The History of Bolivia

Perhaps more than any other country, the history of Bolivia exemplifies how the American continent tends to concentrate the extremes of natural and cultural beauty on the one hand, and social and political problems on the other.

Ancient History of Bolivia: Land of the Tiwanaku and the Incas

Today we know of two great civilizations that dominated present-day Bolivia before the Spaniards came: the Tiwanaku and the Incas

Around AD 600, the Tiwanaku built a society that is today remembered by the ruins of impressive stone monuments, in the area around Lake Titicaca.

Much of their history, including where they came from, is now a mystery.

Around the year 1300, Tiwanaku's importance in the history of Bolivia faded as it fell within the sights of the mighty Inca Empire, which eventually stretched as far as northwestern Argentina.

The Inca crossed Lake Titicaca and annexed the area.

Long Suffering under Spanish Rule in the History of Bolivia

When the Spanish conqueror Pizarro arrived in 1531, the Inca empire was recovering from civil war.

Pizarro took advantage of the Incas’ relative weakness to march straight to the emperor, Atahualpa, hold him hostage, much as Cortés had done to the Aztec emperor Montezuma, and eventually have him strangled.

The disunited empire, and with it, much of South America, soon fell under Spain’s sway.

During the colonial period, the area now known as Bolivia was first called Charcas and then Alto Peru.

At first, Bolivia was part of the massive Viceroyalty of Peru, which encompassed most of Spain’s holdings in South America.

In 1776, Spain created the Viceroyalty of La Plata, headquartered in Buenos Aires, including Alto Peru within it.

The discovery of silver at Potosí helped to make Spain one of the world’s wealthiest nations, and Bolivia, one of the poorest.

Enslaved Africans and indigenous South Americans were put to work in the mines, often dying after just a few years.

Under the mita system, indigenous people who were not enslaved were forced to work in the mines a set number of hours per year. This led to many uprisings.

Potosí became the largest city in the Americas until the 18th century, when the mines started to go empty.

Today, the silver is mostly gone. All that remains is the legacy of poverty and exploitation, along with the unrest that have come with them.

The Long, Hard Fight for Independence

Given how Bolivia was treated by Spain, it’s not surprising that it was one of the first colonies to revolt.

But the first wave of rebellion was crushed by the Spanish at the battle of Chuquisaca in May 1809.

In 1824, Antonio José de Sucre, one of the lieutenants of the great South American liberator, Simón Bolívar, defeated the Spaniards at the Battle of Ayachucho in Peru.

August 6, 1825 became a significant date in the history of Bolivia, when they declared independence, naming the country after the great liberator.

To this day, Bolívar is the only person in modern history to have a country named after him.

In 1826 a Congress at Chuquisaca ratified a constitution written by Bolívar himself.

Big Trouble in Little Bolivia

Sadly, that first constitution turned out to be just the first of many in the history of Bolivia.

Failed governments, inconclusive elections, revolts, wars, coup after coup, and one military dictatorship after another have marked the history of Bolivia.

It’s an old story in the Americas, which has seen many attempts at democracy but few lasting successes. The history of Bolivia has been little different.

Yet the situation has been particularly bleak in Bolivia due to the massive poverty of the majority of the people, most of whom are indigenous, coupled with the relative wealth of a small elite of locals and foreign investors who often seem to follow in the exploitative footsteps of the Spanish colonizers.

That exploitation heated up when tin was discovered in the late 1800s.

For nearly a century afterward, tin mining built up the country’s economy and created railroads and other infrastructure.

The history of Bolivia even enjoyed political stability and peaceful transitions of elected governments from the end of the nineteenth century through the 1920s.

But the improvements in the lives of most Bolivians were modest at best, in common with much of the history of Bolivia.

The majority of men did not even get to vote, much less take much of a stake in the country’s economy.

Bolivia’s Neighbors Turn the Country Into a Carving Roasts during its history

Almost as destructive for Bolivia have been the border disputes with its neighbors.

It’s another old, sad story in the Americas. Neighboring countries with strong ties of history, culture, and geography forsake the opportunity for a natural alliance in favor of either endlessly disputing their national borders or simply making a brazen and sometimes bloody grab for territory.

Today, Guatemala claims half of Belize, while Venezuela claims most of Guyana—legacies of centuries of resentment against the British invaders who established those countries.

Smaller border disputes remain unsettled between Venezuela and Colombia, Brazil and Argentina, and other countries that would seem to have other priorities.

The most infamous land grabs have been the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, in which the United States stole half of Mexico’s territory; and the 1880s War of the Triple Alliance, in which Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay (with British backing) ganged up on tiny Paraguay, lopping off chunks of territory and ending hundreds of thousands of lives.

Bolivia’s Mexican-American War was the War of the Pacific (1879-1884), in which Chile took Bolivia’s entire seacoast, 850 kilometers (527 miles) of coastline. Bolivia has been a landlocked country to this day.

