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
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
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
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.
Bolivian History Bibliography