Mollendo would require some fourteen changes of train and at least three weeks time. Under these circumstances it is not a practicable route for through traffic.

Let us now survey the different railway lines which cross the more important South American frontiers.

We shall begin with Brazil. That country has established connections with Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru. From São Paulo there are direct rail connections with the Uruguayan and Argentine lines. The western terminus of the Northwestern Railway, on the Paraguay River, is within a short distance of the Bolivian border, but a more interesting connection between Brazil and Bolivia is the famous Madeira-Mamore Railway. This road was constructed in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty of Petropolis (drawn up in 1903 between Brazil and Bolivia) to serve as an outlet for Bolivian rubber and as compensation for Bolivia's relinquishment of claims to the valuable Acre Territory. Originally it was provided that this railway, which runs close to Bolivia's northern frontier but keeps entirely within Brazilian territory, should be extended across the Mamore to Riberalta, the commercial center of that part of Bolivia. Considerable work was actually done on this extension before the undertaking was suspended, probably to the relief of the Bolivians, who were inclined to regard it as a possible means of military penetration by their powerful neighbors rather than as a potential benefit to themselves. Though, due to the decline of the rubber industry, international freight traffic over the Madeira-Mamore Railway is light, there is considerable travel over the line and there exists a friendly understanding between the two peoples along that sector of frontier. Brazil's only direct connection with Peru is by way of the Amazon and the river steamers that ply between Para and Iquitos. Brazilians may always be encountered in Iquitos, with which city Para and Manos have close commercial relations. And here again a general good feeling toward the neighbor people is observed on both sides of the frontier.

Argentina's best known link with a neighboring country is the trans-Andine Railway. It connects her transportation system with that of Chile and affords the only through trans-continental railroad in South America. Freight business is light over this route and passenger traffic is restricted to two trains a week. Moreover, its utility is limited by the fact that there are different gauges on the various sections that go to make up the coast-to-coast connection--a limitation, by the way, that is all too common a feature of South American railways. A very appreciable part of the passenger travel over this line consists of foreigners who are making the round trip tour of South America. Though its full possibilities are far from being realized, this road has done much to promote between the two nations the friendly feelings that are expressed by the fine symbolism of the statue of the "Christ of the Andes" in the Uspallata Pass. Farther to the south the Argentinians have pushed two railways from the Atlantic coast westward up into the low Andine ranges, quite close to the Chilean border. The scheme for a railway between Salta in northern Argentina and Antofagasta on the nitrate coast of northern Chile is still only projected, though plans for the connection are economically sound and very desirable from the standpoint of international relations.

The position of Chile is difficult. Isolated, as it were, on the edge of the world--facing the wide waste of the Pacific and with her back to the mountain wall of the Andes--Chile is one of the loneliest of nations. Her corridor to the Atlantic, which she desired should be across Patagonia, instead lies far to the south and she has had to content herself with the possession of the little-traveled Straits of Magellan. Chile's only rail connections with her west coast neighbors are the two lines that climb up into Bolivia, the one from Arica and the other from Antofagasta. The former, the Arica-La Paz Railway, is the property of the Chilean Government; the other, the Antofagasta and Bolivia Railway, belongs to British interests. The "Longitudonal," whose importance is strategic rather than economic, after intersecting the Antofagasta and Bolivia Railway at Baquedano continues north into Tarapaca and down to the coast at Pisagua. Only mule trails lead across the desert waste that extends from Tacna north into the Peruvian Department of Moquegua.

No railroads lead from Peru directly into any of the adjacent countries, but the Southern Railway runs up from Mollendo to Lake Titicaca, across which easy access is had to the Bolivian system. Between Peru and Ecuador there is a desolate mountain wilderness that offers as effectual a barrier in that direction as does the desert between Peru and Chile. The only communications are by the lonely trails which lead across the mountain moors of the border zone and which do nothing for the international relations of the two peoples, who share in the unhealthy suspicions chronic among the west coast neighbors.

