Bolivia - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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Bolivia, republic in central South America, nicknamed the Rooftop of the World because of its high elevation in the Andes Mountains. Bolivia has a landscape of snow-topped mountain peaks and broad, windswept plateaus. To the east of the mountains, vast grassy plains give way to lowland tropical rain forests. The official capital of Bolivia is Sucre; La Paz is the administrative capital and seat of government. At an altitude of about 3,600 m (11,900 ft), La Paz is the highest capital in the world.

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America. Although Native Americans make up the majority of the country’s population, a small Spanish elite has traditionally dominated the political and economic life of the country and held most of the wealth. The minerals of the Andes were long the source of this wealth, but petroleum and natural gas overtook them in the late 1900s. Coca leaves, the source of the drug cocaine, also became an important export in the second half of the 1900s. As the 21st century began, the discovery of Bolivia’s vast lithium reserves—accounting for nearly half of the world’s reserves—promised to make the country a key source of the mineral used in lithium-ion batteries to power hybrid and electric cars and electronic devices such as laptop computers.

Most of Bolivia’s people live on a plateau between two ranges of the Andes Mountains, which occupy a third of the country. Since the 1950s, however, the sparsely settled, eastern lowland plains have gradually become more heavily populated, in part because of discoveries of significant deposits of oil and natural gas there. In addition, the region’s fertile farmland was opened to settlement. Santa Cruz, the region’s center of trade and commerce, surpassed La Paz to become Bolivia’s largest city in the early 2000s.

From the 16th to the early 19th century, Bolivia was a colony of Spain. The country became independent in 1825. In 1952 Bolivia underwent a political revolution that brought far-reaching changes to the country. The leaders of that revolution introduced programs designed to provide greater political, economic, and social opportunities for Native Americans. The government extended the vote to all Native Americans, promoted education in rural villages, and redistributed land, breaking up the large estates established during colonial times and giving small plots of land to Native American farmers. Economic problems continued, however, and a military coup in the 1960s led to a succession of military governments. Subsequent regimes tried to privatize large segments of the economy, and Bolivia’s social, political, and economic situation remained unstable. By the early 21st century, Bolivian leaders were once again nationalizing natural resources, and the country’s first Native American president, Evo Morales, sought a series of socialist-style reforms. Under the Morales government, Bolivia eliminated illiteracy. See also Socialism; Literacy.


The principal physical feature of Bolivia is the Andes mountain range, which extends generally north to south across the western part of the country. The Andes form two ranges in Bolivia, the western range (Cordillera Occidental), which runs along the Chilean border, and the eastern range (Cordillera Oriental), the main range, which crosses the west central part of Bolivia. The Cordillera Oriental contains some of the highest Andean peaks, notably Ancohuma (6,388 m/20,958 ft), Illampu (6,360 m/20,867 ft), and Illimani (6,462 m/21,201 ft).

Bolivia is bounded on the north and east by Brazil, on the southeast by Paraguay, on the south by Argentina, and on the west by Chile and Peru. Bolivia and Paraguay are the only South American countries without direct access to the sea. The maximum length of Bolivia from north to south is about 1,530 km (about 950 mi); its maximum breadth is about 1,450 km (about 900 mi). It has an area of 1,098,581 sq km (424,164 sq mi), which makes it about the size of the states of Texas and California combined. Among South American countries Bolivia ranks fifth in area (after Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and Colombia).

Natural Regions in Bolivia

Bolivia is divided into three distinct regions. The Altiplano, or plateau region, and the Cordilleras of the Andes cover the western third of the country. The Yungas, a series of densely forested and well-watered valleys, embrace the eastern mountain slopes and dip down to the eastern plains. The plains, or the Amazon-Chaco lowlands, spread over the eastern part of Bolivia.

The Altiplano lies between the Cordillera Occidental and the Cordillera Oriental at an elevation between 3,620 m and 4,270 m (11,900 ft and 14,000 ft) above sea level. It is about 800 km (about 500 mi) long and about 130 km (about 80 mi) wide. The bulk of Bolivia’s people and industries are found in the northern part of the Altiplano. So is Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. Bolivia shares this lake with Peru. The southern part of the Altiplano is arid.

The region known as the Yungas descends steeply to the plains, falling 4,350 m (14,250 ft) in only 80 km (50 mi). Precipitous slopes, isolated valleys and basins, and mile-deep canyons characterize the Yungas. However, there is also fertile soil in the Yungas, and bananas, coffee, and citrus fruits are grown here.

Stretching east and northeast from the mountains are the great Amazonian plains (“llanos” in Spanish). The region contains large grassy tracts and, along the tributaries of the Amazon, dense tropical forests. Much of it becomes swampland during the wet season (December through February). However, large areas lie above the flood line and provide rich grazing lands. In the southeast, separated from the Amazonian plains by the Chiquitos highlands (about 1,070 m/about 3,500 ft), are the dry, semitropical plains of the Chaco (see Gran Chaco).

