The History of Bolivia

By about ad 600, Amerindians (believed to belong to the Aymaráspeaking Colla tribe) were settled around the southern end of Lake Titicaca. As they came into contact with coastal tribes, the highly developed classic Tiahuanaco civilization emerged, reaching its peak about ad 900. Lake Titicaca became a place of worship and a great commercial center. Then cultural and political disintegration set in, and by 1300, the Quechua-speaking Incas had conquered the region and had colonized villages in most of what is now Bolivia.

The demise of the Inca empire began in 1527 with the death of the Inca Emperor Huayna Capac. His two sons, Huáscar and Atahualpa, fought a civil war over succession. Francisco Pizarro, taking advantage of the civil war raging between the two heirs, led the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in 1532–33. In 1539, Pedro de Anzures established La Plata, subsequently called Charcas and Chuquisaca and now known as Sucre, Bolivia's legal and judicial capital.

The Spaniards did not become interested in the land called Alto Peru, or Upper Peru, until the discovery in 1545 of the fabulously rich silver mine called the Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) de Potosí. Three years later, La Paz was founded on the main silver transport route between Potosí and the coast. In 1559, the audiencia (region under a royal court) of Charcas was established in Upper Peru under the viceroyalty of Lima. The mines continued to produce vast amounts of wealth for the Spanish Empire, and for years the city of Potosí was the largest city in the Western Hemisphere. In 1776, the audiencia was appended to the viceroyalty of La Plata (Buenos Aires).

The independence of Upper Peru came from the revolt of the small, native-born Spanish ruling class. In 1809, a year after Napoleon's invasion of Spain, the Spanish authorities in Chuquisaca (Sucre) were temporarily overthrown, and the local elite proclaimed independence. The movement was quickly put down by Spanish arms. The young government in Buenos Aires showed some interest in the region, having included delegates from Upper Peru when independence was declared at the Congress of Tucumán in 1816. However, independence came from Peru, after Simón Bolívar's victory at the battle of Ayacucho in December 1824. Bolívar then sent his young general, Antonio José de Sucre, to free Upper Peru. On 6 August 1825 a congress at Chuquisaca formally proclaimed the independence of the Republic of Bolívar, a name soon changed to Bolivia. Sucre was chosen as the first president in 1826, and Chuquisaca was renamed Sucre in his honor.

A period of instability followed, with civilians and army officers succeeding one another, usually by force of arms. The almost constant civil war retarded Bolivia's economic organization and helped bring about the loss of a large part of its land. The first of these losses came after the War of the Pacific (1879–84), pitting Chile against Bolivia and Peru. Chile's superior military force routed the Bolivians and seized what was then the Bolivian port of Antofagasta. The postwar settlement took away Bolivia's only coastal territory, as well as the nitrate-rich coastal area around it. Bolivia was forever after a landlocked country, with only rights of access to the Pacific under a 1904 treaty. Another territorial loss came in 1903 with the cession to Brazil of the Acre region, rich in natural rubber, in exchange for an indemnity and other minor concessions. Sucre was driven out of office after only two years. He was succeeded by Gen. Andrés de Santa Cruz, a man with imperial ambitions. In 1836, Santa Cruz conquered Peru and formed the Peruvian-Bolivian Confederation. In 1839, Chilean forces defeated and dissolved the confederation and ended the life term of Santa Cruz.

The economy was aided in the late 19th century by a silver boom. When prices collapsed, silver production gave way to tin mining. The dominance of mining in Bolivia's economy conditioned the political system. A few wealthy mine and plantation owners, allied with various foreign interests, competed for power. Indians, excluded from the system, found their lot unchanged after almost 400 years.

This arrangement began to unravel with yet another loss of Bolivian territory. In 1932, Bolivia warred with Paraguay over the Chaco, the lowland area believed at the time to be rich in oil. Despite their numerical superiority, the Bolivians were defeated by 1935, and Paraguay controlled about three-fourths of the disputed territory. The formal settlement in 1938 gave most of this land to Paraguay, although Bolivia was promised a corridor to the Paraguay River.

