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Tangible history lives on in most of Bolivia’s best known destinations. From pre-Hispanic archaeological sites and living indigenous traditions to colonial architecture and the most recent headline-making political upheaval, the country’s history reflects influences that have shaped South America as a whole.

The great Altiplano (High Plateau), the largest expanse of arable land in the Andes, extends from present-day Bolivia into southern Peru, northwestern Argentina and northern Chile. It’s been inhabited for thousands of years, but the region’s early cultures were shaped by the imperial designs of two major forces: the Tiahuanaco culture of Bolivia and the Inca of Peru.

Most 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. Cultural interchanges between early Andean peoples occurred mostly through trade, usually between nomadic tribes, or as a result of the diplomatic expansionist activities of powerful and well-organized societies. These interchanges resulted in the Andes’ emergence as the cradle of South America’s highest cultural achievements.

During the initial settlement of the Andes, from the arrival of nomads probably from Siberia until about 1400 BC, villages and ceremonial centers were established, and trade emerged between coastal fishing communities and farming villages of the highlands.

Early & middle horizons

The so-called Early Horizon (1400–400 BC) was an era of architectural innovation and activity, which is most evident in the ruins of Chavín de Huantar, on the eastern slopes of the Andes in Peru. During this period it is postulated that a wave of Aymará Indians, possibly from the mountains of central Peru, swept across the Andes into Alto Perú (Bolivia), driving out most of the Altiplano’s original settlers. Chavín influences resounded far and wide, even after the decline of Chavín society, and spilled over into the Early Middle Horizon (400 BC to AD 500).

The Middle Horizon (AD 500–900) was marked by the imperial expansion of the Tiahuanaco and Huari (of the Ayacucho valley of present-day Peru) cultures. The ceremonial center of Tiahuanaco, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, grew and developed into the religious and political capital of the Alto Peruvian Altiplano.

The Tiahuanacans 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, as well as other undeciphered hieroglyphs. Over the following centuries wooden boats were constructed to ferry 55, 000kg slabs 48km across the lake to the building site, and sandstone blocks weighing 145, 000kg were moved from a quarry 10km away.

By 700 BC, Tiahuanaco had developed into a thriving civilization. Considered as advanced as ancient Egypt in many respects, it had an extensive system of roads, irrigation canals and agricultural terraces. Recent archeological findings suggest that these agricultural systems are more sophisticated than previously thought; they were designed to obtain high crop yields from unproductive land. The series of canals were built up with layer upon layer of substances – cobblestone topped with gravel and impermeable clay – designed to keep salt from the lake’s brackish waters from seeping into the topsoil. This agricultural system is believed to have supported a population of tens of thousands of people in the 83-sq-km Tiahuanaco Valley.

Tiahuanaco was inhabited from 1500 BC until AD 1200, but its power lasted only from the 6th century BC to the 9th century AD. One theory speculates that Tiahuanaco was uprooted by a drop in Lake Titicaca’s water level, which left the lakeside settlement far from shore. Another postulates that it was attacked and its population massacred by the warlike Kollas (sometimes spelt Collas; also known as Aymará) from the west. When the Spanish arrived, they heard an Inca legend about a battle between the Kollas and ‘bearded white men’ on an island in Lake Titicaca. These men were presumably Tiahuanacans, 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.

Today the remains of the city lie on the plain between La Paz and the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, and collections of Tiahuanaco relics can be seen in several Bolivian museums.

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Late horizon – the inca

The Late Horizon (AD 1476–1534) marked the zenith of Inca civilization. The Inca, the last of South America’s indigenous conquerors, arrived shortly after the fall of Tiahuanaco. They pushed their empire from its seat of power in Cuzco (Peru) eastward into present-day Bolivia, southward to the northern reaches of modern Argentina and Chile, and northward through present-day Ecuador and southern Colombia. However the Inca political state thrived for less than a century before falling to the invading Spanish.

The Inca inhabited the Cuzco region from the 12th century and believed they were led by descendents of the Sun God. The 17th-century Spanish chronicler Fernando Montesinos believed the Inca descended from a lineage of Tiahuanaco sages. There were many similarities between Tiahuanaco and Inca architecture.

