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A Brief History of Bolivia

Bolivia is the size of Texas and California combined and has fewer than 10 million inhabitants. It is bordered on the west by the Andes and on the north and east by the Amazon jungle. One of two landlocked countries in South America, it has the highest average altitude of any country in South America. Three-fourths of the population live either in the western mountains or on the high plain (“altiplano”), where the potato was first domesticated about 4,000 years ago.

Previously known as “upper Peru,” what is now Bolivia was conquered by the Spanish in 1538. Spanish, Quechua and Aymara are all official languages. Silver was discovered in Potosí in 1545 and for many years Potosí was both the largest and the richest city in the Western hemisphere. Potosí made Bolivia the world’s largest silver producer for two centuries, from 1545 to 1745.

Independence from Spain was achieved in 1824 at the battle of Ayacucho, and the new country was named after the general of its liberating army, Simon Bolívar.

Since independence Bolivia has been politically unstable, with approximately 250 governments and 16 constitutions in 170 years. In 1932 a border dispute with Paraguay grew into a war. Bolivia lost, and two-thirds of the 90,000 people killed in the war were Bolivians.

In 1952 the MNR (National Revolutionary Movement) took power and accomplished several important changes during its 12 years in power: It initiated a serious agrarian reform that settled almost 600,000 families, it nationalized the tin industry, and it extended suffrage to indigenous peoples and women (previously, only literate men could vote, fewer than 10 percent of the population). A military coup in 1964 ended this experiment.

Despite its huge dimensions, its forests and its mineral resources, Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere. A weak economy and political instability made Bolivia vulnerable to cocaine exporters, who ruled the country for several years during the early 1980s. Astronomical rates of inflation in the last decades have severely damaged the economy, although recently inflation has been reduced to about 10 percent.

The election in 2005 of the first indigenous president, Evo Morales, marked a new moment in Bolivian history. In 2008 Bolivia celebrated 183 years of republican government and voted on a controversial new constitution. The road to approval was rough, but successful. The country is divided between the wealthier states in the east, which have many resources, and the poorer, indigenous departments in the Andes, where the capital La Paz is located and where the majority are subsistence farmers, miners or artisans. President Morales advocates nationalizing industry and natural resources (natural gas), allowing indigenous populations to practice justice in accord with their cultural traditions and spending the country’s meager budget on the basic needs of people and infrastructure for the whole country.

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