The Chaco war pointed out the weaknesses in Bolivia's political and social structure. Bolivia's loss was in part due to the poor morale of its soldiers, an army of conscripted Indians with no loyalty to the elite officer corps. In 1936 Bolivia's rigid caste system cracked, and Col. David Toro came to power with labor support and a vaguely socialist/nationalist platform. The government expropriated Standard Oil of New Jersey's Bolivian properties in 1937. Toro's government attempted social reform, and its efforts to control mining and banking led to fierce opposition. The tension continued after Toro was forced out of office by Col. Germán Busch. Busch challenged Bolivia's three large tin-mining interests, owned by Patiño, Aramayo, and Hochschild. With strong labor backing, Busch arranged for the constitution of 1938, a document guaranteeing the right of labor to organize, universal education, and nationalized subsoil rights. The very next year, Busch died in what was officially ruled a suicide.

World War II brought further strains to Bolivia. As world demand skyrocketed, the tin market boomed, but working conditions remained miserable, and wages remained low. In 1942, protests by tin workers against the "tin barons" and their American financiers were met with force by the government of Gen. Enrique Peñaranda, resulting in the "Catavi massacre." Wishing to retain the strategic materials in mid-war, the United States commissioned a US-Bolivian commission to study working conditions. This report confirmed the workers' grievances, but was completely ignored by Peñaranda. In December of 1943, a coalition of the army and the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolutionario—MNR), which had gained considerable support among the mineworkers, engineered a coup, ousting Peñaranda and putting Maj. Gualberto Villarroel into power. The tin market collapsed at the war's end, weakening the government's power base. In 1946, Villarroel was overthrown and hanged, along with others, by a mob of workers, soldiers, and students, and a conservative government was installed.

In 1951, the MNR's candidate, Víctor Paz Estenssoro, a former associate of Villarroel, apparently won the presidential election, but a military junta stepped in, denying the legality of the vote. Paz, representing the left wing of the MNR, became president in 1952 as a result of a party-led uprising. For the next 12 years, Bolivian politics would be dominated by the MNR.

The leadership of the MNR was shared by four men: Paz, Juan Lechín Oquendo, leftist head of the miners' union, Hernán Siles Zuazo, close ally of Paz, and the right-wing Walter Guevara Arze. A pact among the four was to allow them to take turns in the presidency over the next 16 years. The Paz government made dramatic moves in an attempt to transform Bolivian society. The tin holdings of the three dominant family interests were expropriated, and a comprehensive land reform program was begun, along with wide-scale welfare and literacy programs. Industry was encouraged, the search for oil deposits was accelerated, and a new policy gave Amerindians the right to vote and sought to integrate the Amerindian community more fully into the national economy. The right to vote, previously restricted to literate Bolivian males (who constituted less than 10% of the population), was made universal for all Bolivians over 21.

In 1956, as expected, Hernán Siles succeeded to the presidency. But Siles only governed under Paz's watchful eye, and in 1960, Paz challenged the candidacy of Guevara Arze. Guevara went into exile, and Paz again assumed the presidency, with Lechín as his vice president. Paz became increasingly dictatorial, and the splits within the MNR worsened. Paz conspired to give himself yet another presidential term, complete with rigged elections in June 1964. Siles, now leading the right wing of the MNR, and Lechín, now leading the leftist opposition, conducted a hunger strike protesting Paz's authoritarian designs. Finally, the military defected when it became clear that Paz was without any allies. The military coup occurred in November 1964, with the junta selecting as president Paz's vice president René Barrientos Ortuño.

Barrientos moved quickly to consolidate his new government, removing Paz's old supporters and sending Lechín into exile. In the following year, a military faction forced Barrientos to allow Gen. Alfredo Ovando Candia to become his "co-president." This odd arrangement was resolved in 1966 with new elections. Barrientos and his newly formed Popular Christian Movement won a resounding victory.

In 1967, an active guerrilla movement with pro-Castro tendencies emerged in southeastern Bolivia. The Bolivian authorities imprisoned the French intellectual Jules Régis Debray, who revealed that the famous comrade of Fidel Castro, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, was leading the guerrilla movement. Later in the year, the Bolivian army apprehended and killed Guevara.

