Bolivia’s history is evident in every corner of daily life – in the country’s pre-Hispanic ruins, colonial-era churches and in the museums, galleries and chaotic markets of the city centers. A cultural imprint that dates back more than 6000 years is seen in the language, dress, customs and traditions of the indigenous peoples, whose sense of identity and cultural pride has been boosted by more than a decade of rule by Evo Morales.
The great altiplano (which literally means high plateau), the largest expanse of arable land in the Andes, extends from present-day Bolivia into southern Peru, northwestern Argentina and northern Chile.
Cultural interchanges between the early Andean peoples occurred mostly through trade, usually between nomadic tribes in the lowlands, farmers in the Yungas, organized societies such as the Tiwanaku and Inca in the high plateau, and coastal traders in present-day Peru and Chile. These interchanges and geographic advantages around the altiplano resulted in food surpluses and eventually led to the Andes’ emergence as the cradle of South America’s highest cultural achievements.
Advanced civilizations first developed along the Peruvian coast and in the valleys in the early AD period. Highland civilizations developed a little later. Some archaeologists define the prehistory of the Central Andes in terms of ‘horizons’ – Early, Middle and Late – each of which was characterized by distinct architectural and artistic trends.
Early & Middle Horizons
The so-called Early Horizon (1400–400 BC) was an era of architectural activity and innovation, most evident in the ruins of Chavín de Huantar, on the eastern slopes of the Andes in Peru. Chavín influences resounded far and wide, even after the decline of Chavín society, and spilled over into the Early Middle Horizon (400 BC–AD 500).
By 700 BC, Tiwanaku had developed into a thriving metropolis. A highly advanced civilization for the Andes, it had an extensive system of roads, irrigation canals and agricultural terraces. This system is believed to have supported a population of thousands in the 83-sq-km Tiwanaku Valley.
The Middle Horizon (AD 500–900) was marked by the imperial expansion of the Tiwanaku and Huari (of the Ayacucho Valley of present-day Peru) cultures. The Tiwanakans produced technically advanced work, most notably the city itself. They created impressive ceramics, gilded ornamentation, engraved pillars and slabs with calendar markings, and designs representing their bearded white leader and deity, Viracocha.
Tiwanaku was inhabited from 1500 BC until AD 1200, but its power in the region – based more on religious than economic factors – was strongest from AD 600 to around AD 900, when the civilization began the mysterious decline that lasted until the 1200s. One speculation is that Tiwanaku was uprooted by a drop in Lake Titicaca’s water level, that left the lakeside settlement far from shore. Another theory postulates that it was attacked and its population massacred by the warlike Kollas (also known as the Aymará) from the west. When the Spanish arrived they were told an Inca legend about a battle between the Kollas and ‘bearded white men’ on an island in Lake Titicaca. These men were presumably Tiwanakans, only a few of whom were able to escape. Some researchers believe that the displaced survivors migrated southward and developed into the Chipaya people of the western Oruro department.
Late Horizon – the Inca
The period between 900 and 1475 is known as the Late Intermediate Horizon. After the fall of Tiwanaku, regionalized city-states came to power, such as Chan Chan in Peru and the Aymará kingdoms around the southern shores of Lake Titicaca. However it was the rise and fall of the Inca empire that would truly define the pre-Columbian period.
The Inca inhabited the Cuzco region (in Peru) from the 12th century. They were renowned for their great stone cities and their skill in working with gold and silver. The Inca set up a social welfare scheme, taxed up to two-thirds of produce and worked on a system primarily based on the communal ownership of property. Through the mita system (where short-term forced labor was used to build public projects) they were able to build a complex road network and communication system that defied the difficult terrain of their far-flung empire.
Around 1440 the Inca started to expand their political boundaries. The eighth Inca king, Viracocha (not to be confused with the Tiwanaku deity of the same name), believed the mandate from the Sun God was not just to conquer, plunder and enslave, but to organize defeated tribes and absorb them into the realm of the benevolent Sun God.
Between 1476 and 1534 the Inca civilization was able to extend its influence over the Aymará kingdoms around Lake Titicaca. They pushed their empire from its seat of power in Cuzco eastward into present-day Bolivia, southward to the northern reaches of modern Argentina and Chile, and northward through present-day Ecuador and southern Colombia.
