Since 1825

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Since 1825

Bolivian history after independence can be characterized as primarily a struggle to integrate the extremely diverse country into a cohesive whole. Three basic issues defined this struggle: first, the way in which indigenous peoples participated in the political and economic life of the country; second, export-oriented trade versus internal economic development; and third, the extension of the Creole-led state into the sparsely inhabited frontier areas.

Bolivia was in many ways an artificial creation, as were virtually all other states in Spanish America. Antonio José de Sucre, the Venezuelan-born patriot general who favored an independent upper Peruvian state, effectively appealed to Simón Bolívar's vanity by naming the new polity after the Liberator. Bolivian leaders could only point to the rather flexible jurisdiction of the colonial high court, the Audiencia of Charcas, as the basis for the new state. Indeed, the events that spawned the Bolivians' sense of separateness took place only a few decades before independence. First, the Spanish crown's decision in 1776 to split Upper Peru from the Viceroyalty of Lima and to integrate the territory into the new Viceroyalty of Buenos Aires severed ties with the rest of Peru. Then, despite the early efforts of Bolivian patriot forces during the Wars of Independence, the Audiencia of Charcas remained a bastion of royalism and so became separated from independence-minded Argentina.


When patriot forces under Sucre's command finally liberated Upper Peru, the region had been wracked by almost sixteen years of civil war. Despite the flooded silver mines, the periodic looting of the royal mint by patriot and royalist forces, and the devastated countryside, Bolivia was one of the most powerful and prosperous countries in South America. It had large numbers of tribute-paying Andean peasants, access to silver (albeit on a reduced scale in comparison with that of the colonial period), and a relatively stable centralized government during the first few decades after independence. Sucre's presidency (1825–1828), though brief, brought about administrative reforms and anticlerical legislation, wresting away much of the power of the Catholic Church.

Andrés de Santa Cruz, another warrior from the independence wars, ruled Bolivia for ten years (1829–1839). He felt powerful enough to recreate the Bolivarian dream of a union of Spanish American republics by annexing Jujuy, the northernmost province of Argentina, and by creating the Peru-Bolivian Confederation (1836–1839). Under the confederation, Peru was divided into a northern and a southern section, with Bolivia remaining whole. Internal opposition forces, both Peruvian and Bolivian, and the invasion by Chile destroyed these plans and led to Santa Cruz's downfall.

Unlike the decades-long attempts to reconstitute larger political units, the social and economic reality of Bolivia quickly set limits to the liberal idealism of the patriot generals who took over the new country's government. Despite a number of economic missions by British agents, the London stock market crash of 1825 eliminated the promised large investments slated to revitalize the mining industry. Local elites and southern import-export merchants financed most mining activity but were unable to come up with the huge sums required to reactivate on any large scale the colonial silver mines. Indeed, without the effective state subsidies of the colonial Mita (forced Indian mine labor), abolished at independence, mining activity only sporadically paid off.

The most vibrant part of the economy rested on the shoulders of the Andean peasants, who in many ways controlled the economic pulse of the nation. As urban centers lost population, the rural economy took on greater importance, and trade, often crossing national boundaries, depended largely on the participation of the indigenous population. Even export activities, such as silver mining and wool, depended heavily on Indians for transport and the provision of foodstuffs and other goods, including most of the wool itself.

Population:9,119,152 (2007 est.)
Area:424,164 sq mi
Official languages:Spanish, Quechua, Aymara.
National currency:Boliviano
Principal religions:Roman Catholic, 95%; Protestant, 5%.
Ethnicity:Quechua, 30%; mestizo, 30%; Aymara, 25%; white, 15%.
Capital:La Paz (administrative capital); Sucre (constitutional capital)
Other urban centers:Cochabamba, Oruro, Potosí, Santa Cruz
Annual rainfall:Rainfall is plentiful in the northeast but decreases to the west and south.
Principal geographical features:Mountains: Cordillera Occidental and Cordillera Oriental ranges of the Andes.
Rivers: Beni, Guaporé, Madre de Dios, Manoré, Pilcomayo
Lakes: Titicaca, Poopó
Other: The high Altiplano plateau between the Cordillera Occidental and Cordillera Oriental makes up roughly 28% of the country and ishome to more than half the population.
Economy:GDP per capita: $3,100 (2006 est.)
Principal products and exports:Agricultural: coffee, cotton, soybeans, sugar
Mining: natural gas, petroleum, tin, zinc
Government:Bolivia gained independence from Spain in 1825. The government is a republic, lead by a president who is both head of state andhead of government. The bicameral legislature is elected through a mix of direct and proportional party list elections, and consists of a 27-seat Chamber of Senators and a 130-seat Chamber of Deputies.
Armed forces:Males as young as age 14 can be conscripted when there are insufficient volunteers to meet recruitment goals.
Army: 25,000
Navy: 3,500
Air force: 3,000
Paramilitary: 31,100 national police and 6,000 narcotics police
Transportation:Rail: 2,177 mi
Ports: Puerto Aguirre
Roads: 2,329 mi paved; 36,493 mi unpaved
National airline: Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano
Airports: 16 paved, over 1,100 unpaved; international airports in La Paz and Santa Cruz
Media:13 newspapers, including El Diario, La Razon, El Deber, Los Tiempos, and El Mundo. 171 AM and 73 FM radio stations. 48 television stations including one government station.
Literacy and education:Total literacy rate: 86.7% (2001)
Eight years of education for children are compulsory and free of charge. There are 33 universities, including the University of San Andrés and the University of San Fancisco Xavier.