Rivers of Bolivia

In the northern and northeastern valleys and plains, the drainage system consists of the Beni River and its main tributary, the Madre de Diós River; the Guaporé River, which forms part of the boundary with Brazil; and the Mamoré River. These rivers flow north to join the Amazon River. The Pilcomayo River, the chief river of southeastern Bolivia, flows through the Chaco to feed the Paraguay River, eventually draining into the Río de la Plata, a large estuary that empties into the Atlantic Ocean between Argentina and Uruguay. The Desaguadero River, outlet for Lake Titicaca, feeds Lake Poopó to the southeast.

Climate in Bolivia

Although situated entirely within the tropics, Bolivia has, as a result of its varied elevation, a wide range of climate. In the higher regions the climate is cold and dry. The Altiplano and the high ranges of the Andes have unbelievably clear skies and intense sunshine, with afternoon thundershowers during summer (from December to March). In the lower-lying regions the climate is warmer. Humid, tropical conditions prevail in the northern plains. The southern plains are cooler and dryer. The mean annual temperatures range from 8°C (47°F) in the Altiplano to 26°C (79°F) in the eastern lowlands.

Natural Resources of Bolivia

The Andes Mountains are rich in mineral resources. These resources include tin, lead, silver, copper, antimony, zinc, sulfur, bismuth, gold, tungsten, and lithium. Bolivia has nearly half of the world’s known reserves of lithium, which is used in lithium-ion batteries to power hybrid and electric vehicles, as well as electronic devices. Salt, petroleum, and natural gas are also found in Bolivia. Bolivia has the second largest reserves of natural gas in Latin America. Only Venezuela has larger reserves. The soil of certain regions, notably the valleys of the Yungas east of Santa Cruz, is extremely fertile.

Plants and Animals in Bolivia

Because of the wide variations in elevation, plant and animal species of nearly every climatic zone are found in Bolivia. A coarse grass, called ichu, grows on the largely barren high plateau in the west. Para rubber trees, more than 2,000 species of hardwood trees, and vanilla, sarsaparilla, and saffron plants are common in the tropical forests of the east.

The llama, found chiefly on the Altiplano, is an efficient beast of burden. Alpacas and vicuñas also inhabit the plateau. Jaguars, capybaras, peccaries, tapirs, and other animals are common in the Yungas. Birds are found in great variety in the forests. Fish are abundant in Lake Titicaca and the rivers, among them bass, trout, and deadly piranhas. Monkeys, pumas, armadillos, and a variety of reptiles, birds, and insects are found predominantly in the tropical Amazon Basin.


The population of Bolivia (2009 estimate) is 9,775,246, giving the country a population density of 9 persons per sq km (23 per sq mi), one of the lowest in South America. Roughly 55 percent of all the people are Native American, and about 30 percent are mestizo (of mixed Native American and European ancestry). Most of the remaining inhabitants are of Spanish descent. Some 36 percent of the people live in rural areas.

The official languages of Bolivia are Spanish and two Native South American languages, Quechua and Aymara; of those the Native American languages are more commonly spoken. Roman Catholicism is the religion of the great majority of the population. However, in rural areas, Catholicism contains many elements of indigenous beliefs.

The Native Americans are divided into the two major native language groups, the Aymara and the Quechua. Of the groups that presently live in Bolivia, the Aymara have probably been there the longest. They had a well-developed civilization along the shores of Lake Titicaca for many centuries before the Quechua-speaking Incas conquered them. Native American language, religion, and customs prevail in rural areas, and the Native American influence remains strong in the poorer districts of even major cities.

In past centuries the indigenous communities resisted European influences, a response to the Spanish conquest of the region in the early 1500s. European settlers established a rigid class system in which an upper class of colonists ruled over a lower class of Native Americans.

The Bolivian upper classes speak Spanish and trace their ancestry to the early Spanish colonists. However, since the settlers and Native Americans intermixed from the very beginning of the conquest, few of the old aristocratic families can claim pure European ancestry. Until the 1950s these aristocratic families, plus a few recent immigrants from other South American countries and Europe, had a monopoly on wealth, education, and political power. They owned almost all the land and controlled most large businesses and some of the mining industry. Even the country’s educational system was geared to training this elite. Since the revolution of 1952, however, Bolivian society has become more open and allows for more social mobility.

Principal Cities of Bolivia

La Paz was long Bolivia’s largest city and remains its administrative capital (population, 2008 estimate, 839,905). However, Santa Cruz (1,538,343), a major trade center located east of the Andes, has surpassed it in population. Other large cities in Bolivia include El Alto (896,773), a shantytown that was once a suburb of La Paz and became the country’s fastest-growing city; Cochabamba (603,342), in a fertile farming region; Oruro (232,246), in the mining district; Sucre (288,290), the country’s official capital; and Potosí (164,803), the silver-mining center of the colonial era.

Education in Bolivia

Primary education is nominally free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 13. The country’s literacy rate is 90 percent.

In 2006 almost all children of elementary-school age were enrolled in primary schools, but some attended for only a brief time. Only 86 percent of children of secondary-school age attended school. Enrollment in institutions of higher education was 41 percent.