The people of the Aymará Kingdoms were permitted to keep their language and social traditions, but they never truly accepted Inca rule. Today you can still see these linguistic and cultural splits in the Quechua, Aymará and myriad indigenous groups of Bolivia.
By the late 1520s internal rivalries began to take their toll on the empire, with the sons of Inca Huayna Capac – Atahualpa and Huáscar – fighting a bloody civil war after the death of their father. Atahualpa (who controlled the northern reaches of the empire) won the war. While he was traveling south to Cuzco to claim his throne, he ran into the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who captured, ransomed and eventually beheaded him. This left a power vacuum, making it easy for the Spanish to conquer the lands and peoples of the Inca empire.
The Spanish conquest of South America was remarkably quick. The chaos left by the Inca Civil War helped, as did the epidemics caused by European diseases. European mastery of metallurgy for war (not ornamentation like the Inca) also played its part; so did their horses (what strange beasts they must have seemed to the Inca people), and the myth that bearded men would someday be sent by the great Viracocha.
Within a year of their arrival in Ecuador in 1531, Francisco Pizarro, Diego de Almagro and their bands of conquistadors arrived in Cuzco.
Alto Perú (the area we now know as Bolivia) was aligned with the defeated Huáscar during the Inca Civil War, making its conquest rather easy for Diego de Almagro. He was assassinated in 1538; three years later Pizarro suffered the same fate at the hands of mutinous subordinates. But this didn’t deter the Spanish, who kept exploring and settling their newly conquered land.
During these initial stages of conquest, infighting between Spanish factions was common and the fate of Bolivia – a political backwater until the discovery of silver – was tied to the interests of the more powerful political centers in Cuzco and Lima.
It’s important to note the circumstances that brought the conquistadors to the Americas. Most were not part of the landed Spanish elite. They were wealthy enough to make the crossing to the Americas but lacked any prospects of upward mobility in Europe…the kind of person who has nothing to lose and everything to gain. Ironically the riches they found in the Americas would never win the conquistadors (or early American settlers) a place in European society. This no-exit scenario led to the formation of local class structures and governments, the intermixing of languages and cultures, and eventually the independence movements.
The Legacy of Potosí
By the time Diego Huallpa revealed his earth-shattering discovery of silver at Cerro Rico in Potosí in 1544, Spanish conquerors had already firmly implanted their customs on the remnants of the Inca empire. Taking a page from the Inca playbook, they left the local cacique (chieftain) leadership and mita structure in place within the indigenous communities. This provided a local system of governance and an ongoing labor supply. The most powerful conquistadors were granted encomiendas, vast swaths of land and the peasant labor that went with it.
Potosí was officially founded in 1545, and in 1558 Alto Perú gained its autonomy from Lima with the placement of an Audiencia (Royal Court) in Sucre. Transportation hubs, farming communities and other support centers sprung up, centered on Potosí. And while some other Bolivian cities such as La Paz and Sucre were coming to life, the focus in the region was Potosí. Potosí’s mine was the most prolific in the world and its silver underwrote Spain’s international ambitions, enabling the country to conduct the Counter-Reformation in Europe, and supporting the extravagance of its monarchy for at least two centuries. But not all wealth left the region and cathedrals sprung up across the altiplano, eventually giving rise to a local school of design, and later the establishment of Bolivia’s place in the fields of arts, politics and literature.
Missionaries showed up in the 18th and 19th centuries in the areas around Santa Cruz and Tarija, altering the cultural landscape of the region. Increased conflict between new Spanish arrivals and the elite of Potosí in the late 17th century triggered a broad economic decline in the 18th century.
The early part of the 19th century was a time of revolution and independence in Bolivia (and much of the world for that matter). Harvest failures and epidemics severely affected the Bolivian economy between 1803 and 1805, creating fertile ground for revolution. To top it off, with the French Revolution, Napoleon’s wars in Europe and British support for Latin America's independence movements, the colonists of the Americas were finally able to perceive what a world without royalty would look like.
By May 1809, Spanish America’s first independence movement had gained momentum and was well underway in Chuquisaca (later renamed Sucre), with other cities fast to follow suit. This first revolutionary spark was quickly put down. Ironically, while the first shouts of revolution came from Bolivia, it would be the last country in South America to gain independence.