The Bolivian state treasury also depended largely on the Indians. Although Bolívar had abolished tribute payments in 1824 and again in 1825 and had decreed that Indian community lands should be distributed among the peasants and the surplus land sold, these laws were never implemented. The communities continued to control between one-third and three-quarters of all lands in the highlands, the most densely populated regions of the country. Already under the Sucre administration a uniform tax on all citizens had to be abandoned and Indian tribute reinstituted under a different name, the contribucíon indígenal. Santa Cruz formalized this arrangement, for tribute was one of the few constant sources of income that, unlike taxes on mining and trade, did not fluctuate substantially. Tribute payments thus provided the resources for Santa Cruz to project Bolivian power beyond its own borders and help create temporarily his version of the Bolivarian pan-Spanish American union.

During this period, governments were also concerned with securing the far-flung Bolivian frontiers. On the eastern frontiers, toward the densely forested slopes and plains of the Amazon and Chaco basins, Santa Cruz fostered the growth of small-scale cattle ranching through liberal land grants. To the west, in the bone-dry Atacama Desert, the Sucre and Santa Cruz administrations invested heavily in developing ports, particularly Cobija, that would provide access to world markets and goods from European countries. The lack of water and later, under the Peru-Bolivian Confederation, the natural advantages of the Peruvian port of Arica condemned these efforts to eventual failure.

Thus, on balance, the first two decades of Bolivian independence were positive. Bolivia remained a militarily powerful force and had a relatively stable and efficient government. However, an economy based largely on internal trade, the relatively low productivity of silver mines, and the predominance of Indian communities made for relatively slow growth.


The battle of Ingaví (1841), in which Bolivian forces led by José Ballivián vanquished the invading Peruvian army under Agustín Gamarra, was a turning point in Bolivian history, showing the futility of the Bolivarian goal of establishing supranational political units. Ballivían, who proceeded to rule Bolivia from 1841 to 1847, was more concerned with domestic matters. He attended to expanding control of the eastern lowland regions, creating the Beni Department out of the northeastern section of the country. Ballivián also financed expeditions into the Chaco region and construction of a series of fortresses against the Chiriguano and Chaco tribes, the most serious military threat of the southeastern frontier. Later regimes continued many of these policies and extended the eastern frontier significantly through the use of Franciscan missions, fortresses, and land grants to military veterans.

Ballivián's fall in 1847 brought about increasing political strife. Even those presidents who were able to hold on to power were constantly threatened by new uprisings. The most important political figures of the period, Manuel Isidoro Belzú (1848–1855), José María Linares (1857–1861), and Mariano Melgarejo (1864–1870), repeatedly had to suppress uprisings to remain in power. Belzú's regime fostered internal production, and his power resided in the urban artisans and, to a lesser extent, the Indian community. Despite Belzú's political support among protectionist artisans and Indians, this period is marked by the rise of the export-oriented silver-mining economy and, closely related, the triumph of liberal and free-trade policies.

During the 1850s new entrepreneurs took over the ailing silver mines of central and southern Bolivia. Most were merchants connected to Chilean interests, which provided some capital. These new owners modernized the machinery and mining methods, improved production, and brought about steady export growth. In the 1870s silver and nitrate production grew rapidly on the Pacific coast, but this activity from the start was dominated by Chileans, both as mine owners and workers. The growth of export activities strengthened the hand of liberals, who saw free trade as a way to compete effectively on world markets. This was especially true of the new freedom to export silver ore, which previously had to be sold to the state mint.

The growing strength of liberal ideologues can be seen even during the notorious regime of Mariano Melgarejo, when the government used liberal ideology to justify many abusive policies. Both Brazil and Chile were beneficiaries of new treaties that gave away Bolivian territory for little or no compensation. More important, legislation in 1866 and 1868 authorized the first systematic attacks on Indian community lands. Community members were to purchase their own fields within a ninety-day period, otherwise the land would be sold to the highest bidder. Melgarejo's army brutally crushed Indian resistance and, in the south at least, creoles permanently wrested away many community lands. In the more heavily Indian north, Melgarejo's cronies and relatives usurped even more land, but during the massive Indian rebellion of 1869–1870 that helped topple the caudillo's regime, the communities repossessed most of their fields by force.

As a result of the political turmoil in the country, the Pacific coast region had been virtually ignored. The substantial economic growth of the region remained poorly controlled by the Bolivian governments. Instead, Chilean interests dominated the region. Finally in the 1870s Bolivia attempted to counteract Chilean power by allying itself closely with Peru. A dispute over taxing the riches of the Atacama Desert precipitated a Chilean invasion in 1879. Even with the aid of Peruvian forces the allies lost quickly and decisively. After only a few months of combat Bolivia had lost its coastal region and thereafter remained essentially sidelined from the war while the Chileans concentrated on destroying the Peruvian military and occupying that country. Thus the period of internal strife and caudillo rule after the battle of Ingaví had disastrous consequences. Bolivia lost much of its territory and, with the application of liberal policies to promote corrupt practices, also much of its economic and military power.