Barrientos died in a helicopter crash in April 1969, and a civilian, Vice President Adolfo Siles Salinas, became president. Siles was overthrown in September by Barrientos' former rival, Gen. Ovando, who presented himself as a presidential candidate for 1970 but then canceled the election. In October 1970, President Ovando was overthrown by rightist elements of the military, but the next day a leftist faction succeeded in making Gen. Juan José Torres Gonzales the new president.

The Torres regime was marked by increasing political instability. Backed by students and the Bolivian Labor Council, Torres expelled the US Peace Corps, permitted the expropriation of both US and privately owned Bolivian properties, sanctioned the seizure of land by landless peasants, established a labor-dominated People's Assembly, and declared his support for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Bolivia. In a bloody three-day revolution in August 1971, the Torres government was ousted by a coalition of the armed forces and political leaders from the MNR and the Bolivian Socialist Falange (Falange Socialista Boliviana—FSB), together with other middle-class groups. The leader of the coup was Hugo Bánzer Suárez, who was installed as president later in the month. Bánzer consolidated his support with the founding of the Nationalist Popular Front, which became the political framework of the new government. Ex-president Paz returned from exile to head the MNR.

The first threats to the Bánzer government came from the left. There were reports late in 1971 of renewed activity by the Guevarist National Liberation Army. The government launched a vigorous antiguerrilla campaign and claimed nearly complete success. In 1973, however, Bánzer's coalition began to splinter. In 1974, when the MNR threatened to withdraw from the coalition, Paz went into exile again. After two coup attempts had been crushed in the fall of 1973 and two others in the summer of 1974, Bánzer formed a new all-military cabinet. In November 1974, the MNR, the FSB, and other political parties were abolished, and trade union meetings were declared illegal.

In response to industrial and political unrest, Bánzer announced the restoration of political parties in 1977 and of unions in 1978. He promised to hold new elections in July 1978. Paz again returned from exile to run. The election results were annulled, however, and a new military government came to power in a bloodless coup. Another election took place in July 1979, but because no candidate received a majority and the Congress could not decide whom to select from among the three main candidates, an interim president was named. Another coup followed in November, but constitutional government was restored only two weeks later, in the wake of popular resistance. New presidential and congressional elections in June 1980 again failed to produce a majority winner, and in July there was another coup, staged by Gen. Luis García Meza, who promptly suspended the Congress, banned most political parties and all union activity, and established strict censorship in order to remove the "Marxist cancer" from Bolivia. Paz again went into exile. During the García regime there were frequent reports of arbitrary arrests, use of torture, and other human rights violations. In August 1981, García, who was suspected, along with other top officials in the government, of involvement with the cocaine trade, was deposed in a coup—the 190th in Bolivian history. He went into exile in Argentina in October 1982, and in May 1983, he was ordered arrested on charges of "corruption and economic crimes"—specifically, the fraudulent use of government funds in agricultural, construction, and oil refinery deals. Meanwhile, under two more military governments, political and union rights were gradually restored.

In October 1982, amid a worsening economic situation and increasing labor unrest, the Congress elected Hernán Siles Zuazo to the presidency. Siles, returning to office 22 years after the end of his previous presidency, could still count on electoral support, and had received a plurality of votes in the 1979 and 1980 elections. His shaky coalition faced continued economic problems, including food shortages and rampant inflation, and a right-wing threat from paramilitary groups whose activities were reportedly financed by cocaine smuggling. In November 1983, the Bolivian government announced an austerity program that included a 60% devaluation of the peso and hefty food price increases. By mid-1985, Siles had so mismanaged the economy and the political situation that labor unrest and social tension forced him to call national elections and to agree to relinquish power a full year before the expiration of his term. Bánzer won a plurality of the popular vote, but the MNR won more seats in the congressional elections, resulting in a fourth term of office for the 77-year-old Paz. In a departure from the norm, the MNR and Bánzer's party agreed to cooperate, allowing a comprehensive economic reform package to pass through the legislature.

Faced with runaway inflation, which reached an annual rate of 14,000% in August 1985, the government abandoned controlled exchange rates, abolished price controls, liberalized external trade, and instituted more restrictive monetary and wage policies. The result was sharply lower inflation and interest rates, and a more stable economy, although the shocks of this liberalization were felt through government layoffs and falling consumer buying power.