Bolivia has ten universities: in Sucre, La Paz (two), Cochabamba, Llallagua, Oruro, Potosí, Santa Cruz, Tarija, and Trinidad. San Francisco Xavier University (1624), in Sucre, is one of the oldest in the Americas. The University of San Andrés (1830), in La Paz, is the largest university in Bolivia, with a student enrollment of about 37,000.

Culture of Bolivia

In dress, language, architecture, and lifestyle, the large Native American population of Bolivia follows many of the ways of its ancestors with some influence by Spanish traditions. Native clothing is colorful and suited to life in high altitudes. In rural areas girls learn to weave at an early age, and woven woolen textiles in bright colors are popular. Women traditionally wear bowler hats, woven shawls, and skirts made of bands of fabric in horizontal tiers. Petticoats are worn beneath the skirts, and layers can be added or removed as needed. The Spanish-speaking population in the cities generally follows Western customs.

Indigenous and Spanish colonial influences have fused to produce the culture of modern Bolivia. Holidays and religious festivals are celebrated by dancing and festivities. A weeklong carnival, held before Lent in Oruro, is the country’s largest annual celebration. Called La Diablada (Dance of the Devil), it features dancers dressed as angels, devils, and Incas.

Native American traditions are strong in painting, literature, music, dancing, and folklore. Many contemporary painters have been inspired by indigenous art. Spanish influence prevails in music and folk dances of the valleys, while the austere and plaintive native tradition predominates in the highlands. Pre-Columbian and Spanish-colonial instruments are widely used, among them the gigantic panpipes, called sicus or bajones; the native flute, or quena; and the armadillo-shell guitar, or charango. See Latin American Literature; Latin American Music.

La Paz is home to the National Archaeology Museum; the National Art Museum; the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore; the Museum of Precious Pre-Columbian Metals; the Coca Museum; the Museum of Musical Instruments; and the Museum of Andean Textiles. Bolivia’s other museums include the Archaeological Museum in Cochabamba and the Museum of Indigenous Arts in Sucre. Important libraries are the National Library and Archives in Sucre, the Santa Cruz Municipal Library in La Paz, and the libraries of the University of San Andrés in La Paz and San Francisco Xavier University in Sucre.


Since early colonial times, mining for precious minerals and metal ores has played an important role in Bolivia’s economy. Many of the largest mining operations were nationalized during the 1950s. However, later Bolivian governments encouraged private industrial development and sought foreign investment capital. The state airline, Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano, was sold to private interests in 1993. In 1995 Bolivia began implementing a privatization program in which the government did not sell state-owned companies outright; instead, half of the company’s shares and management control were awarded to investors who agreed to invest in the company for several years rather than pay cash to the government. The remaining shares were to be divided among Bolivia’s adult population and held in retirement accounts as a new private pension system. Despite these efforts to deflect charges that Bolivia was “selling out” its resources to foreigners, the privatization efforts drew sustained criticism and prompted serious labor strife.

Many farmers in rural areas of Bolivia depend on the production of coca for a living. In South America, the leaves of the coca plant are dried and chewed as a stimulant. Coca leaves also yield the drug cocaine. To halt traffic in cocaine, the United States government has pressured Bolivia to stop farmers from growing coca. The Bolivian government has entered into agreements with the United States to restrict coca production in return for U.S. economic assistance. These agreements either do not adequately compensate coca growers or else ask them to grow crops for which their land is unsuited. Not surprisingly, Bolivia’s coca growers object.

Bolivia’s estimated gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007 was $13.1 billion. GDP is a measure of the value of all goods and services a country produces. Budget figures for 2007 showed revenues of $3.1 billion and expenditures of $2.9 billion.

Agriculture, Fishing, and Forestry in Bolivia

Bolivia has little land suitable for agriculture, because mountains, forests, and swamps spread over so much of the country. Many of the Bolivians who farm engage in subsistence agriculture on the Altiplano and live at or below the poverty line. Agriculture employed 5 percent of the labor force and, along with fishing and forestry, accounted for 13 percent of the GDP in 2007.

Bolivia’s agriculture suffers from antiquated farming methods and inadequate transportation. Although the country is self-sufficient in the production of sugar, rice, and meat, it must still import certain foodstuffs. The chief Bolivian crops are soybeans, sugar cane, potatoes, cassava, bananas, maize, rice, plantains, and citrus fruits. Farming with modern methods is increasing in the eastern plains near the city of Santa Cruz. Fishing is a relatively unimportant industry in landlocked Bolivia.

Mining, Manufacture, and Trade in Bolivia

Mining is a major industry in Bolivia, providing a large share of the country’s export earnings. Bolivia’s income from mining depends on prices in world markets. Bolivia was one of the world’s leading producers of tin through most of the 20th century, but tin is now produced more cheaply in other countries, and Bolivia’s tin production has declined as a result. By the end of the 20th century, increased production of other minerals—gold, silver, and zinc, in particular—offset the decline in income from tin. Other mineral resources include lead, antimony, tungsten, iron, and lithium. However, protests including legal battles delayed government plans to open these deposits to private investors.

