Destinations > South America > Bolivia

Bolivia History

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The Andean region has probably been inhabited for some 20,000 years. Around 2000 B.C., the Tiwanakan culture developed at the southern end of Lake Titicaca. The Tiwanakan culture centered around and was named after the great city Tiwanaku. The people developed advanced architectural and agricultural techniques before disappearing about 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. Around 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 day Sucre). Bolivian silver mines produced much of the Spanish empire’s wealth. 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. Sixteen years of struggle followed before the establishment of the republic, named after Simon Bolivar, on August 6, 1825.

Independence did not bring stability. For nearly 60 years, short-lived, weak institutions and frequent coups characterized Bolivian politics. The War of the Pacific (1879-83) demonstrated Bolivia’s weakness when it was defeated by Chile. Chile took lands that contained rich nitrate fields and removed Bolivia’s access to the sea.

An increase in world silver prices brought Bolivia prosperity and political stability in the late 1800s. Tin eventually replaced silver as the country’s most important source of wealth during the early part of the 20th century. Successive governments controlled by economic and social elites followed laissez-faire capitalist policies through the first third of the century.

Indigenous living conditions remained deplorable. Forced to work under primitive conditions in the mines and in nearly feudal status on large estates, indigenous people 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 and more of a shared national identity generally. 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.

Revolution and Turmoil

Bolivia’s first modern and broad-based political party was the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR). Denied victory in the 1951 presidential elections, the MNR led a successful revolution in 1952. 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 junta member elected president in 1966, led to a succession of weak governments. 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 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 in a La Paz prison.

After a military coup forced Garcia Meza out of power in 1981, three separate military governments in 14 months struggled unsuccessfully to address 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 hyperinflation and weak leadership, forced him to call early elections and relinquish power a year before the end of his constitutional term.

Return to Democracy

In the 1985 elections, Gen. Banzer’s Nationalist Democratic Action Party (ADN) 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%). With no majority, the Congress had constitutional authority to determine who would be president. In the congressional run-off, the MIR sided with MNR, and Paz Estenssoro was selected to serve a fourth term 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 meant prices grew at an annual rate of 24,000%. Social unrest, chronic strikes, and drug trafficking were widespread.

In four years, Paz Estenssoro’s administration achieved a measure of economic and social stability. The military stayed out of politics; all major political parties publicly and institutionally committed themselves to democracy. Human rights violations, which tainted some governments earlier in the decade, decreased significantly. However, Paz Estenssoro’s accomplishments came with sacrifice. Tin prices collapsed in October 1985. The collapse came as the government moved to reassert control of the mismanaged state mining enterprise and forced the government to lay off over 20,000 miners. Although this economic “shock treatment” was highly successful from a financial point of view and tamed devastatingly high rates of hyperinflation, the resulting social dislocation caused significant unrest.

MNR candidate Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada finished first in the 1989 elections (23%), but no candidate received a majority of popular votes. Again, Congress would determine the president. The Patriotic Accord (AP) between Gen. Banzer’s ADN and Jaime Paz Zamora’s MIR, the second- and third-place finishers (at 22.7% and 19.6%, respectively), led to Paz Zamora’s assuming the presidency.

Even though Paz Zamora had been a Marxist in his youth, he governed as a moderate, center-left president, and marked his time in office with political pragmatism. He continued the economic reforms begun by Paz Estenssoro. Paz Zamora also took a fairly hard line against domestic terrorism, authorizing a 1990 attack on terrorists of the Nestor Paz Zamora Committee and the 1992 crackdown on the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army (EGTK).

The 1993 elections continued the growing tradition of open, honest elections and peaceful democratic transitions of power. The MNR defeated the ruling coalition, and Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada was named president by a coalition in Congress.