Peru, Brazil, and Argentina soon took further advantage of the weakened Bolivia, grabbing bordering Bolivian territory for themselves.

In 1932, a dispute over oil deposits in the Chaco region led to the Chaco War (1932-1935) with Paraguay. Once again, Bolivia lost the war and land.

Hope and Despair, Despair and Hope: The history of Bolivia since the 1930s

Bolivia’s period of semi-democratic stability ended around the same time as the Chaco War.

In 1930, an elected but autocratic government was overthrown in a revolution.

In 1934, a more democratic government was also overthrown in a military coup.

In 1936, disenchantment with the military’s loss in the Chaco War undermined its authority, and a revolution ensued, led by Colonel David Toro.

Broad social change, which continues in sometimes bloody fits and starts to this day, was finally beginning.

Bolivia was declared a socialist republic.

The assets of Standard Oil, the US conglomerate, were nationalized, unionization was encouraged, and living standards improved slightly.

A coup overthrew the revolutionary government soon after, but real reform did not stop completely.

Mandatory tenant service to landlords was abolished. The country’s first labor code was created. Mining was finally regulated.

More government turmoil followed, but an important movement emerged, the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, or MNR. Victor Paz Estenssoro, an important figure in Bolivean politics for most of the rest of the twentieth century, founded the movement. The movement opposed exploitation of indigenous people and the miners, thus winning their support.

The MNR took power in a December 1943 coup. Over the coming decades in the history of Bolivia, more transitions of power, both peaceful and violent, would follow. But the MNR would remain an important force, and Bolivia would slowly but surely improve the lives of most of its people.

In 1952, a revolution put the MNR back in power, replacing a military regime that had maneuvered itself into the government.

The MNR quickly enacted Bolivia’s most sweeping reforms ever.

All adults were given the right to vote. Land reform broke up the large estates that had kept the indigenous people in peonage for centuries.

Education and healthcare were extended to the countryside. The tin mining companies’ assets were nationalized.

Major infrastructure improvements, such as roads and hydroelectricity, transformed Bolivia into something resembling a modern nation.

The thirteen years between the MNR revolution and a military coup in 1965 were without a doubt the longest period of true democracy and open society that Bolivia has ever had in its history, even today.

Of course, there were constant coup attempts. There were also numerous economic problems resulting both from the government’s ambitious spending program, and the US and IMF sponsored austerity measures that followed. Still, there was freedom of the press and real elections.

The military regime that overthrew the democratic government in 1965 faced heavy armed resistance.

But in 1967 the regime turned the tide at a battle near the village of Vallegrande. It was here that they famously captured, tortured, and kill Che Guevara, the famous revolutionary.

Originally from Argentina, he had been instrumental in establishing the revolutionary government in Cuba.

Military government, punctuated by violent resistance and repression, dominated Bolivia for two decades ending in the 1985 elections, which were won by Paz Estenssoro.

Paz Estenssoro worked to reduce inflation, including replacing the peso with the new boliviano, at an exchange of 1 to 1 million.

In a very unpopular move, he slashed government social spending and closed unprofitable state-owned tin mines, throwing many into unemployment and poverty.

Meanwhile, with tin earnings on the decline, cocaine had become the nation’s leading export. To this day, the United States has pressured Bolivia to end the traffic, even sending in aid, military supplies, and actually sending in US troops from July to November 1986.

The US-backed fight against cocaine only incensed most Bolivians, who would be even more deeply mired in poverty were it not for international consumption of the drug, and spelled the end for Paz Estenssoro’s administration.

In the 1990s, the government of Sanchez de Lozada worked to improve the condition of indigenous people, distributing government aid and legalizing their organizations and traditional medicine, and also bilingual education in indigenous languages and Spanish.

But the government, and those that have succeeded it, have continued to support unpopular policies of reducing social spending and relaxing government involvement in the economy.

Those policies have brought on more waves of unrest.

In the minds of many Bolivians, the long history of Bolivia's exploitation and disappointing governments has not ended at all.

In addition to the History of Bolivia learn 1001 facts about the country. The Brief History of Bolivia by Joel Walsh

Joel Walsh ( has written for numerous web sites, in addition to the Let's Go: Mexico travel guidebook, and translations for a Venezuelan human rights NGO. At university, he studied Spanish literature and the history of Spanish-speaking countries, spending his final semester at the University of Havana. In addition to the History of Bolivia Joel has written brief histories of the countries listed below.

More Histories of Spanish Speaking Countries
History of Andorra | History of Argentina | History of Belize | History of Chile | History of Colombia | History of Costa Rica | History of Cuba | History of Dominican Republic | History of Ecuador | History of El Salvador | History of Guatemala | History of Honduras | History of Mexico | History of Nicaragua | History of Panama | History of Paraguay | History of Peru | History of Puerto Rico | History of Spain | History of Uruguay | History of Venezuela |
The History of Bolivia
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