Renowned for their great stone cities and skill in working with gold and silver, the Inca also set up a hierarchy of governmental and agricultural overseers, a viable social welfare scheme and a complex road network and communication system that defied the difficult terrain of their far-flung empire. The Inca government could be described as an imperialist socialist dictatorship, with the Sapa Inca, considered a direct descendant of the Sun God, as reigning monarch. The state technically owned all property, taxes were collected in the form of labor and the government organized a system of mutual aid in which relief supplies were collected from prosperous areas and distributed in areas suffering from natural disasters or local misfortune.

Around 1440 the Inca started to expand their political boundaries. The eighth Inca, Viracocha (not to be confused with the Tiahuanaco leader/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. When the Inca arrived in Kollasuyo (present-day Bolivia), they assimilated local tribes as they had done elsewhere: by imposing taxation, religion and their own Quechua language (the empire’s lingua franca) on the region’s inhabitants. The Kollas living around the Tiahuanaco site were essentially absorbed by the Inca and their religion was supplanted, but they were permitted to keep their language and social traditions.

By the late 1520s internal rivalries began to take their toll on the empire. In a brief civil war over the division of lands, Atahualpa, the true Inca emperor’s half-brother, imprisoned the emperor and assumed the throne himself.

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Spanish conquest

The arrival of the Spanish in Ecuador in 1531 was the ultimate blow. Within a year Francisco Pizarro, Diego de Almagro and their bands of merry conquistadores arrived in Cuzco. Atahualpa was still the emperor, but was not considered the true heir of the Sun God. The Spanish were aided by the Inca belief that the bearded white men had been sent by the great Viracocha Inca as revenge for Atahualpa’s breach of established protocol. In fear, Atahualpa ordered the murder of the real king, which not only ended the bloodline of the Inca dynasty, but brought shame on the family and dissolved the psychological power grip of the Inca hierarchy. Within two years the government was conquered, the empire dissolved and the invaders had divided Inca lands and booty between the two leaders of the Spanish forces.

Alto Perú, which would later become Bolivia, fell for a brief time into the possession of Diego de Almagro, who was assassinated in 1538. Three years later Pizarro suffered the same fate at the hands of mutinous subordinates. But the Spanish kept exploring and settling their newly conquered land, and in 1538 La Plata (later known as Sucre) was founded as the Spanish capital of the Charcas region.

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The legacy of potosí

By the time the wandering Indian Diego Huallpa revealed his earth-­shattering discovery of silver at Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) in Potosí in 1544, Spanish conquerors had already firmly implanted their language, religion and customs on the remnants of Atahualpa’s empire.

Spanish Potosí, or the ‘Villa Imperial de Carlos V, ’ was officially founded in 1545 and quickly grew to 160, 000 residents, making it the largest city in the western hemisphere. The Potosí mine became the world’s most prolific, and the silver extracted from it underwrote the Spanish economy, particularly the extravagance of its monarchy, for at least two centuries.

Atrocious conditions in the gold and silver mines of Potosí guaranteed a short life span for the local indigenous conscripts and African slaves who were herded into work gangs. Those not actually worked to death or killed in accidents succumbed to pulmonary silicosis within a few years. Africans who survived migrated to the more amenable climes of the Yungas northeast of La Paz, and developed into an Aymará-speaking minority. The indigenous peoples became tenant farmers, subservient to the Spanish lords, and were required to supply their conquerors with food and labor in exchange for subsistence-sized plots of land.

Coca, ace at numbing nerves and once the exclusive privilege of Inca nobles, was introduced among the general populace to keep people working without complaint.

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In May 1809 Spanish America’s first independence movement – sparked by the criollos (people of Spanish ancestry born in the Americas) and mestizos (people of both indigenous and Spanish ancestry) – had gained momentum and was well underway in Chuquisaca (later renamed Sucre, as it stands today), with other cities quick to follow suit. By the early 1820s General Simón Bolívar succeeded in liberating both Venezuela and Colombia from Spanish domination. In 1822 he dispatched Mariscal (Major General) 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.