Sanchez de Lozada pursued an aggressive economic and social reform agenda, relying heavily on successful entrepreneurs-turned-politicians like him. The most dramatic program--“capitalization,” a form of privatization under which investors acquired 50% ownership and management control of the state oil corporation, telecommunications system, airlines, railroads, and electric utilities--was used to generate funds for a new pension and healthcare system called BonoSol. BonoSol funding was popular in the country but the concept of capitalization was strongly opposed by certain segments of society, with frequent and sometimes violent protests from 1994 through 1996. During his term, Sanchez de Lozada also created the "popular participation law," which devolved much of the central government's authority to newly created municipalities, and the INRA law, which significantly furthered land redistribution efforts begun under the MNR after the 1952 revolution.

In the 1997 elections, Gen. Hugo Banzer, leader of the ADN, returned to power democratically after defeating the MNR candidate. The Banzer government continued the free market and privatization policies of its predecessor. The relatively robust economic growth of the mid-1990s continued until regional, global, and domestic factors contributed to a decline in economic growth. Job creation remained limited throughout this period, and public perception of corruption was high. Both factors contributed to an increase in social protests during the second half of Banzer’s term.

Rising international demand for cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s led to a boom in coca production and to significant peasant migration to the Chapare region. To reverse this, Banzer instructed special police units to physically eradicate the illegal coca in the Chapare. The policy produced a sudden and dramatic four-year decline in Bolivia’s illegal coca crop, to the point that Bolivia became a relatively small supplier of coca for cocaine. In 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.

In the 2002 national elections, former President Sanchez de Lozada (MNR) again placed first with 22.5% of the vote, followed by coca union leader Evo Morales (Movement Toward Socialism, MAS) with 20.9%. The MNR platform featured three overarching objectives: economic reactivation (and job creation), anti-corruption, and social inclusion.

A four-year economic recession, difficult fiscal situation, and longstanding tensions between the military and police led to the February 12-13, 2003, violence that left more than 30 people dead and nearly toppled Sanchez de Lozada’s government. The government stayed in power, but was unpopular.

Trouble began again in the so-called “Gas Wars” of September/October 2003. A hunger strike by Aymara leader and congressional deputy Felipe “Mallku” Quispe led his followers to begin blocking roads near Lake Titicaca. About 800 tourists, including some foreigners, were trapped in the town of Sorata. After days of unsuccessful negotiations, Bolivian security forces launched a rescue operation, but on the way out, were ambushed by armed peasants and a number of people were killed on both sides. The incident ignited passions throughout the highlands and united a loose coalition of protestors to pressure the government into halting a proposed project to export liquefied natural gas, most likely through Chile. Anti-Chile sentiment and memories of three major cycles of non-renewable commodity exports (silver through the 19th century, guano and rubber late in the 19th century, and tin in the 20th century) touched a nerve with many citizens. Tensions grew and La Paz was subjected to protesters’ blockades. Violent confrontations ensued, and approximately 60 people died, most of them when security forces tried to bring supplies into the besieged city.

In the end, large demonstrations forced Sanchez de Lozada to resign on October 17, 2003. Vice President Carlos Mesa Gisbert assumed office and restored order. Mesa appointed a non-political cabinet and promised to revise the constitution through a constituent assembly, revise the hydrocarbons law, and hold a binding referendum on whether to develop the country’s natural gas deposits, including to service the export market. The referendum took place on July 18, 2004, and Bolivians voted overwhelmingly in favor of development of the nation’s hydrocarbons resources. But the referendum did not end social unrest. In May 2005, large-scale protests led to the congressional approval of a law establishing a 32% direct tax on hydrocarbons production, which the government used to fund new social programs. After a brief pause, demonstrations resumed, particularly in La Paz and El Alto. President Mesa offered his resignation on June 6, and Eduardo Rodriguez, the president of the Supreme Court, assumed office in a constitutional transfer of power. Rodriguez announced that he was a transitional president, and called for elections within six months.

Current Administration

On December 18, 2005, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) candidate Juan Evo Morales Ayma was elected to the presidency by 54% of the voters. Bolivia’s first president to represent the indigenous majority, Morales continued to serve as leader of the country’s coca unions. During his campaign, Morales vowed to nationalize hydrocarbons, to alleviate poverty, and to empower the indigenous population. Morales was highly critical of what he termed “neo-liberal” economic policies implemented in Bolivia over the past several decades. On January 22, 2006, Morales and Vice President Alvaro García Linera were inaugurated.