The War of the Pacific completely discredited the military and its caudillos, permitting the silvermining interests to take power directly. This period also marks the beginning of a two-party system, in which ideologies became more important than the personal charisma of party leaders. The Liberal Party followed liberal precepts such as restricting the power of the Catholic Church; it also was in favor of continuing the war with Chile. However, from 1880 to the end of the century the Conservative (or Constitutionalist) Party, representing the Sucre-based silver-mining oligarchy, ruled the country. The Conservatives elected the most important silver miners as their presidential candidates, and they imposed an essentially liberal model of economic development on the country. Their program consisted of four planks: the encouragement of free trade; the creation of a railroad network facilitating the export of minerals; the creation of a rural land market through the abolition of Indian communities; and, in an effort to prevent a reoccurrence of the War of the Pacific fiasco, the development of frontier regions by promoting missions and the sale of land grants.

The Conservatives' program was generally successful, though it did not benefit all sectors of the population equally. For example, the war with Chile and the advent of free trade turned the elites of the southernmost department, Tarija, from contrabandists into important merchants who supplied imports to the silver mines of southern Potosí as well as to the rapidly expanding Chaco frontier. The mine owners also gained as a result of a vigorous railroad building program, financed largely by Chile, which connected the silver mines with the Pacific coast and so drove down transportation costs. At the same time, however, the combination of cheap transport to the coast with no improvements in internal communications hurt Bolivian agrarian interests, because the fertile valleys were not connected to the highland mining areas. The railroads harmed regions such as the fertile Cochabamba Valley, which could not compete with the import of cheap foodstuffs over the railroads.

Efforts to populate the frontiers also met with only limited success. The state put frontier territory up for sale in large units but at low prices per hectare. Despite the obligation of grantees to live on the land or bring in families to live on the grants, few actually followed the letter of the law. Instead, huge tracts came under the control of largely absentee landowners. As a result, frontier development took place in a limited manner; only extensive agriculture such as cattle ranching took up vast extents of fertile land.

This period also marks the subjection of tribal peoples who had remained largely outside the state's jurisdiction. The most important group, the Chiriguanos, more than 100,000 strong, finally submitted to the frontier colonists after numerous engagements in the southeastern Andean foothills. The wars of 1874–1877 and the messianic uprising of 1892 led to the defeat of the Chiriguano forces, the killing of many warriors, the enslavement of women and children, and the distribution of Chiriguano land among the victors. Only the Franciscan missions of the region provided some refuge, but even they over the long run changed indigenous culture substantially.

The situation of indigenous peoples in the highlands also degenerated. The abolition of Indian communities, legislated in 1874 but not implemented until 1880, adversely affected the indigenous population in the highlands. After the plots of each individual community member were measured, the land became available for sale. Most commonly, purchasers used methods such as getting the Indians into debt (by advancing money to pay for their land titles), outright fraud, or coercion to acquire parcels of community land. In the south, Indians sold only small portions of their total holdings at any one time; but this also significantly weakened the communities over the long term. In northern Potosí, Oruro, and elsewhere, communities remained virtually intact. As earlier, the attack on Indian lands was strongest in the north, around La Paz and Lake Titicaca. There, whole communities lost their lands, and the purchasers, mainly elites from La Paz and the surrounding towns, turned the Indians into peons of the newly formed haciendas.

The animosity of the highland Indians toward government land-sale policies helped tip the balance against the Conservatives in the Federalist War (1898–1899). When the deputies from Sucre rammed through legislation in 1898 that would keep the capital permanently in that city, the deputies from La Paz walked out and conspired with the opposition Liberal Party to overthrow the Conservative regime. The Conservatives, tied so closely to the silver-mine owners, were already weakened, for the declining price of silver had precipitated a severe financial crisis for the government.

That same year the city of La Paz rose in revolt under the aegis of the Federalist and Liberal parties. The Liberals also urged the Indian communities of the Altiplano, under the leadership of Zárate Willka, to rebel. In turn, the Liberals promised relief from the land usurpations. With the Altiplano under the control of the Indians, the Conservative army was unable to advance much past Oruro. In the final battle, the Indians and the paceño (La Paz residents) forces under Liberal General José Manuel Pando beat the Conservatives. Willka, however, massacred a detachment of Liberal troops and declared war on all whites. The creoles united and beat Willka's forces. In turn, Pando and the Liberals did not honor their agreement with the Federalists other than to make La Paz the de facto capital. Thus, the Federalist War marked the end of Conservative Party dominance, the transfer of the capital from Sucre to La Paz, and a shift away from silver as the principal export.

THE TIN BOOM, 1900–1932

Fortuitously for Bolivia a new product, tin, rapidly took the place of silver as the principal export. Using the railroad system built for silver export as well as Chilean, British, and North American capital, tin production expanded quickly during the first decades of the twentieth century. Like the silver-mining oligarchy, the three most important tin miners were Bolivian nationals. Indeed, the Aramayo family was able to make the transition from silver to tin. The other major tin miners were Mauricio Hochschild and Simón Patiño. Patiño clearly dominated, controlling about 50 percent of the total exports from the early twentieth century to the nationalization of mines in 1952. The mining of tin required much larger infusions of capital than silver, however, and the most important tin miners closely allied themselves with U.S., British, or French companies. Patiño's main backer was National Lead, headquartered in the United States. In conjunction with this company, Patiño by the 1920s had extended his holdings to British smelting works and Malaysian tin mines. His Bolivian holdings became only a small portion of his business empire.

The tin boom brought unheard-of prosperity to the northern part of Bolivia. La Paz replaced Sucre as Bolivia's financial center, and many of the city's elite participated in the tin boom. The continued sale of Indian community land helped foster this boom atmosphere, for many elite paceños purchased large extents of community lands to use as collateral for shares in mining ventures. Thus, notwithstanding Liberal promises to stop the usurpation of community lands and the Altiplano Indians' decisive participation in the Liberal victory during the Federalist War, the sale of community lands increased during the two decades of Liberal Party dominance.