Here’s how it played out. By the early 1820s General Simón Bolívar had succeeded in liberating both Venezuela and Colombia from Spanish domination. In 1822 he dispatched Mariscal (Field Marshall) Antonio José de Sucre to Ecuador to defeat the Royalists at the battle of Pichincha. In 1824 after years of guerrilla action against the Spanish and the victories of Bolívar and Sucre in the battles of Junín (August 6) and Ayacucho (December 9), Peru won its independence. During this time, another independence leader coming from the Río de la Plata, José de San Martín, was busy fighting battles in eastern Bolivia and liberating much of the southern corner of the continent.
With both Argentina and Peru eyeing the prize of the Potosí mines, Sucre incited a declaration of independence from Peru and, in 1825, the new Republic of Bolivia was born. Bolívar (yep, the country was named after him) and Sucre served as Bolivia’s first and second presidents but, after a brief attempt by the third president Andrés Santa Cruz to form a confederation with Peru, things began to go awry. Chilean opposition eventually broke up this potentially powerful alliance, and thereafter Bolivia was relegated to a more secondary role in regional affairs, with a period of caudillo rule dominating national politics until the 1880s. Thereafter Bolivia was ruled by a civilian oligarchy divided into liberal and conservative groups until the 1930s, when the traditional political system again fell apart, leading to constant military intervention until the 1952 Revolution.
At the time of independence Bolivia’s boundaries encompassed well over 2 million sq km. But its neighbors soon moved to acquire its territory, removing coastal access and much of the area covered by its ancient Amazonian rubber trees.
The coastal loss occurred during the War of the Pacific, fought against Chile between 1879 and 1884. Many Bolivians believe that Chile stole the Atacama Desert’s copper- and nitrate-rich sands and 850km of coastline from Peru and Bolivia by invading during Carnaval. Chile did attempt to compensate for the loss by building a railroad from La Paz to the ocean and allowing Bolivia free port privileges in Antofagasta, but Bolivians have never forgotten this devastating enclaustramiento (landlocked status).
The next major loss was in 1903 during the rubber boom, when Brazil hacked away at Bolivia’s inland expanse. Brazil and Bolivia had both been ransacking the forests of the Acre territory – it was so rich in rubber trees that Brazil engineered a dispute over sovereignty and sent in its army. Brazil then convinced the Acre region to secede from the Bolivian republic and promptly annexed it.
There were two separate territory losses to Argentina. First, Argentina annexed a large slice of the Chaco in 1862. Then, in 1883, the territory of Puna de Atacama also went to Argentina. It had been offered to both Chile and Argentina, the former in exchange for return of the Litoral (coastal strip), the latter in exchange for clarification over Bolivia’s ownership of Tarija.
After losing the War of the Pacific, Bolivia was desperate to have the Chaco, an inhospitable region beneath which rich oilfields were mooted to lie, as an outlet to the Atlantic via the Río Paraguay. Between 1932 and 1935, a particularly brutal war was waged between Bolivia and Paraguay over the disputed territory (more than 80,000 lives were lost).
Though no decisive victory was reached, both nations had grown weary of fighting, and peace negotiations in 1938 awarded most of the disputed territory to Paraguay.
Continuing Political Strife
During the early 20th century wealthy tin barons and landowners controlled Bolivian farming and mining interests, while the peasantry was relegated to pongueaje, a feudal system of peonage. Civil unrest brewed, with the most significant development being the emergence of the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) political party. It united the masses behind the common cause of popular reform, sparking friction between peasant miners and absentee tin bosses. Under the leadership of Víctor Paz Estenssoro, the MNR prevailed in the 1951 elections, but a last-minute military coup prevented it from actually taking power.What ensued was a period of serious combat, which ended with the defeat of the military and Paz Estensorro’s rise to power in what has been called the April Revolution of 1952. He immediately nationalized the mines, evicted the tin barons, put an end to pongueaje and set up Comibol (Corporación Minera de Bolivia), the state entity in charge of mining interests. The MNR remained in power for 12 years but even with US support it was unable to raise the standard of living or increase food production substantially.
The '60s and '70s were decades of military coups, dictators, brutal regimes of torture, arrests and disappearances, as well as a marked increase in cocaine production and trafficking.
In 1982 Congress elected Hernán Siles Zuazo, the civilian left-wing leader of the Communist-supported Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR), which began one of the longest democratic periods in Bolivian history. His term was beleaguered by labor disputes, government overspending and huge monetary devaluation, resulting in a staggering inflation rate that at one point reached 35,000% annually.
