The History of Bolivia
Below is a brief history of Bolivia. To find information other than history for Bolivia then visit
the Bolivia Country Page.
The Andean region probably has been inhabited for some 20,000 years. Beginning about the 2d century B.C., the Tiwanakan culture developed at the southern end of Lake Titicaca. This culture, centered around and named for the great city of Tiwanaku, developed advanced architectural and agricultural techniques before it disappeared around 1200 A.D., probably because of extended drought. Roughly contemporaneous with the Tiwanakan culture, the Moxos in the eastern lowlands and the Mollos north of present-day La Paz also developed advanced agricultural societies that had dissipated by the 13th century of our era. In about 1450, the Quechua-speaking Incas entered the area of modern highland Bolivia and added it to their empire. They controlled the area until the Spanish conquest in 1525.
During most of the Spanish colonial period, this territory was called "Upper Peru" or "Charcas" and was under the authority of the Viceroy of Lima. Local government came from the Audiencia de Charcas located in Chuquisaca (La Plata--modern Sucre). Bolivian silver mines produced much of the Spanish empire's wealth, and Potosi, site of the famed Cerro Rico--"Rich Mountain"--was, for many years, the largest city in the Western Hemisphere. As Spanish royal authority weakened during the Napoleonic wars, sentiment against colonial rule grew. Independence was proclaimed in 1809, but 16 years of struggle followed before the establishment of the republic, named for Simon Bolivar, on August 6, 1825.
Independence did not bring stability. For nearly 60 years, coups and short-lived constitutions dominated Bolivian politics. Bolivia's weakness was demonstrated during the War of the Pacific (1879-83), when it lost its seacoast and the adjoining rich nitrate fields to Chile.
An increase in the world price of silver brought Bolivia a measure of relative prosperity and political stability in the late 1800s. During the early part of the 20th century, tin replaced silver as the country's most important source of wealth. A succession of governments controlled by the economic and social elites followed laissez-faire capitalist policies through the first third of the century.
Living conditions of the indigenous peoples, who constituted most of the population, remained deplorable. Forced to work under primitive conditions in the mines and in nearly feudal status on large estates, they were denied access to education, economic opportunity, or political participation. Bolivia's defeat by Paraguay in the Chaco War (1932-35) marked a turning point. Great loss of life and territory discredited the traditional ruling classes, while service in the army produced stirrings of political awareness among the indigenous people. From the end of the Chaco War until the 1952 revolution, the emergence of contending ideologies and the demands of new groups convulsed Bolivian politics.
The Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) emerged as a broadly based party. Denied its victory in the 1951 presidential elections, the MNR led the successful 1952 revolution. Under President Victor Paz Estenssoro, the MNR introduced universal adult suffrage, carried out a sweeping land reform, promoted rural education, and nationalized the country's largest tin mines.
Twelve years of tumultuous rule left the MNR divided. In 1964, a military junta overthrew President Paz Estenssoro at the outset of his third term. The 1969 death of President Rene Barrientos, a former member of the junta elected President in 1966, led to a succession of weak governments. Alarmed by public disorder, the military, the MNR, and others installed Col. (later General) Hugo Banzer Suarez as President in 1971. Banzer ruled with MNR support from 1971 to 1974. Then, impatient with schisms in the coalition, he replaced civilians with members of the armed forces and suspended political activities. The economy grew impressively during most of Banzer's presidency, but human rights violations and eventual fiscal crises undercut his support. He was forced to call elections in 1978, and Bolivia again entered a period of political turmoil.
Elections in 1978, 1979, and 1980 were inconclusive and marked by fraud. There were coups, counter-coups, and caretaker governments. In 1980, Gen. Luis Garcia Meza carried out a ruthless and violent coup. His government was notorious for human rights abuses, narcotics trafficking, and economic mismanagement. Later convicted in absentia for crimes, including murder, Garcia Meza was extradited from Brazil and began serving a 30-year sentence in 1995.
After a military rebellion forced out Garcia Meza in 1981, three other military governments in 14 months struggled with Bolivia's growing problems. Unrest forced the military to convoke the Congress elected in 1980 and allow it to choose a new chief executive. In October 1982--22 years after the end of his first term of office (1956-60)--Hernan Siles Zuazo again became President. Severe social tension, exacerbated by economic mismanagement and weak leadership, forced him to call early elections and relinquish power a year before the end of his constitutional term.
In the 1985 elections, the Nationalist Democratic Action Party (ADN) of Gen. Banzer won a plurality of the popular vote (33%), followed by former President Paz Estenssoro's MNR (30%) and former Vice President Jaime Paz Zamora's Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR, at 10%). But in the congressional run-off, the MIR sided with MNR, and Paz Estenssoro was chosen for the fourth time as president. When he took office in 1985, he faced a staggering economic crisis. Economic output and exports had been declining for several years. Hyperinflation had reached an annual rate of 24,000%. Social unrest, chronic strikes, and unchecked drug trafficking were widespread.
In 4 years, Paz Estenssoro's administration achieved economic and social stability. The military stayed out of politics, and all major political parties publicly and institutionally committed themselves to democracy. Human rights violations, which badly tainted some governments earlier in the decade, were not a problem. However, Paz Estenssoro's remarkable accomplishments were not won without sacrifice. The collapse of tin prices in October 1985, coming just as the government was moving to reassert its control of the mismanaged state mining enterprise, forced the government to lay off over 20,000 miners. The highly successful shock treatment that restored Bolivia's financial system also led to some unrest and temporary social dislocation.