As during the Conservative epoch, the north was more affected than the southern regions of the Bolivian highlands. Only the Indian rebellions of Jesús de Machaca (1921) and Chayanta (1927), although brutally repressed by the army, convinced the government to make the acquisition of Indian lands much more difficult. By the 1920s, however, the haciendas had expanded to encompass two-thirds of the highlands; only one-third remained in the hands of the Indians. This almost exactly reversed the land-holding patterns of forty years earlier. The expansion of the haciendas at the expense of the Indian communities marginalized the highland Indian from mainstream society and the national economy, a process that was reversed only in the middle of the twentieth century. Also, the integration of large numbers of previously free Bolivian peasants into haciendas caused much resentment. The relatively recent usurpation of their land helped create a climate of resistance that would combine with other factors to bring about widespread rebellion in the 1940s and 1950s.

The indigenous peoples of the eastern Bolivian frontiers did not fare much better than those in the highlands. The Amazonian rubber boom (1871–1912) greatly affected those living in the northeastern quarter of the country. There, virtual slaving expeditions provided the rubber barons with lab-orers to work in the jungle. In 1905 a Brazilian-aided rebellion in the northeastern jungles of the Acre region brought about the loss of that rubber-rich territory to Brazil despite General José M. Pando's personal efforts to suppress the uprising. As a result, the Liberal administration eased requirements for the purchase of frontier lands, thereby alienating vast amounts of tribal lands. The anticlerical government also restricted frontier missions and began to secularize many; because colonists almost immediately displaced the mission Indians from their land, many indigenous peoples were prevented from doing anything but becoming hacienda peons on the frontier. In addition, the Liberals reorganized frontier territories, which they began to militarize. Relations between the army and the indigenous peoples on the frontier were never good; the poorly disciplined soldiers in the tiny frontier forts usually enforced the rule of the large frontier landholders and in so doing did not endear themselves to the Indians. Frontier economic development projects by foreign companies, such as the vast land grant to a German merchant firm around the secularized Franciscan missions of Villa Montes, only brought about the alienation of lands with little actual development.

Serious opposition to the Liberal regime developed only after 1914, when a dissident group of Liberals formed the Republican Union. This was also a reaction to Ismael Montes, undisputed leader of the Liberals and twice president of Bolivia (1904–1909, 1913–1917), whose autocratic style antagonized fellow politicians during the brief but severe downturn in the Bolivian economy at the beginning of World War I.

Convinced that the Liberals would not give up power through peaceful means, the Republicans revolted successfully in 1920, remaining in power until 1934. Republican leaders generally carried out policies similar to those of the Liberals but were also more responsive to lower-class demands. This resulted in some contradictory behavior. Republicans were as beholden to the tin interests as the Liberals. Although President Saavedra Mallea (1921–1925) created the first rudimentary labor and social legislation, he also permitted the 1923 massacre of mine workers and their families in Uncía. Likewise, although the sale of Indian community lands virtually ended when the Republicans took over, the army under the Hernando Siles Reyes government (1926–1930) killed hundreds of Indians during the Chayanta uprising of 1927.

The militarization of the Chaco frontier also became problematic when, after 1927, armed clashes between the small frontier garrisons of Bolivian and Paraguayan soldiers became increasingly frequent. Indeed, Republican president Daniel Salamanca's decision to launch an offensive against Paraguayan positions in 1932 started the Chaco War (1932–1935), which led to a costly defeat and initiated a process that would result in the 1952 revolution, the second twentieth-century social revolution (after Mexico) in Latin America.


In the beginning of the Chaco War, it appeared that the German-trained Bolivian army would easily beat the poorly outfitted Paraguayan forces. This was almost certainly Salamanca's calculation. He was an intense nationalist who was coming under increasing domestic pressure when the Great Depression wiped out large parts of the Bolivian economy. But the Bolivians faced severe supply problems, poor military leadership, a heavy reliance on mobilized highland Indians who were unaccustomed to the lowland heat and dense underbrush, and the hostility of the poorly treated indigenous peoples in the Chaco. Consequently, they suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of the much better adapted Paraguayan forces. Only in 1935 was the Bolivian military able to reverse the tide of war and win back at least the oil-bearing Andean foothills around Villa Montes.

By the end of the war the Bolivian army had lost a quarter (65,000) of its soldiers, a huge number out of a total population of about 2 million inhabitants. The military began to meddle in national politics, helping to overthrow Salamanca in 1934. The home front had also fallen apart, with widespread resistance to military recruitment in the countryside. Banditry flourished behind the front, often fueled by armed deserters. The Indians who had been sent to the front, from the communities and the haciendas, learned about military organization and how to use weapons, and they came into greater contact with the highly politicized urban working classes. The ignominious defeat of Bolivian forces led to the radicalization of workers, the small but important middle sectors, and even significant elements of the Bolivian army. As after the War of the Pacific, revulsion towards the political and social systems that had brought about defeat led to significant change. However, by now a much larger segment of the population participated in one way or another in politics, and more radical options were discussed.