Petroleum and natural gas production increased in importance in the 1960s and early 1970s; by the early 1990s Bolivia was self-sufficient in petroleum and was exporting significant amounts of natural gas to Argentina. In the late 1990s a pipeline was built to supply natural gas to Brazil.

The refining of petroleum and the processing of food products (including beverages) and cement are Bolivia’s major manufacturing industries. Smaller industries include leather working, tobacco processing, and the manufacture of chemicals, textiles, paper, furniture, glass, explosives, and matches. La Paz and Santa Cruz are manufacturing centers as well as centers of domestic trade. In 2007 industry, which includes mining, manufacturing, and construction, accounted for 36 percent of the GDP. Industry employed 28 percent of the workers.

Although Bolivia long depended on mineral exports, declining tin exports and increased production of petroleum and natural gas changed the country’s economy during the 1980s. By the year 2000, natural gas accounted for nearly 20 percent of export earnings while metals provided close to 15 percent. Animal feed was another important export. Bolivia’s imports consist mainly of machinery, motor vehicles, electric equipment, and manufactured goods. Bolivia consistently has a trade deficit. In 2007 imports totaled $3.4 billion, and exports earned $4.5 billion.

The principal purchasers of Bolivia’s exports are Brazil, the United States, Colombia, the United Kingdom, Venezuela, Peru, and Argentina. Chief suppliers of imports are the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Peru. Ties with partners in the Andean Community are also important to Bolivia’s trade; these partners include Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. Founded in 1969, the group works toward common policies on energy, tariff reduction, industrial and agricultural development, political cooperation, improved internal and international trade, and the creation of a common market. Bolivia is also a member of the Latin American Integration Association (LAIA), an organization with many of the same goals as the Andean Group, but on a wider scale. In 1996 Bolivia joined the Southern Cone Common Market (known by its Spanish acronym, MERCOSUR), a trade group dedicated to lowering tariffs and removing other trade barriers among its member nations. MERCOSUR—which also includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay—covered a market of more than 190 million people in 1995, making it the world’s fourth-largest free trade group.

Tourism of Bolivia

Tourists come to Bolivia to enjoy the beautiful mountain scenery of the Andes and to visit Lake Titicaca. In addition, there are Incan and pre-Incan ruins in the mountains. Bolivia also has a number of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites, including the silver-mining town of Potosí, which dates from the 1500s; the historic city of Sucre, the first capital of Bolivia; and Jesuit missions at Chiquitos, which were built between 1696 and 1760. In 2004, a Che Guevara Trail opened in eastern Bolivia. It leads from Santa Cruz via Inca sites to the village near Vallegrande, where revolutionary leader Che Guevara was captured and shot in 1967.

Currency and Banking of Bolivia

The basic unit of currency is the boliviano, equivalent to 1 million old Bolivian pesos (7.90 bolivianos equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The Banco Central de Bolivia is the sole bank of issue. Several state-owned development banks provide investment credits to small mining and agricultural operations. Foreign and domestic private financial institutions also operate in the country.

Transportation and Communications in Bolivia

Bolivia has 3,698 km (2,298 mi) of railroad tracks. Railroads connect the landlocked country to ports on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The principal line connects La Paz with the free port of Antofagasta, Chile. Since 1992 Bolivia has had use of Peru’s seaport at Ilo. Bolivia also has free port privileges in the maritime facilities of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.

About 62,479 km (about 38,823 mi) of roads exist in Bolivia; only a few are hard-surfaced, and many are passable only in the dry season. The country’s major road links the highland city of La Paz with Santa Cruz in the eastern lowlands, the country’s most productive agricultural region. A paved road also links the country to the Pacific Ocean at Arica, Chile. The Pan-American Highway links Bolivia with Peru and Argentina. Light-draft water vessels can navigate about 10,000 km (about 6,000 mi) of the nation’s rivers, primarily in the eastern part of the country.

Bolivia has 19 daily newspapers. Reporting on political protests can be dangerous and result in jail sentences, and journalists generally exercise self-censorship. Radio is an important means of communication in rural areas.

Labor in Bolivia

Bolivia’s labor force was 4.4 million in 2007. Nearly the entire nonfarm labor force is organized, most of it in unions belonging to the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), the central labor federation. Peasant unions were established after the 1952 revolution.


Bolivia is a republic governed under a constitution passed in 1967 and since amended. A new constitution with expanded powers for the nation’s indigenous peoples was approved by voters in January 2009. It was the first Bolivian constitution to be voted on in a national referendum.

Executive of Bolivia

Executive power is vested in a president and vice president, elected by direct popular vote of married people over the age of 18 and single people over 21. A 1995 constitutional amendment extended the presidential term from four years to five. Neither the president nor the vice president can be reelected to an immediate succeeding term. The president appoints the cabinet. Among other presidential powers is the right to rule by decree.

Legislature of Bolivia

The Bolivian congress is bicameral, composed of a senate of 27 members (3 from each department) and a chamber of deputies of 130 members. All are elected for four-year terms. The constitution approved in 2009 also guarantees representation of indigenous people.

Political Parties of Bolivia

The principal political parties are the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR), and the Movement for Socialism (MAS).