More importantly, Paz was able to forge a fundamental consensus among competing political parties in support of a continuing democracy. In 1989, despite a hotly contested presidential race, power passed from the MNR to the left-wing movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR). The peaceful transfer of power from one party to another was a milestone in itself. An equally hopeful sign was the fact that the MIR leader, Jaime Paz Zamora, was able to hold together a coalition with the right-wing national Democratic Alliance (ADN) to serve a full four-year presidential term. In Bolivia, this is a major accomplishment.

The elections of 1993 brought the MNR back to power, with Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada assuming the presidency. Sánchez chose as his running mate Victor Hugo Cárdenas, an advocate for Bolivia's Aymara-speaking Amerindians. While some saw the move as a cynical ploy, others expressed hope that Bolivia's long-suffering native population might be brought into the political system. Sánchez de Lozada's administration embarked on a wide-ranging program of reforms that included decentralization of government, tariff reduction, educational reform, and most notably, a major privatization campaign. State enterprises that were privatized included the national railroad, the state-owned airline, and the nation's electric power generation facilities.

Sánchez de Lozada's plans also included privatization of Bolivia's mining sector through joint ventures with foreign investors. In spite of continued economic stabilization and progress, the government's policies drew protests and labor strikes leading to the declaration of a 90-day state of siege in 1995.

In 1997, Gen. Hugo Bánzer, the former dictator who had tried unsuccessfully to regain power by legal means since his ouster in 1978, came in first in the June presidential elections and, in the absence of an electoral majority, was chosen by Congress to be the nation's next president. Bánzer, a conservative democrat, pledged to halt his predecessor's privatization program while improving basic services and expanding jobs. Shortly into his term, Bánzer faced growing social unrest resulting from an economic crisis and the government's inability to fight corruption and implement an effective anti-narcotics program. Due to health reasons, Bánzer resigned in 2001 before the end of his term and was replaced by his young vice president Jorge Quiroga who served as a caretaking president until Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the plurality winner in the June 2002 election, took office for the second time in his life. After failing to win a majority of the popular vote, Sánchez de Lozada was elected by Congress over second-place finisher, indigenous and peasant activist Evo Morales.

Sánchez de Lozada's second term was marked by social and political upheaval. One year into his term, the economy was stagnant, and social and racial tensions kept the country in turmoil. Sánchez de Lozada's initiative to attract foreign investments to exploit Bolivia's large and rich natural gas reserves was met with indignant opposition by indigenous leaders. Social protests against Sánchez de Lozada turned violent and the government ordered the police to repress protestors. The vice president, Carlos Mesa Gisbert, announced his withdrawal of support for Sánchez, thus forcing him to resign. Mesa was appointed president and promised to implement social and economic reforms to mitigate poverty and bring about political reform. Mesa also took on a harder stance against Chile and promised that Bolivian natural gas would not be exported through Chilean ports. Although he did experience some positive response, Mesa soon found himself under the same heavy fire that brought his predecessor down. Mesa was forced to resign on 9 June 2005. A new care-taking government, led by Supreme Court President Eduardo Rodríguez, took charge to conduct new presidential elections.

Indigenous leader Evo Morales was widely seen as the favorite to win the presidential election. Having led the opposition against Sánchez de Lozada and Mesa, Morales was blamed for the political instability that characterized Bolivia in the preceding years. Yet, he was also the most important indigenous political leader and represented an excluded class of Bolivians who had been historically subjected to neglect and poverty. Thus, his electoral victory was considered the only way to bring about stability and political inclusion.

Presidential elections were held in December 2005. Evo Morales won an absolute majority of the vote (53.7%) and became the first indigenous president in Bolivia's history. He defeated former President Jorge Quiroga (28.6%). Morales's strong showing was unusual for Bolivia, where presidents are usually elected by Congress after candidates fail to get an absolute majority of the vote. Evo Morales is the leader of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). MAS obtained a clear majority control of the Chamber of Deputies (72 seats in the 130-member Chamber) and 12 of the 27 seats in the Senate. As of this election there had been no other president in Bolivian history that had enjoyed such a clear mandate. Morales promised to bring about economic reforms to help the marginalized and poor, to fight corruption, and nationalize mining interests.