The military ruled Bolivia from 1936 to 1939, and under the presidencies of General David Toro (1936–1938) and Germán Busch (1938–1939) the "military socialist" governments tried to institute populist and reformist measures. Toro created a ministry of labor and in 1937 nationalized the Bolivian holdings of Standard Oil of Bolivia, which controlled virtually all oil production in the country. In the new constitution of 1938 the state took on a much more active role in the country's economy, reversing the laissez-faire Liberal constitution of 1880. In 1939, however, Busch suspended the constitution and became dictator. After his suicide the same year and the brief rule of General Carlos Quintanilla (1939–1940), elections placed General Enrique Peñaranda, another Chaco War veteran but with a more traditional political vision, in the presidency (1940–1943).

During the political ferment in the aftermath of the Chaco War, political parties became more class-based, and a number of important radical and moderate leftist parties arose. On the basis of José Antonio Arze's extremely strong showing in the 1939 elections, in which he garnered 10,000 votes out of a total of 58,000 despite having no organized party, the leftists formed the Party of the Revolutionary Left (Partido de la Izquierda Revolucionaria; PIR). Another important revolutionary leftist party was the Revolutionary Workers Party (Partido Obrero Revolucionario; POR), which was Trotskyist in orientation. In turn, the more moderate and middle-class left in 1940 formed the National Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario; MNR), heavily influenced by the success of fascist ideology in Europe because of its nationalistic emphasis. All of these parties called for the nationalization of the tin mines, and a struggle ensued to attract the tin-mine workers to their cause. Only the POR and the PIR addressed rural problems in any coherent way, advocating the abolition of personal servitude on the haciendas and expropriation of the Latifundia, or the very largest estates.

In 1943 Major Gualberto Villarroel, with the help of the MNR, overthrew the Peñaranda government. An alliance of the MNR and the POR permitted the formation of the first national miners' union under the leadership of POR leader Juan Lechín Oquendo. In turn, Villarroel, styling himself a new Inca, in 1945 called for an Indigenous Congress, which attracted more than a thousand Indian caciques from throughout highland Bolivia. Villarroel decreed the abolition of the hated unpaid labor services on the haciendas and promised to provide the Indian communities with schools. These laws were never put into effect, for in 1946 a civilian mob overthrew the increasingly repressive Villarroel regime and hanged the president from a lamppost in the main plaza of La Paz.

Nevertheless, contacts between radicalized mine workers and hacienda peons, especially in the Cochabamba area and near the mines, became increasingly common and led to the subversion of the hacienda regime from within. The most important rebellion, which occurred in 1947 in Ayopaya, Cochabamba, involved hundreds of hacienda workers. Elsewhere, as in the Cinti district of southern Bolivia, revolts also flared on the haciendas. The rule of haciendas, previously based on paternalistic ties between landowners and peons, was increasingly undermined by this activity and owners resorted to brutal repression.

The Conservative governments that followed Villarroel, in alliance with the PIR, had increasing difficulty ruling the country. The miners, backed by the POR, and the middle-class MNR adopted more radical positions as the PIR ministers were forced to deal with the unrest. Thus in 1947 the PIR minister of labor sent troops into the Catavi mines and massacred striking workers. These actions destroyed the PIR's popular base and made the POR and MNR more revolutionary than ever. In 1949 the MNR attempted to take over the country in a civilian coup, but their efforts failed after two months of intense fighting in all major Bolivian cities. The MNR became more popular and won the 1951 presidential elections with Víctor Paz Estenssoro as their candidate, but he was prevented from taking power by military intervention. Denied political power through legitimate means, the MNR rose in revolt again in 1952. After three days of warfare, in which the miners came down from the mountains and the conquered armories were opened to the public, the army was finally beaten.


The 1952 revolution marks a watershed in Bolivian history. The traditional parties had been discredited and the army destroyed. The miners had helped with the brief civil war and were the only ones who had weapons. The new regime, with Víctor Paz Estenssoro at the head, decreed the nationalization of the tin mines, creating Comibol, the state-run mining company. MNR leaders dropped literacy requirements for voting, suddenly enfranchising the Indian masses.

These events created momentum for change in the countryside as well. With the help of mine workers, the peons of the highlands mounted attacks on the hacienda system. Landowners fled the countryside and the largely Indian masses took over the haciendas, burning some to the ground. Under pressure from these developments, the Paz government decreed a land reform package in 1953 that led to the expropriation of most medium-sized and large estates in the highlands. These reforms legalized the de facto takeover of the haciendas, but they also created a long, drawn-out process that soon sapped the rural movement of its strength and tied the peasants to the MNR regime. The government created sindicatos (unions) of peasants, which were beholden to the MNR. The Indian communities, in turn, received very little and even lost lands where they had rented them out to outsiders.

These reforms meant that the peasants, once they had their land, became a conservative political force, because they had no reason to wish for other radical change in the country. During its twelve-year reign (1952–1964), the MNR used the peasants to counterbalance the much more radical mine workers. Their conservatism persisted even after the overthrow of the MNR by the revitalized army in 1964, when charismatic General René Barrientos Ortuño fashioned the so-called military-peasant pact. This arrangement, recalled numerous times when the military gained power, essentially meant that peasant leaders promised to remain quiescent if the military did not attack their interests. The arrangement apparently worked even in 1966 when the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ("Che") Guevara established a guerrilla campaign in the southeastern Andean foothills. The guerrillas received no significant peasant support, and after a year they were captured; some, including Guevara, were executed after a massive army campaign.