Although the MNR list headed by Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada finished first in the 1989 elections (23%), no candidate received a majority of popular votes and so in accordance with the constitution, a congressional vote determined who would be president. The Patriotic Accord (AP) coalition between Gen. Banzer's ADN and Jaime Paz Zamora's MIR, the second- and third-place finishers (at 22.7% and 19.6%, respectively), won out. Paz Zamora assumed the presidency and the MIR took half the ministries. Banzer's center-right ADN took control of the National Political Council (CONAP) and the other ministries.
Paz Zamora was a moderate, center-left president whose political pragmatism in office outweighed his Marxist origins. Having seen the destructive hyperinflation of the Siles Zuazo Administration, he continued the neoliberal economic reforms begun by Paz Estenssoro. Paz Zamora took a fairly hard line against domestic terrorism, personally ordering the December 1990 attack on terrorists of the Nestor Paz Zamora Committee (CNPZ--named after his brother who died in the 1970 Teoponte insurgency) and authorizing the early 1992 crackdown against the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army (EGTK).
Paz Zamora's government was less decisive against narcotics trafficking. It had a mixed record in confronting narco-traffickers and made little progress in confronting illegal coca cultivation. In the mid-1990s, Paz Zamora and his government were investigated by the Bolivian Congress for ties to narco-traffickers. The 1993 elections continued the tradition of open, honest elections and peaceful democratic transitions of power. The MNR defeated the ADN/MIR coalition by a 33% to 20% margin, and the MNR's Gonzalo "Goni" Sanchez de Lozada was selected as president by an MNR/MBL/UCS coalition in the Congress.
Sanchez de Lozada pursued an aggressive economic and social reform agenda. He relied heavily on successful entrepreneurs-turned-politicians like himself and on fellow veterans of the Paz Estenssoro administration (during which Sanchez de Lozada was Minister for Planning). The most dramatic change undertaken by the Sanchez de Lozada government was the "capitalization" program, under which investors, typically foreign, acquired 50% ownership and management control of public enterprises, such as the state oil corporation, telecommunications system, airlines, railroads, and electric utilities in return for agreed upon capital investments. The reforms and economic restructuring were strongly opposed by certain segments of society, which instigated frequent and sometimes violent protests, particularly in La Paz and the Chapare coca-growing region, from 1994 through 1996. The Sanchez de Lozada government pursued a policy of offering monetary compensation for voluntary eradication of illegal coca by its growers in the Chapare region. The policy produced little net reduction in coca, and in the mid-1990s Bolivia accounted for about one-third of the world's coca going into cocaine.
In the 1997 elections, Gen. Hugo Banzer, leader of the ADN, won 22% of the vote, while the MNR candidate won 18%. Gen. Banzer formed a coalition of the ADN, MIR, UCS, and CONDEPA parties which held a majority of seats in the Bolivian Congress. The Congress elected him as president and he was inaugurated on August 6, 1997.
The Banzer government basically continued the free market and privatization policies of its predecessor, and the relatively robust economic growth of the mid-1990s continued until about the third year of its term in office. After that, regional, global and domestic factors contributed to a decline in economic growth. Job creation remained limited throughout this period and the public perceived a significant amount of public sector corruption. Both factors contributed to increasing social protests during the second half of Banzer's term.
At the outset of his government, President Banzer launched a policy of using special police units to physically eradicate the illegal coca of the Chapare region. The policy produced a sudden and dramatic 4-year decline in Bolivia's illegal coca crop, to the point that Bolivia became a relatively small supplier of coca for cocaine. The MIR of Jaime Paz Zamora remained a coalition partner throughout the Banzer government, supporting this policy (called the Dignity Plan).
On August 6, 2001, Banzer resigned from office after being diagnosed with cancer. He died less than a year later. Banzer's U.S.-educated Vice President, Jorge Quiroga, completed the final year of the term. Quiroga was constitutionally prohibited from running for national office in 2002 but could do so in 2007.
In the June 2002 national elections, former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (MNR) placed first with 22.5% of the vote, followed by illegal-coca agitator Evo Morales (Movement Toward Socialism, MAS) with 20.9%. Morales edged out populist candidate Manfred Reyes Villa of the New Republican Force (NFR) by just 700 votes nationwide, earning a spot in the congressional run-off against Sanchez de Lozada on August 4, 2002.
A July agreement between the MNR and the fourth-place MIR, which had again been led in the election by former president Paz Zamora, virtually ensured the election of Sanchez de Lozada in the congressional run-off, and on August 6 he was sworn in for the second time. The MNR platform featured three overarching objectives: economic reactivation (and job creation), anti-corruption, and social inclusion.
A 4-year economic recession, tight fiscal situation, and longstanding ethnic tensions created in February 2003 a police revolt that nearly toppled the government of President Sanchez de Lozada; several days of unrest left more than 30 persons dead. The government stayed in power but remained unpopular. Wide-spread protests broke out in October and revealed deep dissatisfaction with the government. Approximately 80 persons died during the demonstrations which led the President Sanchez de Lozada to resign from office on October 17. In a constitutional transfer of power, Vice President Carlos Mesa assumed the Presidency and promised to hold a binding referendum on the export of Bolivian natural gas. Mesa enjoys popularity with the Bolivian public, but he faces the same difficulties-social divisions, an anti-democratic, radical opposition, and a severe fiscal deficit-as the previous administration.