Since then, President Morales has moved to fulfill his campaign promises. On May 1, 2006, the government issued a decree nationalizing the hydrocarbons sector and calling for the renegotiation of contracts with hydrocarbons companies. In November 2006, the government and companies signed new contracts that were expected to result in higher revenues for the government; however, the contracts required further negotiations and clarification. Morales continues to promote greater state control of natural resource industries, particularly hydrocarbons and mining, and of the telecommunications sector (see Economy section). These policies have pleased Morales’ supporters but have complicated Bolivia’s relations with some of its neighboring countries, foreign investors, and members of the international community.

Fulfilling another campaign promise, Morales secured passage of legislation convoking a special election for delegates to a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. The MAS performed well in those elections, capturing 137 of 255 seats. The assembly convened on August 6, 2006, and planned to complete its work by August 2007; however, the Congress extended its mandate to December 14, 2007 after the constituent assembly faced political deadlock over its voting rules. Although rules were ostensibly clarified in February 2007, the subject reemerged in August, after the legality of a vote on the location of the capital was contested by the opposition. An agreement could not be reached, and the opposition delegates walked out of the assembly. The MAS approved a constitution without the opposition vote in November 2007, in a controversial assembly session in which opposition delegates were blocked from voting by demonstrators and the armed forces. On December 14, 2007, Morales presented the constitutional text to the National Congress to request a referendum for its approval in 2008. The opposition-controlled Senate prevented the referendum legislation from moving forward.

Under the administrative decentralization law of 1995, Bolivia’s nine departments had received greater autonomy, and on December 18, 2005, Bolivians elected their departmental prefects (similar to governors) by popular vote for the first time in history. In a July 2006 referendum, Bolivia’s four eastern departments voted in favor of increasing regional autonomy, and the other five provinces opposed the measure. The autonomy movement rallied around Sucre’s August 2007 demand that the constituent assembly consider moving all branches of government back to the traditional capital of Sucre. Civic committees in six departments (Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni, Pando, Cochabamba, and Chuquisaca) supported hunger strikes and protests in Sucre. The strikes led to government-sponsored talks between Sucre and La Paz leaders. The talks were inconclusive. The Santa Cruz government approved an autonomy statute in December 2007; the governments of the other eastern departments followed Santa Cruz’s lead. Santa Cruz held a popular referendum on its autonomy statute on May 4, 2008, in which the majority of voters voted for autonomy. Voters in Beni, Pando, and Tarija also voted for increased autonomy in referenda that followed the Santa Cruz referendum. The Bolivian Government considered these referenda to be illegal and refused to recognize the results.

In May 2008, the Senate endorsed MAS-introduced legislation for a recall referendum on the mandates of the President, Vice President, and eight of nine departmental prefects, held on August 10, 2008. President Morales was ratified with 67% of the vote. Opposition prefects in the so-called “Media Luna” departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni, and Pando were also ratified with substantial majorities. Political tensions between the government and the opposition over the new constitution, the autonomy statutes passed in some department legislatures, and the division of tax proceeds from the hydrocarbon industry led to civil unrest, including incidents of violence and sabotage. Shortly thereafter, a conflict between government supporters and opposition members in the northern department of Pando left 13 dead over two days and led to the declaration of martial law. The government accused Pando prefect Leopoldo Fernandez of being responsible for the deaths. Although the constitution grants prefects immunity from prosecution, the government detained him without trial and appointed an interim prefect. Fernandez remained imprisoned without trial as of July 2009.

In late September 2008, the government and opposition prefects began a “national dialogue” in Cochabamba, but talks collapsed with no agreement. The dialogue moved to the Congress, and President Morales called on his social movement supporters to surround the Congress to pressure opposition members of Congress to vote for the government-sponsored approach. On October 21, 2008, the government and congressional opposition reached a compromise scheduling a constitutional referendum in exchange for textual modifications. Voters approved the new constitution on January 25, 2009.


Information by U.S. Department of State




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