Peru and Ecuador are more immediately concerned with the task of establishing connections with their ultra-montane territories, known as the montana, than with linking up their railway systems with lines in neighboring states. At present there only exist rough trails over into the montana--in fact, the most convenient route between Lima and Iquitos, on the upper Amazon, is by way of New York and Para. There actually is a steamship line in operation between Callao and Iquitos by way of the Panama Canal. To remedy this condition, Peru is considering several railway projects for binding her Amazonian lands more closely to her. Ecuador already has under construction a branch of the Guayaquil and Quito Railway, the objective of which is a navigable point on the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon; in view of Peruvian initiative in that region it would seem that Ecuador must complete this railway if she is to maintain her hold on her tropical lands to the east of the Andes.

The two inland countries of South America, Bolivia and Paraguay, demonstrate strikingly the importance of communications on that continent. It is not too much to say that their economic independence and territorial integrity may depend on the solution of their problem of external outlets.

Bolivia has three rail connections with the Pacific coast. The northernmost route, from Guaqui by steamer across Lake Titicaca and thence by rail to Mollendo, has already been mentioned. The shift of Bolivian interest away from Chile and towards Peru which followed the overturn of the Montes régime in 1920 gave new political importance to this route. The central and shortest of the three routes is by way of the Arica-La Paz Railway, the property of the Chilean Government. Though treaties between the two countries provide for Bolivia's acquisition of the section within her own frontiers the problem of financing the transfer is most difficult. For this reason the very cornerstone of Bolivia's foreign policy during the past few decades has been the acquisition of a territorial corridor to the Pacific at Arica. Her more ambitious hopes are for the entire Tacna-Arica area, but failing the realization of these extreme aspirations she will have to content herself with the possession of a narrow zone bordering the railway, or, as a minimum concession, with the conversion of Arica into a free port. The southernmost of the three routes--and the longest--is from La Paz via Oruro to the Chilean coast at Antofagasta. Antofagasta was formerly a Bolivian town and a certain anti-Chilean element in Bolivia has persisted in making an irridenta of the conquered province of Atacama and in advocating its reincorporation into Bolivian territory. However, the idea has never gained the support of the nation at large, which looks to Arica as the logical outlet to the sea.

Due to Chile's superior military strength and preparedness, the Arica and Antofagasta lines are of much greater strategic value to her than to Bolivia, as the rapid Chilean mobilization demonstrated in 1920. For a few years it appeared that a real Chilean sphere of influence was to develop over much of the Bolivian plateau and that in case of hostilities Bolivia would fall under the political hegemony of the far-seeing realists in Santiago. Chilean economic penetration manifested itself not only in the export of Chilean products, such as flour, to Bolivia, but in the investment of a large amount of Chilean capital in Bolivian tin mines. However, this process has declined in recent years and Chile's position in Bolivia is not so strong as it was in 1919. Meanwhile, too, the Argentine Republic has been directing more attention in this direction. The railway that climbs up from Tucuman to the little frontier town of La Quiaca has been waiting impatiently for the addition of the link across the border into Bolivia that would enable trains to run from the Argentine plains into La Paz. The 125-mile gap between the border and the end of a branch of the Bolivia Railway out of Uyuni is now being filled in by a line under construction by American engineers. Its completion will place Argentina in a better position to counter-balance any possible designs of Chile against the none-too-secure Andine state, and should lead to a considerable development of Argentine trade in Bolivia.

In the direction of the Atlantic, too, Bolivia finds herself faced with a serious communications problem. The development of the agricultural and mineral resources of the vast eastern plains country centering in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, where are located the Bolivian oil fields, must await the completion of railway or other connections with the outside world. There are four alternative routes for such a connection. Three of them would drain off the trade of the region into other countries, two into Brazil and one into Argentina. The fourth alternative would be the extension of the Oruro-Cochabamba branch of the Bolivia Railway eastward into Santa Cruz. But this route lies at right angles across a succession of north-and-south mountain ranges that would make the construction of a railway so costly as to strain very heavily the resources and credit of the nation. The much easier route, skirting the mountains in the north, seems to have found little favor with Bolivians. Yet the building of such a line is probably the price that Bolivia must pay to hold the country to the east of the Andes. If the Argentine Central Northern Railway paralleling the Andes should be extended up from the south, or if (as appears more improbable) the Brazilians should build a line from the Paraguay River west into Santa Cruz, a very effective means of peaceful penetration would be created. This would inevitably weaken the already fragile hold of Bolivia on that region in favor of the country that provided its products with an outlet to the outside world.