The effects in the eastern lowlands were quite different from those in the highlands. Rather than bringing about much social change, most large landowners maintained control over their estates. Moreover, in an effort to stimulate the lowland economy as a way of attracting peasants from the overcrowded highlands, the MNR regime and the United States sent vast amounts of capital into the region. Most of the capital went to the large landlords, who established sugar and, briefly in the 1970s, cotton plantations. As a result, the economy of Santa Cruz boomed, bringing about rapid population growth in the city of Santa Cruz and increasing political and economic clout for Santa Cruz landlords.

After Barrientos's death in an accident in 1969, the army continued to rule but was unable to remain united. In 1970 General Juan José Torres González took over the government, leading the country sharply to the left. Before he could effect major changes, however, he was overthrown in 1971 in a bloody coup led by General Hugo Banzer Suárez, who established a right-wing military dictatorship. During the Banzer years, true economic growth took place. Utilizing many of the infrastructural developments begun under the MNR government, such as those in the Santa Cruz area, the Banzer regime diversified exports and expanded the production of foodstuffs. Road building, new airports, and other infrastructural improvements continued as well.

Economic growth began to slow in the late 1970s, however, and Banzer also came under pressure from the administration of President Jimmy Carter in the United States to hold free elections. After hunger strikes by the opposition, elections were finally held in 1979. A period of political confusion resulted. For two years military and civilian regimes alternated, with the MNR splitting into two major factions, one center-right led by former president Víctor Paz Estenssoro and the other led by left-leaning former president Hernán Siles Zuazo (1956–1960). In addition, a more radical leftist party, the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionaria; MIR), and a new right-wing party, the Nationalist Democratic Action (Acción Democrática Nacionalista; ADN), with former General Hugo Banzer at the helm, also became significant political forces. In 1980 General Luis García Meza took over in what became known as the cocaine coup because many members of the military government had close ties to cocaine trafficking, which had been growing in Bolivia since the 1970s. However, internal resistance and the regime's inability to receive international recognition forced García Meza to resign in 1982. After a brief transition, Hernán Siles Zuazo and his leftist alliance, the Democratic and Popular Union (Union Democratica y Popular; UDP), assumed the presidency they had won in elections just prior to the 1981 coup. However, Siles proved unable to unite his diverse supporters. With tin prices falling and an overblown bureaucracy, the state experienced a severe fiscal crisis, making it impossible to fulfill the long-repressed demands of labor and other groups. As a result, government and the economy spun out of control, with inflation reaching 40,000 percent in 1985. Exhausted, Siles called elections early. The 1952 revolutionary model, with heavy participation by the state, had clearly failed in this multiparty environment.


In the 1985 elections three parties, the MNR, the MIR, and the ADN, won almost equal shares of the votes. After intense negotiation, the MNR's Víctor Paz Estenssoro became president with the support of the leftist MIR. However, Paz forged an alliance with the ADN and proceeded to dismantle virtually all of the old revolutionary institutions he himself had built thirty years earlier. He dismantled the state mining company (Comibol), opened up the country to almost unrestricted free trade, and emasculated the mine workers and their unions by "relocating" many of the miners and their families in the subtropical jungle. Significantly, he attempted to impose a new unitary rural land tax that encompassed both peasant lands and commercial estates, but peasant resistance brought about its repeal.

Many "relocated" miners migrated to urban centers, others went into the subtropical jungles of the Chaparé to grow coca. Indeed, to a large extent the money brought in by the cocaine trade helped support the Bolivian economy. Moreover, Bolivian drug dealers increasingly began producing more refined products in an effort to cut out the largely Colombian middlemen.

The 1989 elections again resulted in a deadlock, with no party receiving a plurality. This time, in a surprise move, the leftist MIR allied itself with the right-wing ADN, and MIR leader Jaime Paz Zamora became president. In fact, the neoliberal course that the Paz government had embarked on could not be changed given the demise of state-centered models of economic growth. As a result, the MIR moved to the center and also used its power to break even further the strength of the once-powerful unions. Among the members of the revolutionary alliance, only the peasantry, representing the largest voting block, remained a powerful force within Bolivian politics.


Neoliberalism, a philosophy that makes market capitalism the underlying rationale for government, would seem an unlikely candidate for implementation in Bolivia, with its thirty-five year history of state-directed economic policy. Yet because of the country's economic crisis and the conditions that the international community placed on offering financial assistance, Bolivia instituted a series of neoliberal economic reforms, beginning in 1986. Initially introduced to avert economic collapse, the institution of balanced budgets, free markets, and free trade became the basis for changing the levers of political power and the relationship between the Bolivian state and its citizens.

For two decades after the 1985 election, closely matched political parties, none of which attracted a majority of the electorate, resulted in multiparty coalition governments. A Democracy Pact enabled the septuagenarian MNR chieftain, Victor Paz Estenssoro, to gain the presidency in alliance with the leftist MIR. Despite his age, Paz proved himself a nimble and ruthless politician, forging a working relationship with Hugo Banzer, who represented the rational right of the Bolivian political spectrum. This alliance sponsored a New Economic Plan, designed to alleviate the nation's economic crisis. The most pressing challenge was hyperinflation, the extremity of which resembled that of Germany's Weimar period. Paz chose to combat the problem by applying "orthodox shock"—constricting the money supply, cashiering public employees, and reducing deficit spending, all conditions demanded by the IMF for its assistance. Once the architect of a program of state ownership and direction of important segments of the national economy, Paz now issued decrees that closed some state enterprises, opened Bolivian markets to imports and foreign ownership, and incapacitated the miner-dominated labor federation.