At this point Sucre incited a declaration of independence for Alto Perú, and exactly one year later the new Republic of Bolivia was born. The republic was loosely modeled on the US, with legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. Bolívar and Sucre served as Bolivia’s first and second presidents, but after a brief attempt by Andrés Santa Cruz, the third president, to form a confederation with Peru, things began to go awry. One military junta after another usurped power from its predecessor, setting a pattern of political strife that haunts the nation to this day.

Few of Bolivia’s 192 governments to date have remained in power long enough to have much intentional effect, and some were more than a little eccentric. The bizarre and cruel General Mariano Melgarejo, who ruled from 1865 to 1871, once drunkenly set off with his army on an overland march to aid France at the outset of the Franco-Prussian War. History has it that he was sobered up by a sudden downpour and the project was abandoned (to the immense relief of the Prussians, of course).

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Shrinking territory

At the time of independence Bolivia’s boundaries encompassed well over two million sq km, but its neighbors soon moved to acquire its territory, removing coastal access and much of its Amazonian rubber trees, as well as attempting to control the potentially oil-rich Chaco; only half the original land area remained.

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 enclaustromiento (landlocked status). In fact the government still uses the issue as a rallying cry to unite people behind a common cause.

The next major loss was in 1903 during the rubber boomwhenBrazil hacked away at Bolivia’s inland expanse. Brazil and Bolivia had been ransacking the forests of the remote Acre territory, which stretched from Bolivia’s present Amazonian borders to halfway up Peru’s eastern border. The area was so rich in rubber trees that Brazil engineered a dispute over sovereignty and sent in its army. Brazil convinced the Acre region to secede from the Bolivian republic, and promptly annexed it.

Brazil attempted to compensate Bolivia’s loss with a railway, intended to open up the remote northern reaches of the country and provide a coastal outlet for the Amazon Basin. However the tracks never reached Bolivian soil. Construction ended at Guajará-Mirim on the Brazilian bank of the Río Mamoré.

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 went to Argentina. It had been offered to both Chile and Argentina, the former in exchange for return of the Litoral, the latter in exchange for clarification over Bolivia’s ownership of Tarija.

Finally Paraguay went in for the kill. In 1932 a border dispute for control of the potentially huge deposits of oil in the Chaco was revved up by rival foreign oil companies. With Standard Oil backing Bolivia and Shell siding with Paraguay, Bolivia entered into the Chaco War.

Bolivia fell victim to Paraguayan pride and, within three years, lost another 225, 000 sq km, 65, 000 young men and a dubious outlet to the sea via the Río Paraguai before the dispute was finally settled in 1935 in Paraguay’s favor. The anticipated oil reserves were never discovered, but several fields in the area that remained Bolivian territory now keep the country self-sufficient in oil production.

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Continuing political strife

During the 20th century wealthy tin barons and landowners controlled Bolivian farming and mining interests, while the peasantry was relegated to a feudal system of peonage known as pongaje. The beating Bolivia took in the Chaco War made way for reformist associations, civil unrest among the cholos (indigenous people who dress traditionally but live in cities) and a series of coups by reform-minded military leaders.

The most significant development was the emergence of the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) political party, which united the masses behind the common cause of popular reform. It sparked friction between peasant miners and absentee tin bosses. The miners’ complaints against outrageous working conditions, pitifully low pay and the export of profits to Europe, raised the political consciousness of all Bolivian workers. Under the leadership of Víctor Paz Estenssoro (commonly referred to as Víctor Paz), the MNR prevailed in the 1951 elections, but a last-minute military coup prevented it from actually taking power. The coup provoked a popular armed revolt by the miners, which became known as the April Revolution of 1952. After heavy fighting the military was defeated and Paz Estenssoro finally took power. He nationalized mines, evicted the tin barons, put an end to pongaje and set up Comibol (Corporación Minera de Bolivia), the state entity in charge of mining interests.