Paraguay is dependent, for her external communications, on the Paraguay River and on the British-owned railroad between Asuncion and Buenos Aires. Due to this circumstance, all but an unimportant share of her trade gravitates toward Buenos Aires, with an inevitable effect on the economic and political independence of the weaker and ill-organized country. Paraguayan currency is only quoted abroad in terms of Argentine money, and the Argentine peso circulates freely in Asuncion. Mutual tariff preferentials favor the interchange of products between the two countries. Moreover, there are very considerable investments of Argentine capital in Paraguay, especially in cattle and quebracho properties in the Gran Chaco. This is an extensive territory lying west of the Paraguay River, little known back of a narrow river-front zone, and separated from Argentina by the Pilcomayo. Bolivia has been gradually pushing her military outposts down the Pilcomayo in order to assert more effectively her territorial claims. The railway now building northwest across the Argentine Territory of the Chaco, from Formosa towards Embarcacion, closely parallels this frontier; and the line up the west side of the Parana-Paraguay gives Argentina an additional approach to Paraguay from the south. Finally, an Argentine railway is projected to run the length of the Misiones region to the Brazilian frontier on the Iguassu. Thus the process of walling in Paraguay with iron promises to be complete.

The domination over Paraguay made possible by these lines of communication from the side of the Argentine has roused in Brazil the desire to open a counter-balancing system of connections, a desire which, needless to say, has the ardent sympathy of those elements in Paraguay who fear the gradual establishment of an Argentine hegemony over their country. The line of the Northwestern Railway that connects São Paulo with the Paraguay River is too far to the north to serve this purpose effectively. Several schemes for a direct rail connection have been talked about. One of these is the old project for a line from the fine Bay of São Francisco on the Brazilian coast into Paraguay via the Valley of the Iguassu. Another has been the building of a branch from the Northwestern Railway down into Paraguay. A third has contemplated the construction of a more direct road from São Paulo, which would open a new market to the manufacturing industries of that city and create a considerable commercial movement between the two countries, as well as make more secure the international position of Paraguay.

The preceding paragraphs may have given some idea of the stage that railway communication has reached in South America. It has been shown that political factors have entered into the situation, in addition to topographical factors. These political factors are also found to be present when we come to consider the other forms of communications existing today between the South American republics, or planned for the future.

Among these other forms of communications, coastwise navigation has an importance fully as great as have railways. All three coasts are well supplied in this respect. Most of this business is in the hands of foreign steamship companies, the out-standing exceptions being the Lloyd Brasileiro service between Brazilian ports and Montevideo, and the Chilean and Peruvian lines on the west coast. American, British, Dutch, French, Italian and German lines offer frequent and rapid service between the River Plate and Brazilian ports as far north as Pernambuco, and American and British steamers afford similar facilities between the countries on the west coast.

The Amazon and Plata fluvial systems are also, of course, of great importance as international arteries. The Amazon is open to the ships of the world, but the fact that for most of its course that river flows through Brazilian territory gives Brazil an unusual position in the event of there arising international complications involving its navigation. Steamer navigation between the different countries of the Amazon basin is also entirely under the Brazilian flag. Eastern Peru is dependent on this outlet, as are also the rubber country of Bolivia and the little developed montana regions of Ecuador and southeastern Colombia. Colombia has persistently asserted her pretensions to a place on the navigable tributaries of the Amazon, but she so far has done little towards occupying the vast territories to which she lays claim under the title "Amazonia Colombiana."