The late 1980s mark several important transitions in Bolivian political history. A resilient group of politicians, all of whom rose to prominence with the 1952 revolution, passed from the scene, ceding leadership to a generation born after 1930. At the same time, Bolivia's indigenous majority began to exert influence commensurate with its numbers. A cholo elite, urban-dwelling and university-trained indigenous people, assumed political prominence, especially in the capital. Much of this emerging sector lived in El Alto, the heights above La Paz, which on receiving its municipal charter in 1987 immediately became Bolivia's third-largest city. And as a further show of strength, the peasant labor confederation, Unique Confederation of Rural Laborers of Bolivia (Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia; CSUTCB), displaced miners as the most important component of the labor movement.

In 1989 the electorate again divided almost equally for three contending candidates. Although he finished third in the voting, Jaime Paz Zamora of the MIR emerged as president in an alliance with Banzer and the ADN. This election witnessed the emergence of Conscience of the Fatherland (Consciencia de Patria; CONDEPA), a populist party appealing to the indigenous population in La Paz, under the leadership of a popular radio personality. Despite his leftist background, Paz Zamora continued down the neoliberal economic path opened in 1986. He never attempted to roll back the policies of his MNR predecessor and even expanded privatization in the mining sector. Paz Zamora promoted progressive social policies, championed by a group of young political advisers. He greatly expanded the national system of environmentally protected areas, recognized the importance of indigenous rights by greeting Amazonian Indians during their March for Dignity and Territory, and began the process of judicial and electoral reform.

A national census, conducted in 1992, documented a series of significant demographic changes. The national population, though still small at 6.5 million, had grown by more than a quarter since it was last measured in 1976. The census showed that the population had shifted from its traditional north-south axis (La Paz-Oruro-Potosí) to a west-east orientation (La Paz-Cochabamba-Santa Cruz). Perhaps most significantly, Bolivians were now 57 percent urban and 80 percent literate, reflecting the movement and education of the nation's Indian majority. The Bolivian economy had undergone change, as well. Tin, for a century the major source of foreign exchange, underwent a precipitous decline in the 1980s with the collapse of world demand for the mineral. Agricultural exports, especially soy, and hydrocarbons replaced tin as primary exports, and displaced tin miners migrated to the cities and to tropical regions of the country.

Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (b. 1930), Goni to friend and foe alike, became the most influential politician of his generation. Running as a candidate of the MNR, he was elected deputy and then senator before serving as Paz Estenssoro's Minister of Planning and Coordination. As minister he began a campaign to institute neoliberal reforms that would last nearly twenty years. Unsuccessful in his attempt to succeed Paz Estenssoro in 1989, Goni gained the presidency four years later through an alliance with the indigenous leader, Víctor Hugo Cárdenas, and his Movimiento Revolucionario Tupaj Katari de Liberación (MRTKL) party. Cárdenas, an Aymara politician and intellectual, became the first native American to hold the Bolivian vice-presidency and was instrumental in steering the administration toward legitimizing the rights and customs of Bolivia's indigenous majority.

Goni's first presidency proved the high water mark of Bolivian neoliberal reform. He intended nothing less than transforming Bolivia from a centrally governed political system with a state-directed economy to a decentralized, liberal democracy that regulated free market capitalism. His administration's policies, collectively called Plan de Todos (Plan for All), had three major components. One part of the plan was to privatize Bolivia's major state monopolies: the national airline, railroad network, telecommunications, and most of the petroleum industry. A large part of the sales revenues were to be invested in a privately managed pension fund, the Bonosol, intended to bail out what was a bankrupt system of state-funded social security. The other major programs of the plan were education reform, which began significant investments in the long-neglected rural school system, and political decentralization through the Law of Public Participation (LPP). Education reform significantly increased national literacy rates, especially in the countryside. LPP transformed local government in Bolivia by creating more than three hundred new municipalities and distributing 20 percent of the nation's tax revenues to them. It forced national political parties to pay attention to local issues and created a base for the rise of new groups of political actors.

The MNR-MRTKL administration also sponsored new land reform legislation, embodied in the Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria (INRA), which recognized the legitimacy of communal land ownership (a stance that contradicted neoliberal orthodoxy), accelerated the registration of land titles, and reformed the system of taxation on rural property. Moreover, the administration significantly amended Bolivia's 1967 constitution to extend suffrage; introduce more, though not universal, direct election of legislators; and recognize Bolivia as a multiethnic, multicultural nation. Although subsequent events would undermine the legacy of his Plan for All, Goni left office in 1997 convinced that Bolivia had entered a new period in its history, one that would replace a backward, inefficient, corrupt system with a rational, transparent, and democratic successor.

Goni's presidency produced no political coattails for the MNR. In 1997 the party's share of the presidential vote fell below 20 percent, trailing both the ADN and the MIR, which together garnered more than 40 percent of the electorate. Hugo Banzer formed a second coalition with the MIR and emerged from parliamentary voting as president. Despite their traditional antipathy for the MNR, Banzer and his conservative supporters hastened to join Goni's economic legacy. They were to encounter another legacy, a mounting opposition to neoliberalism that first burst forth in the city of Cochabamba.