When Siles Zuazo gave up after three years and called general elections, Paz Estenssoro returned to politics to become president for the fourth time. He immediately enacted harsh measures to revive the shattered economy, including ousting labor unions, imposing a wage freeze and eliminating price subsidies, then deployed armed forces to keep the peace. Inflation was curtailed within weeks, but spiraling unemployment threatened the government’s stability.
The early '90s were characterized by political apathy, party politics and the struggle between capitalización (the opening of state companies to international investment) and populist models. The free market won with the election of Gonzalo ‘Goni’ Sánchez de Lozada, the MNR leader who had played a key role in the curtailing of inflation through ‘shock therapy’ during the Estenssoro government.
Economic reforms saw state-owned companies and mining interests opened up to overseas investment in the hope that that privatization would bring stability and make the enterprises profitable. Overseas investors were offered 49% equity, total voting control, license to operate in Bolivia and up to 49% of the profits. The remaining 51% of the shares were distributed to Bolivians as pensions and through Participación Popular, a program meant to channel spending away from cities and into rural schools, clinics and other local infrastructure.
In late 1995 reform issues were overshadowed by violence and unrest surrounding US-directed coca eradication in the Chapare. In the late '90s the government faced swelling public discontent with the coca eradication measures, and protests in response to increasing gas prices, a serious water shortage and economic downturn in the department of Cochabamba.
Following a successful campaign advised by a team of US political consultants that he hired, ‘Goni’ was again appointed president in August 2002. The following year his economic policies were met with widespread demonstrations, which resulted in the loss of 67 lives during a police lockdown in La Paz. In October 2003, Goni resigned amid massive popular protests and fled to the US. He currently faces charges related to the deaths during the demonstrations, both in the US and Bolivia, and a long-winded formal extradition process has been underway since 2008.
Protests, rising fuel prices and continued unrest pushed Goni’s successor, Carlos Mesa, to resign in 2005.
The Morales Era
In December 2005 Bolivians elected their country’s first indigenous president. A former cocalero (coca grower) and representative from Cochabamba, Evo Morales Ayma of Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) won nearly 54% of the vote, having promised to change the traditional political-class system and to empower the nation’s poor (mainly indigenous) majority. After the election, Morales quickly grabbed the spotlight, touring the world and meeting with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and members of South Africa’s African National Congress. Symbolically, on May Day 2006, he nationalized Bolivia’s natural gas reserves and raised taxes on energy investors in a move that would consolidate Bolivian resources in Bolivian hands. Nationalization led to an eightfold increase in revenues from natural gas by 2013.
In July 2006, Morales formed a National Constituent Assembly to set about rewriting the country’s constitution. In January 2009, the new socially focused constitution was approved by 67% of voters in a nationwide referendum. The first Bolivian constitution to be approved by popular vote, it gave greater power to the country’s indigenous majority, made official the role of indigenous languages and religions in the new 'plurinational' state and allowed Morales to seek a second five-year term, which he won that same year. The constitution also limited the size of landholdings in order to redistribute Bolivia’s land from large ranchers and landowners to poor indigenous farmers.
As a former coca farmer Morales has made it a personal mission to highlight the difference between coca, a plant sacred to the highland indigenous cultures, and cocaine, the narcotic. This culminated in him famously holding up a coca leaf at the United Nations in 2013 and asking those present to correct the 'historical error' of its classification as a drug. Though some dismissed his performance as theater, he was successful in receiving special dispensation to legalize the traditional practices associated with coca in Bolivia. The potential uses of coca go well beyond getting high, and as the world´s third-biggest coca producer, Bolivia stands to benefit enormously if wider legalization of the crop is eventually approved.
While Evo Morales enjoys widespread support among the indigenous people of Bolivia, his radical social changes aren’t without their opponents. In the eastern part of the country – the four departments known as La Media Luna (Half Moon, for their geographic shape) – where much of the natural resources lie, a strong right-wing opposition has been challenging Morales, accusing him of being an ethnocentric despot. In 2016, a referendum proposing to change the constitution to allow Morales to run for a fourth consecutive term delivered a shock no vote. Undeterred, Morales looked to the courts, who overruled the constitution, scrapping limits on terms altogether, and in 2017 Morales announced his intention to stand for reelection in 2019.