Local Government of Bolivia

The republic is divided into nine major political divisions, called departments: Santa Cruz, El Beni, Tarija, Potosí, La Paz, Chuquisaca, Pando, Cochabamba, and Oruro. These departments are administered by prefects appointed by the president. Each department is divided into provinces, administered by subprefects appointed by the president. Important cities and towns have popularly elected councils.

Judiciary and Defense in Bolivia

Justice is administered by the Supreme Court, which is composed of 12 members, elected by the congress to ten-year terms, and by district and local courts. Military training for one year is universal and selective. In 2006 the combined strength of the armed forces was 46,100.

Health and Welfare in Bolivia

Health conditions are poor in Bolivia. In 2004 the country had 1 physician for every 1,364 inhabitants. The infant mortality rate is among the highest in South America; malaria, dysentery, and tuberculosis are common. Cases of yellow fever also occur in low-lying areas. Medical services and hospitals are particularly inadequate in rural areas. Bolivia has a comprehensive social insurance plan, but it covers less than half the working population.


Civilized cultures have lived in what is now Bolivia for more than 1,000 years. The ancient Tiwanaku civilization developed along the shores of Lake Titicaca around AD 600 and left impressive stone monuments. However, little is known about the origins of this group. In about 1300 the Quechua-speaking Incas, who came across the lake from present-day Peru, overran Tiwanaku. When the Spaniards arrived in South America in the early 16th century, the Inca Empire, of which Bolivia was a part, was divided by civil strife, with two rival nobles claiming the throne. The Spanish took advantage of this strife to conquer the empire.

Colonial Rule

The territory of Bolivia was conquered in 1538 by Spanish conquistador Hernando Pizarro, younger brother of Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro. The elder Pizarro had subdued Peru, which was the heart of the Inca Empire. Within the next 40 years, Spanish settlements were formed at Chuquisaca (present-day Sucre), Potosí, La Paz, and Cochabamba.

The region was first called the province of Charcas and later Alto Perú (Upper Peru). It was governed by an audiencia (a judicial body with executive powers) under the viceroyalty of Peru. In 1776 Spain transferred Bolivia to the newly created viceroyalty of the Río de La Plata, which administered Bolivia from what is now Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Throughout the three centuries of the colonial period, Bolivia was important to Spain because of its rich silver mines located at Potosí, which until the 18th century was the largest city in colonial America. Bolivia’s silver mines produced several hundred million dollars’ worth of silver, extracted from the mines by Native Americans. They worked under the dreaded mita, or obligatory service system, which required Native Americans to work a specified number of hours in the mines each year. This forced-labor system led to many uprisings by Native Americans who worked the mines.

For centuries the production of minerals for export was Bolivia’s most important economic activity, and other areas of the economy were neglected. From early colonial times, Bolivia imported food and most manufactured goods to supplement the meager output of its farms and rudimentary local industries. Mining began to decline in the 18th century, and by the end of the century the industry had stagnated.


Bolivia was one of the first countries in the Spanish Empire to attempt a break from Spain, but it was one of the last to succeed. The Spanish suppressed the first critical rebellion at Chuquisaca in May 1809. Fifteen years later a revolutionary army under General Antonio José de Sucre liberated Bolivia after defeating Spanish forces at the Battle of Ayacucho in Peru on December 9, 1824. Bolivia declared its independence from Spain on August 6, 1825, and took the name Bolivia in honor of South American independence leader Simón Bolívar. In 1826 a congress at Chuquisaca adopted a constitution drafted by Bolívar. It vested supreme authority in a president, who was chosen for a life term.

From the beginning of its national existence, Bolivia was plunged into a state of nearly chronic revolution and civil war. The first president, General Antonio José de Sucre, was expelled from the country after holding office for only two years. During the next half century, interludes of political tranquility were brief and infrequent. Between 1836 and 1839 Bolivia was in a confederation with Peru, but a Chilean invasion brought an effective end to it, increasing the turbulence. Short wars and disputes with both Peru and Chile followed.

Boundary Disputes

Bolivia became involved in a number of border disputes between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries. One of the earliest disputes involved the ill-defined borders with Peru and Chile along the Pacific Coast in the region of the Atacama Desert. The disputed area became the center of controversy following the discovery of rich deposits of nitrate, a mineral used in fertilizer production. In treaties made in 1866 and 1874, Bolivia and Chile adopted the 24th parallel of south latitude as the boundary line in that region. In addition, the treaty granted to Chile various customs and mining concessions in Bolivia’s portion of the Atacama. Disputes arose between the two countries over the latter provisions, and in 1879 Chile seized the Bolivian port of Antofagasta. In the resulting struggle, called the War of the Pacific, Chile defeated Bolivia and its ally Peru. Bolivia lost its one seacoast possession, becoming a landlocked country. A treaty ratified in December 1904 recognized the perpetual dominion of Chile over the disputed territory but granted Bolivia free access to the sea. A dispute with Brazil concerning the possession of the Acre region was settled in 1903. The agreement ceded about 180,000 sq km (about 70,000 sq mi) to Brazil in return for a money indemnity and small territorial compensations elsewhere.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, Bolivia enjoyed the longest period of peace and progress in its history. The exploitation of tin resources, begun in 1899, made Bolivia one of the world’s major tin suppliers. Several Bolivians, later known as the tin barons, made large fortunes from tin mining. British and U.S. investors became interested in the industry in its early stages, and they invested a considerable amount of capital.