On the Plata river system Argentina holds a place analogous to that of Brazil in the Amazon Valley. She controls both sides of the Parana from its mouth to its confluence with the Paraguay, and the left bank thence to the Brazilian border at the mouth of the Iguassu. Moreover, the west bank of the Paraguay is Argentine territory as far as the mouth of the Pilcomayo. Her occupancy of the strategic island of Martin Garcia--long coveted by Brazil--situated where the Parana debouches into the estuary, gives to Argentina a formidable position from the military point of view. Navigation on both the Parana and the Paraguay is largely in the hands of Argentine companies, though a Brazilian company connected with the Lloyd Brasileiro operates an intermittent service between Montevideo and Corumbá. Argentine steamers not only ply regularly up the Paraguay to Asuncion and on to Corumbá, but they also provide the Parana with its only transportation facilities as far as the limit of navigation at the Guayra Falls. Though the principal shipping firm which has taken over the fleet of the famous Mihanovich interests is an international joint stock company, Argentina still holds a predominant position in the matter of communications in the Plata basin. She is thereby in a position to exercise in that area a hegemony which might become more than economic.

Turning to the Orinoco, we find that the only problem of international communications in that river basin concerns the rights of Colombia to an outlet for the vast tropical wilderness that lies between the Meta and the confluents of the Rio Negro.

Both the east and west coasts of South America are well supplied with submarine cable facilities. All such cable connections, it should be noted, are controlled by foreign interests. The most important are the All America Cables, Inc., an American concern, and the Western Telegraph Co., Ltd., which is British. The former serves the east coast as far north as Rio de Janeiro and has eleven stations on the west coast, as also a land line running to La Paz (Bolivia) from Arica. The British cables serve the east coast as far north as Para and duplicate much of the American service on the west coast.

The land telegraph lines operated by the different governments play a very minor part in the general scheme of international communications in South America. In many instances they reach out to remote places on the frontiers (as in the case of the remarkable Rondon line that links São Paulo via Cuyaba with the Madeira River), but it seldom is possible to relay messages over the lines of neighboring countries. Wireless, however, is rapidly growing in importance as a means of communication. There has been a strong tendency in recent years to bring outlying strategic points in the different countries into connection with the capital by this means. Radio has excellent prospects in South America and broadcasting has already been initiated on an up-to-date scale in Buenos Aires. South American papers are also giving more attention to events in the neighboring countries, thanks to gradually improving telegraphic facilities and better service by the regular news agencies.

To sum up briefly, it may be said that while ocean communications between the different South American states are very satisfactory, much yet remains to be done in the way of rail connections. The east and west coasts still are connected only by the single line of the trans-Andine Railway, and, if the lines from the Pacific coast into Bolivia are excepted, there are no direct land connections between any of the west or north coast countries. Many plans for improvement, however, are under discussion. The best known of these is for a "Pan-American Railway." This scheme has been repeatedly brought up at international conferences and endorsed by the delegates, but no agreement has been reached as to the route to be followed. On this point international rivalries come actively into play. If the trunk line should follow the line of the Andes and utilize existing links it would ignore Brazil and the other countries to the east; on the other hand, if it should skirt the eastern edge of the cordillera it would avoid the most populous parts of the Andine countries. Although there is general sentimental accord as to the advantages of realizing this project, the problem of financing has not been solved. Local traffic would doubtless support certain stretches, but for a considerable time returns from through or long haul business would probably be small. However, the eventual consummation of this grandiose conception of Pan-American idealists is sincerely to be desired; for separation must inevitably breed distrust, even among peoples who are kindred and whose fundamental community of interests is so strong. In South America, the usual non-commercial motives for travel are lacking. The stimulus for a closer understanding between the various states must therefore be sought in the development of intra-American trade and in the interchange of ideas that will accompany it. With a better acquaintance will come far closer bonds of sympathy than can be fostered by such international conferences as that held at Santiago, in 1923, or by the nebulous ideas of those who ignore the dangerous antagonisms at present bred by the isolation of the different South American nations.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now