The revolutionaries also pressed ahead with a diverse reform program, which included redistribution of land among sharecropping peasants and the restructuring of the education system to include primary education in villages.

The miners and peasants felt they were being represented, which enabled the MNR to stay in power for a notable 12 years under various leaders. But even with US support the MNR was unable to raise the standard of living or increase food production substantially, and its effectiveness and popularity ground to a halt. Víctor Paz Estenssoro was forced to become increasingly autocratic and in 1964 his government was overthrown by a military junta headed by General René Barrientos Ortuño.

Five years later Barrientos died in a helicopter accident and a series of coups, military dictators and juntas followed. Right-wing coalition leader General Hugo BanzerSuárez eventually took over in 1971 and served a turbulent term, punctuated by reactionary extremism and human-rights abuses. In 1978 amid demand for a return to democratic process, he scheduled general elections, lost, ignored the results, accused the opposition of ballot-box tampering and was forced to step down in a coup by General Juan Pereda Asbún.

The next three years were filled with failed elections, appointed presidents, military coups and hideous regimes, and a rash of tortures, arrests and ­disappearances, as well as a substantial increase in cocaine production and trafficking. One military leader, General Luis García Meza Tejada, eventually fled the country and was convicted in absentia of genocide, treason, human-rights abuses and armed insurrection, and sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment. He was extradited from Brazil to Bolivia in 1995 to serve his sentence.

In 1982 Congress elected Hernán Siles Zuazo, the civilian left-wing leader of the Communist-supported Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR). His term was beleaguered with labor disputes, ruthless government spending and 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, Víctor Paz Estenssoro returned to politics to become president for the fourth time (he served his second and third terms between 1960 and 1964, after having changed the constitution to allow himself to run for re-election). He immediately enacted harsh measures to revive the shattered economy: he ousted labor unions, removed government restrictions on internal trade, slashed the government deficit, imposed a wage freeze, eliminated price subsidies, laid off workers at inefficient government-owned companies, allowed the peso to float against the US dollar and deployed armed forces to keep the peace.

Inflation was curtailed within weeks, but spiraling unemployment, especially in the poor Altiplano mining areas, caused enormous suffering and threatened the government’s stability. Throughout his term, however, Paz Estenssoro remained committed to programs that would return the government mines to private cooperatives and develop the largely uninhabited lowland regions. To encourage the settlement of the Amazon, he promoted road building (with Japanese aid) in the wilderness and opened up vast indigenous lands and pristine rain forest to logging interests.

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Chaos prevails

Free from the threat of military intervention, the 1989 presidential elections were characterized mostly by apathy. Hugo Banzer Suárez of the Acción Democrática Nacionalista (ADN) resurfaced, the MIR nominated Jaime Paz Zamora and the MNR put forth mining company president and economic reformist Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (‘Goni’). Although Banzer and Sánchez were placed ahead of Paz Zamora, no candidate received a majority, so it was left to the National Congress to select a winner. Congress selected Paz Zamora as the new president (meanwhile, rivals Banzer and Paz Zamora formed a coalition).

In the 1993 election Sánchez was elected. Sánchez’s Aymará running mate, Victor Hugo Cárdenas, appealed to cholos and campesinos (subsistence farmers), while European urbanites embraced Sánchez’s free-market economic policies. This administration attacked corruption and began implementing capitalización by opening up state-owned companies and mining interests to overseas investment. Officials hoped privatization would stabilize and streamline companies, making them profitable. Overseas investors in formerly state-owned companies received 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, which was meant to channel spending away from cities and into rural schools, clinics and other local infrastructure.

Initially Participación Popular drew widespread disapproval; city dwellers didn’t want to lose their advantage, and rural people, who stood to benefit most, feared a hidden agenda or simply didn’t understand the program. Most working-class people viewed it as privatization by another name, and believed it would lead to the closure of unprofitable operations that didn’t attract investors, resulting in increased unemployment. They had a point: while potential investors clamored for the oil company Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB) and the huge agribusinesses of the Santa Cruz department, the antiquated Comibol mining operations and the hopelessly inefficient Empresa Nacional de Ferrocarriles (ENFE) railways drew little more than polite sneers (and many components of these operations have indeed closed down).