This boom in the tin-mining industry coincided with Liberal Party administrations. The government helped the industry by only lightly taxing the new mining interests and by expanding the country’s existing rail system. The Republican Union Party overthrew the Liberal Party in 1920 and remained in power for the following 15 years. Under the new administration, relatively little changed in economic policy. During this period the first important manufacturing industries were established.

The Bolivian government subsequently became involved in boundary disputes with Argentina, Peru, and Paraguay. Bolivia reached a peaceful solution to the dispute with Argentina in 1925. In the 1930s Peru and Bolivia appointed a joint commission that decided the border disputes over the peninsula of Copacabana.

The Paraguay-Bolivia boundary dispute arose over the Chaco Boreal, a low region to the north of the Pilcomayo River, to the west of the Paraguay River, and extending to the undisputed boundary of Bolivia. Both Bolivia and Paraguay claimed the entire territory, which was believed to contain large reserves of petroleum. In July 1932 an undeclared war broke out (see Chaco War). As in every other international conflict in which the country had been involved, Bolivia lost this bloody struggle. A peace treaty ended the conflict in July 1938 and awarded most of the territory to Paraguay.

Political Instability

The period after 1930 was marked by internal strife. In that year, President Hernando Siles, who had governed for two years without convening the national legislature, was overthrown in a revolution. Another coup followed in 1934.

The poor performance of Bolivia’s armed forces in the Chaco War gave impetus to dissident political currents, particularly among young intellectuals who had made up much of the junior officer class during the war. Their social consciousness was stimulated by the ineffectiveness and greed of professional military officers and politicians, and by the suffering of Native American soldiers unaccustomed to the world outside their mountain homes. Old political groups favoring the tin barons were discredited as many people began to realize that a combination of Bolivian and foreign exploiters was draining the country’s resources.

Widespread discontent was first expressed in the revolution of May 1936, led by Colonel David Toro, who proclaimed Bolivia a socialist republic. Toro seized the property of U.S. petroleum giant Standard Oil Company and encouraged organized labor in Bolivia. Toro was largely successful in improving the desperate conditions caused by the Chaco War and the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s. He made enemies in influential quarters, however, and in 1937 a group led by Lieutenant Colonel Germán Busch ousted Toro.

In 1938, during Busch’s second term as president, a new constitution was adopted. His regime enacted the country’s first labor code, abolished the system of tenant services to landlords, and set up controls over the mining industry. Busch abolished the new constitution in April 1939, however, and set up a totalitarian state. Four months later he was found dead of a bullet wound, an alleged suicide.

General Carlos Quintanilla then assumed the presidency. He restored the 1938 constitution and stated that the army would exercise control until new elections could be held. In 1940 General Enrique Peñaranda was elected president. Popular discontent continued.

During the 1940s several leftist-oriented political parties were organized. The most important of these was the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, or MNR), founded by young nationalist intellectuals and headed by Víctor Paz Estenssoro, an economist and one-time close adviser to Colonel Busch. The MNR opposed the power of the big mining companies and advocated freeing the Native American people from exploitation. The party became popular among miners in 1942, after it disclosed before congress the government’s responsibility for a massacre at the Catavi mine in which soldiers killed strikers, women, and children.

In 1943 the MNR led a coup that ousted Peñaranda. The new government, headed by Lieutenant Colonel Gualberto Villarroél, encouraged unionization of tin mines and tried to improve Native American living conditions. These efforts brought the government into conflict with the tin barons. The conflict culminated in a bloody uprising in La Paz in 1946 and the lynching of Villarroél. For the next six years the government remained in the hands of the conservative Socialist Republican Union Party.

The Regime of Paz Estenssoro

After Villarroél’s death in 1946, Víctor Paz Estenssoro fled to Argentina. In 1951 Paz Estenssoro won nearly half the presidential election vote while in exile. To prevent the election of Paz Estenssoro, the government was placed under the control of a military junta.

In 1952 a revolution by the MNR and the miners put Paz Estenssoro in the presidency, and the MNR began its program of profound social, economic, and political changes. It pledged to make Native Americans full-fledged members of the national community, to free the country from control of the largely foreign-owned mining companies, to develop the economy, and to bring about real political democracy.

The revolutionary regime acted quickly. In August 1952 it extended the vote to all adults. Previously, only literate adults could vote. A year later, through its land reform law, it broke up the estates of the large landlords and transferred ownership of the small plots to Native American farmers. It began extensive projects for education and founded medical clinics in the countryside and farm cooperatives among the peasants. The new government took control of the major tin-mining companies. It also opened new areas for settlement, with particular attention given to the undeveloped eastern part of Bolivia.

