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The History of Bolivia

The area of present-day Bolivia was populated long before the arrival of the Spanish to the area in the 1530’s. Parts of the region were inhabited for centuries before the arrival of the Inca—the most powerful being the Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco) civilization, which occupied western Bolivia from as early as 1500 BC. Its capital city was situated close to Lake Titicaca and the empire continued to expand in scope and power over seven centuries. Tiwanaku remained a dominant force in the region for almost 500 years, until about 1200 AD, when it is speculated that drought-like conditions caused the agricultural-based society to collapse.

The Inca, whose empire stretched from northern Chile in the south to Ecuador in the north and Bolivia to the east, became the next major force in the region beginning around the early-15th century. The highlands were an important part of the Inca Empire, because they considered Lake Titicaca to be sacred. The Aymara kingdoms that arose out of the collapse of the Tiwanaku were conquered by the Inca, though they were able to maintain their language, religion, culture and overall organization under their rule for some time. An eventual rebellion on the part of the Aymara a few decades later ended up leading to their own demise at the hands of the Inca, who continued to gain authority in the region. However, the Inca proved to have less luck in taking over the eastern Bolivian lowlands, which were occupied by native tribes.

After the Spanish conquest in 1533—a surprisingly easy feat—the Spanish discovered a rich vein of silver in one of Bolivia’s mountains: a small settlement, Potosí, was founded nearby. Potosí would eventually become one of the most important mines in the history of the world. The settlement boomed and the mountain was stripped for silver by Indian laborers who toiled under unspeakable conditions. Many died while working in the mines, and many more perished as a result of mercury poisoning. The mountain itself came to be known as “Cerro Rico,” or “Rich Hill.” The famous Spanish “pieces of eight,” or silver eight-real coins, were minted from Potosí silver, giving pirates and parrots everywhere something to talk about.

La Paz was founded in 1548, and the area was considered part of the Viceroyalty of Peru until 1776, when it was transferred to the Viceroyalty of La Plata, administered from Buenos Aires. By 1800, La Paz had become the largest city in Upper Peru, which is what the region was most commonly known as prior to its independence, and by the end of the century, it had established itself as the adminitrative capital of the country, which it still remains today.

Although Bolivia was one of the first nations in South America to declare independence from Spain in 1809, the struggle lasted a long time, and it was 1825 before independence was official and Bolivia had any sort of government in place. Bolivia is (of course) named for Simón Bolívar, the leader of the South American independence movement. Bolívar was also the first president of this new republic—though only for a few-month term—and was especially influential in the creation of the Bolivian constitution. He found the infantile state in shambles from the war for independence; it was suffering from international debt, failing industries and conflicting political ideologies.

Antonio José de Sucre was the first elected president in 1826, but was met with strong opposition and was even the target of an assassination attempt, leading to his voluntarily resignation in 1828. The next major political influence in Bolivia was Andrés de Santa Cruz, who managed to establish some semblance of stability in the government and economy.

Bolivia’s early years were marked by violence and strife with its neighbors. In 1836, Peru and Bolivia joined to prevail in a war against Chile and Argentina. This was aggravated by Santa Cruz´s creation of the Peru-Bolivia Confederation upon his invasion of Peru. In 1841, Peru invaded Bolivia but was driven back; Bolivian forces pressed the attack and captured the Peruvian port of Arica. In 1879, the War of the Pacific broke out, which would not end until 1883. In the war, Bolivia lost its access to the Pacific to Chile, and it has remained landlocked ever since. In addition, Bolivia lost one of its provinces, Acre, when Brazil persuaded the locals to secede and join Brazil in 1903.

Not all of Bolivia’s troubles have been international. In 1920, ethnic natives rebelled and in1933 an uprising by tin miners had to be violently put down. Bolivia has seen numerous coups, including notable ones in 1952, 1964, 1969, 1971 and 1980. The country experienced a series of intermittent military governments throughout this historical period until Hernán Siles Zuazo became president for the second time in 1982. Many of these governments were notorious for extreme corruption, human rights violations and narcotics trafficking.

In recent decades, coca production in Bolivia has increased, resulting in powerful drug cartels entering into politics. In 2001, Bolivian farmers rejected a governmental offer of $900 per year to destroy existing coca crops and not grow any in the future. The year 2003 marks the beginning of the Bolivian gas conflict, an effort to protect the country´s extensive natural gas reserves (the second biggest in South America) from exploitation. Two years later, this boiling conflict overflowed in the form of massive protests by tens of thousands of angry Bolivians (mostly peasants, indigenous people and miners) who demanded nationalization of the gas industry.

Today, Bolivia is a constitutional democracy, albeit a fragile one. The current president, Evo Morales, is the country’s first president of indigenous blood and an avid reformer who has nationalized several key industries, which has resulted in increased control and revenue, but has frightened off foreign investment. Morales is the leader of a political party called Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement for Socialismo), or MAS, a left-wing, socialist organization. He was re-elected in a landslide in late 2009 and is expected to push his reformist agenda.

One of Morales' biggest problems has been rebellious eastern provinces. As Morales tries to redistribute Bolivia's wealth, it is the richer eastern provinces which will foot the bill for imporverished highland areas. Some eastern provinces have threatened to assume autonomy rather than give away farmland and wealth to poorer Bolivians.

Bolivia’s history is also full of fascinating footnotes. It was in Bolivia, in 1908, where American fugitives Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were killed in the southern town of San Vicente…allegedly. Some say Butch and / or Sundance escaped. It was also in Bolivia, in 1967, where Ernesto “Ché” Guevara met his end, executed by Bolivian forces working in concert with the CIA. Guevara had been in Bolivia trying to stir up a Cuban-style revolution.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Bolivia: History, Did Butch Cassidy Really Die in Bolivia?, History, Central Highlands History, History of Copacabana, History, The Literature of Bolivia and Northwest Bolivia: History.

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
12 Feb 2010

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