In 1995 labor grievances over these new policies resulted in a 90-day state-of-siege declaration and the arrest of 374 labor leaders. By mid-year measures were relaxed, but as the year progressed, reform issues were overshadowed by violence and unrest surrounding US-directed coca eradication in the Chapare. Even the establishment of a Spanish-managed private pension scheme and a subsequent payment of US$248 to each Bolivian pensioner – with the promise of future payments from the less-than-fluid plan – did little to boost the administration’s popularity.

In 1997 voters upset by the reforms cast 22.5% of the ballot in favor of comeback king and former dictator General Hugo Banzer Suárez. Congress deemed Banzer the victor, and he was sworn in on August 6 to a five-year term, up from four by a 1996 constitutional amendment.

In the late 1990s Banzer faced swelling public discontent with his coca eradication measures, widespread corruption, unrest in response to increasing gas prices and a serious water shortage and economic downturn in the Cochabamba department. In 2000, public protests over increasing gas prices versus government-controlled transportation fares resulted in the blockade of the Yungas Highway for several weeks, and several issues inspired marches, demonstrations and occasional violence, which sporadically halted all traffic (in some cases even vendor and pedestrian traffic) in La Paz and other cities.

Then in 2000 there was the now-famous Water War in Cochabamba when the World Bank forced the Bolivian Government to sell the province’s water utility to the private US-company Bechtel. When there was a water rate hike, the local people took to the streets and Bechtel was forced out.

In August 2002 ‘Goni’ Sánchez de Lozada was appointed president after winning only 22.5% of the vote. In February 2003 his International Monetary Fund (IMF) –endorsed economic policies, including steep tax hikes and the exportation of gas out of Bolivia for processing elsewhere, were met with widespread protests and several days of police lock-down in La Paz. In October 2003, Lozada resigned amidst massive popular protests and fled to Miami, where he lives today in comfort, to the disgruntlement of Bolivians. His vice president and respected historian Carlos Mesa automatically took office.

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A new era

Although the unrest continued, Mesa remained a popular leader during his first two years as president. In 2004 he held a referendum on the future of Bolivia’s natural gas reserves. Bolivians overwhelmingly advocated Mesa’s proposals to exert more control over the foreign-owned gas companies. But in 2005, rising fuel prices led to major protests. Tens of thousands of Bolivians – impoverished miners and farmers – took to the streets. Mesa resigned in June 2005. Supreme Court Judge Eduardo Rodriguez took over as interim president.

In December 2005, Bolivians elected their country’s first indigenous president. Former cocalero (coca grower) activist Juan Evo Morales Ayma (more commonly known as Evo Morales) of Movimento al Socialismo (MAS) won nearly 54% of the vote, having promised to alter the traditional political class and to empower the nation’s poor (mainly indigenous) majority. Soon after Morales’ appointment, the IMF announced a US$2 billion debt-forgiveness plan for Bolivia (along with the debts of 18 other impoverished countries). Morales was quick to set about change, carrying out some hefty initiatives: in May 2006 he nationalized Bolivia’s energy industry, and in July 2006 he formed (through local elections) a National Constituent Assembly to set about rewriting the country’s constitution. The assembly sat for the first time on August 6, 2006 (Independence Day) and will have a year to formulate a new body of law before being ratified in a national referendum. Controversial (at least for the US) is that fact that Morales is challenging the US to rethink its coca eradication efforts. Mor­ales wants to promote the coca leaf and its bi-products, integral to many Bolivians’ wellbeing and culture. (Until this time, coca crops – plants, not their chemical derivative of cocaine –­ were under a zero-tolerance policy, intended to placate the US.)

While Morales is viewed by some as a populist leader, he is seen also to antagonize the US, especially with his ties with the leftist governments of Venezuela and Cuba. Furthermore, he has set about redefining indigenous identity and empowering the underprivileged indigenous majority, fueling what some sociologists and anthropologists are predicting will be the next cultural revolution.

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