The MNR’s development program faced major foreign and domestic obstacles. The country’s inflation was soaring because of declining income from mining (a result of low tin prices in the world market), ambitious economic development programs, corruption, and the departure of much foreign and native capital from the country. The second MNR president, Hernán Siles Zuazo, came into office in 1956 and took major steps to counteract inflation. In conjunction with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United States, his administration launched a stabilization program that limited wage increases, abolished most price controls, and reduced government spending. These measures did not end the economic crisis, and Paz Estenssoro was confronted with these problems when he returned to the presidency in 1960. A rise in agricultural and mineral production led to a partial recovery, however.

During its years in power, the MNR provided Bolivia with the most stable and open government in the country’s history. The press was free to criticize the government and did so energetically. Government changes in 1956 and 1960 were the results of elections, although there were frequent crises and many coup d’état attempts to oust the MNR.

Rule by the Army

By the mid-1960s the MNR occupied the center in Bolivian politics. The MNR made economic concessions to the IMF to encourage international investments. These concessions cost the party the support of many miners who withdrew from the MNR to form the Revolutionary Party of the Nationalist Left (Partido Revolucionario de la Izquierda Nacionalista, or PRIN). Opposition to the Paz Estenssoro government increased on the left and the right.

The Bolivian military overthrew Paz Estenssoro in 1965. A military junta used force to suppress the opposition of the miners and the mine unions. General René Barrientos Ortuno, a member of the junta, was elected president in 1966. Although he retained most of the revolution’s programs, his government reopened tin-mining operations to private and foreign investment.

Barrientos relied heavily on armed force to put down Communist-led guerrilla movements concentrated in the mountainous mining regions. The Bolivian army reportedly smashed the rebel forces in 1967 in a pitched battle near the village of Vallegrande. Che Guevara, aide to Cuban premier Fidel Castro, was captured in that encounter and was executed shortly afterward. Barrientos died in a helicopter crash in 1969, and a series of short-lived governments followed, most headed by military leaders.

In 1971 a coup supported by the right and the center brought Colonel Hugo Banzer Suárez to power. With business support, Banzer ruled as president for seven years. In 1972 Banzer invoked martial law. He also silenced many political opponents and suppressed protests by peasants. After an abortive coup in 1974, Banzer suspended all political parties, trade unions, and student groups.

Banzer stepped down in 1978 pending restoration of civilian government, but elections in 1979 and 1980 were followed by renewed military intervention. By 1982 the country’s earnings from tin production had declined, and foreign debt continued to rise. During this time, the illegal export of cocaine from Bolivia began to thrive. Cocaine became the major source of export revenues and peasant incomes and a major source of income among government officials. Drug traffickers paid bribes to judges, politicians, and military officers in exchange for protection from prosecution and the ability to trade drugs without interference. The United States pressured Bolivia to take decisive steps against the drug traffic.

In the meantime General Luís García Meza had seized power in 1980, suspended the constitution, and instituted a repressive regime. His opponents were arrested and killed, and many more fled abroad. The universities were closed. The army ousted García Meza in 1981, and moderate army leadership held power until elections were held in 1982.

Former president Hernán Siles Zuazo was installed as president; he faced several cabinet crises and could not resolve economic problems caused by Bolivia’s huge foreign debt. Presidential elections in 1985 returned Paz Estenssoro to the presidency. With backing from the IMF, Paz Estenssoro immediately imposed a drastic deflationary program. A new currency unit, the boliviano, was introduced to replace the near-worthless peso at the rate of 1 to 1 million. Paz Estenssoro’s administration slashed government employment and subsidies and closed most of the tin mines, which were considered unprofitable. The resulting strikes and demonstrations were repressed. Unemployment and poverty soared, but the rate of inflation was reduced to less than 20 percent per year. By 1988 a modest economic recovery had begun. The government attempted to cut down coca production and the sale of cocaine. It was aided by a contingent of U.S. troops in 1986, but the efforts were only partially successful and were very unpopular.

Free Market Reforms

Jaime Paz Zamora became president of Bolivia in 1989 after winning a congressional runoff. He was followed, in 1993, by mining entrepreneur Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Sánchez de Lozada worked to implement a number of reforms intended to give more economic and political power to Bolivia’s Native American majority. He increased spending for roads, schools, and water projects in largely rural areas. The government also legalized native organizations and allowed bilingual education in Native American languages as well as Spanish.

As the Bolivian government promoted a free market economy and sought to privatize state oil holdings in the mid-1990s, Bolivian labor activists responded by staging a series of strikes and protests. In 1995 thousands of union workers and state employees organized more than three weeks of civil disturbances. Their actions prompted the government to make numerous arrests and suspend the constitutional right to a trial. The government proceeded to privatize the oil and natural gas industry.

Former dictator and retired general Hugo Banzer Suárez, a candidate of the right-wing Nationalist Democratic Action Party (ADN), was elected president in 1997. Banzer pledged to continue the previous government’s free market reforms and its efforts to combat the illegal drug trade. In late 1997 the Bolivian government launched the so-called Dignity Plan, an effort funded largely by the United States to eradicate coca production in Bolivia by 2002.