Encouraged by the World Bank, Banzer authorized the sale of Cochabamba's municipal water system to a subsidiary of the Bechtel Corporation in 1999. As consumers recognized that the new owners intended to levy substantial rate increases, they organized a protest that eventually became the water war of March and April 2000. Banzer first opposed the protesters' demands, then imposed martial law in the city; but the demonstrators' solidarity and determination forced him to rescind the contract. The Banzer presidency also acquiesced to external pressure to intensify coca eradication. Supported by funds, equipment, and military advisers from the United States, the Bolivian army launched a series of campaigns in the Chapare to destroy harvested coca leaves and extirpate the plants themselves. Growers' opposition to the loss of their livelihood established the Chapare as a zone of low-intensity combat that alienated public opinion and organized the resistance that would eventually underlie a political movement. Banzer's failing health forced him to resign the presidency in 2001, two years before the expiration of his six-year term. He was succeeded by Vice President Jorge Quiroga.


In some quarters the Cochabamba water war was hailed as the first successful challenge to neoliberalism. However, Bolivian activists see it as part of a constellation of opposition movements—cocaleros, indigenists, anti-imperialists—that had been building for a decade. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, this coalition of opposition, never seamless and often fractious, continuously challenged the neoliberal hegemony, overthrowing its principal Bolivian proponent and eventually electing a vigorous opponent to the presidency.

Sánchez de Lozada gained a second presidential term in 2002. His campaign, advised by U.S. operatives, including James Carville, former aide to President Bill Clinton, stressed that Goni offered the best chance of averting impending chaos. The electorate showed marked indifference to these blandishments, giving the MNR-led coalition 22.5 percent of the vote and forcing Goni to craft a coalition of very strange bedfellows to gain a working majority in the legislature. The water war served as a prelude to the organized opposition that forced Sánchez de Lozada to resign the presidency in October 2003.

Goni and his vice president and successor, Carlos Mesa, were trapped by the unfulfilled promises of neoliberalism. Scandal plagued the sale of some government monopolies and the Bonosol, and most of the substantial investments made by the new owners went for capital goods rather than jobs. Revenues that state monopolies once provided to the treasury were now replaced largely from value-added taxes on consumption. Despite an increase in gross national product following the economic reforms of 1994–1995, poverty indicators remained unchanged, and the lives of ordinary Bolivians showed little improvement. Goni also seemed politically tone deaf as he proposed the construction of a gas pipeline to the Chilean port of Arica. This not only exposed him to criticism of the bargain-basement contracts signed with multinational petroleum companies, but also revived traditional animosity toward Chile. Although gas succeeded water as the focus of opposition, unrest continued. Roadblocks, organized in part by the charismatic cocalero Evo Morales and the indigenous leader Felipe Quispe, disrupted critical transportation networks in the highlands connecting La Paz with Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. Protests became an almost daily occurrence in the capital. On October 17, 2003, Goni departed for the United States, and after a very brief honeymoon, Mesa found himself unable to govern. He resigned the presidency and was succeeded by the chief justice of the Bolivian supreme court, Eduardo Rodriguez Veltze, in 2005.

Over a decade, Evo Morales became the leader of what seemed in the early 2000s to be a dramatic readjustment of Bolivian politics. Displaced from the highlands by collapse of the tin mines and intense droughts in the mid-1980s, he found his way to the Chapare. There he became a coca grower, a leader in the resistance to its eradication, and a national legislator. Under the banner of the Movement Toward Socialism (Movimentio al Socialismo; MAS) party, Morales ran for the presidency in 2002, finishing a very close second but shunned by the MNR-led coalition. Then, in 2005, Morales and his fellow MAS candidates won a majority (53%) of votes cast for president and 72 of 130 seats in the chamber of deputies. Morales's indigenous heritage, Yankee-baiting invective, and friendships with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez brought him to international attention. But within Bolivia, Morales's support stems from his life experience. He passed much of his youth in extreme hardship, came to prominence in opposition to what many Bolivians see as imperialist machinations, and developed an effective, direct style of political communication.

As of 2007, Morales's major accomplishment seems to have been the assembly of an able set of close advisers and administrators. He has also managed to keep the MAS party unified during often fractious parliamentary debates over Bolivian federalism and the role of the state in the economy. But whatever the future holds for the Morales administration, Bolivia's indigenous majority seems poised for an ongoing role in national leadership.

See alsoArze, José Antonio; Aymara; Ballivián, José; Banzer Suárez, Hugo; Barrientos Ortuño, René; Bolívar, Simón; Bolivia, Political Parties: Overview; Bolivia, Political Parties: Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR); Busch Becerra, Germán; Cacique, Caciquismo; Cárdenas, Víctor Hugo; Chaco War; Chayanta, Revolt of (1927); Chiriguanos; Cholo; Federalist War (1898–1899); García Meza, Luis; Guevara, Ernesto "Che"; Hochschild, Mauricio; Indigenismo; La Paz; Lechín Oquendo, Juan; Melgarejo, Mariano; Montes, Ismael; Morales, Evo; Neoliberalism; Pando, José Manuel; Patiño, Simón Iturri; Paz Estenssoro, Víctor; Paz Zamora, Jaime; Peñaranda del Castillo, Enrique; Quiroga, Jorge; Quispe, Felipe; Saavedra Mallea, Bautista; Salamanca, Daniel; Sánchez de Lozada Bustamante, Gonzalo; Santa Cruz, Andrés de; Siles Zuazo, Hernán; Sucre; Sucre Alcalá, Antonio José de; Toro, David; Villarroel López, Gualberto; War of the Pacific; Wars of Independence, South America; Zárate Willka, Pablo.


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                                          Erick D. Langer

                                          David Block