Political and Social Unrest

Coca producers rejected the government’s aggressive new anticoca policy, and coca farmer unions vowed to defend their crops. Sporadic clashes between farmers and Bolivian soldiers ensued. Banzer stepped down as president in 2001 because of illness, and was replaced by his vice president, Jorge Quiroga Ramírez.

Former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada returned to office after elections in 2002. His free market economic policies and privatization program alienated many Bolivians. In addition, farmers did not support the government’s continuing efforts to eradicate coca. Demonstrations, led mainly by indigenous groups, erupted after Sánchez proposed building a natural gas pipeline to Chile. For centuries, protestors claimed, the country’s mineral wealth had gone to a small elite; the protestors demanded that revenues from Bolivia’s remaining resource—natural gas—benefit Bolivia’s poor. After a month of protests during which more than 80 people were killed, Sánchez de Lozada stepped down in 2003 and fled to the United States.

Vice President Carlos Mesa succeeded Sánchez as president. Mesa asked Bolivians for time to resolve some of the country’s economic problems. One of his first acts was to create a new ministry for indigenous affairs. In January 2005 protests erupted over rising gas prices in the country. Claiming the protests made it impossible to govern, Mesa formally submitted his resignation in March. However, the Bolivian congress rejected his resignation, as well as his request to hold early elections in an attempt to quell the discontent. Congress drafted a bill to raise taxes on profits made by foreign companies from the exploitation of Bolivia’s natural gas. In addition, Mesa promised a referendum on the autonomy demands of resource-rich provinces such as Santa Cruz.

Indigenous people continued to stage massive protests. They demanded the nationalization of the energy sector and the drafting of a new constitution to give the indigenous majority more rights. The protests led to Mesa’s resignation in early June. Congress appointed Supreme Court president Eduardo Rodríguez as caretaker president and scheduled elections for December 2005.

In the elections leftist Juan Evo Morales Ayma, better known simply as Evo Morales, won the presidency decisively, becoming the first indigenous person to hold that office in Bolivia’s history. Morales was a former coca farmer and union leader who opposed efforts by the United States to limit growth of the plant, which is used to make cocaine but also holds cultural significance for the indigenous people. A leader of Bolivia’s Movement for Socialism party (MAS), Morales is known for his close relationships with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

After taking office in early 2006, Morales issued a decree on May 1 taking greater state control of Bolivia’s oil and natural gas production. Following through on a campaign pledge, Morales said, “The time has come, the awaited day, a historic day in which Bolivia retakes absolute control of its foreign resources. The looting by the foreign companies has ended.” The decree required all foreign companies to turn over most of their control of the country’s oil and natural gas fields to Bolivia’s state-owned oil company. It also gave foreign investors in the oil and natural gas industries six months to renegotiate their contracts with Bolivia, stopping short of total expropriation. To enforce the decree, Morales ordered soldiers to occupy the oil and gas fields.

In November 2006, Morales followed through on a campaign promise of land reform. The Bolivian congress passed a measure proposed by Morales that called for redistributing underutilized or idle land to rural communities. Bolivian officials estimated that as much as 20 million hectares (49 million acres) of land might be redistributed. The new law generated massive street demonstrations both for and against. The congress considered the measure just as the Catholic Church in Bolivia issued a survey showing that 90 percent of the nation’s land is owned by only 50,000 families.

Morales’s policies continued to be met with opposition from Bolivia’s traditional political quarters, particularly in the provinces where the country’s oil and natural gas resources are located. Unlike most oil-rich countries, where oil and natural gas revenues are controlled by the central government, half of Bolivia’s hydrocarbon revenues go to the provincial and local governments. The governors of four eastern lowland provinces—sometimes called the “Media Luna” or “half-moon” because they form a crescent shape—sought more control over these revenues and began demanding autonomy from the central government. In 2008 some opposition leaders began calling for a referendum on Morales’s recall. To their surprise Morales accepted the challenge, and in August 2008 the referendum was held. Eight of Bolivia’s nine provincial governors were also subjected to the recall.

The referendum resulted in an overwhelming show of support for Morales, who received nearly 68 percent of the vote. Two provincial governors who opposed Morales went down to defeat. However, the governors of the four Media Luna provinces were reaffirmed.

In January 2009 Bolivian voters approved a new constitution by more than 60 percent of the popular vote, although it was rejected in the Media Luna provinces. The new constitution provides greater autonomy for indigenous peoples and is widely seen as one that redresses many of their grievances. It was the first constitution since 1967 to be drafted with participation by indigenous people and the first to be approved by a national referendum. In addition to expanding indigenous people’s rights, including a guarantee of representation in parliament, it also affirmed state control over natural resources and access to water as a basic human right. As a conciliatory move to those in the Media Luna provinces who opposed the new constitution, Morales agreed to drop a provision that would have enabled the president to serve two consecutive five-year terms. However, since the new constitution only became effective in 2009, Morales would be able to seek reelection in 2009 for a five-year term.

The new constitution also settled the controversy over land reform that began when Morales came to power in 2006. Rather than breaking up large estates, the constitution provides that new landowners are restricted to farms or ranches no larger than 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres).

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