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POPULATION: 9.8 million
LANGUAGE: Spanish; Quechua; Aymara
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Protestantism


There is evidence that the highlands of Bolivia and some of its jungle areas have been inhabited for thousands of years, well before the arrival of Spanish conquerors in the 15th century. Early Amerindian settlers may have been nomadic hunters at first, while later they established agricultural communities. Evidence of this early period, which lasted until about 1400 BC, includes several ceremonial sites. From this time until about 400 BC, an Amerindian culture known as Chavín developed in parts of Bolivia as well as Peru. It was followed by the Tiahuanaco culture, which lasted until about AD 900. An important site was the ceremonial center of Tiahuanaco on the shores of Lake Titicaca in the highlands of the Bolivian Andes. This civilization was prosperous and highly developed, with excellent road and lake transport systems, irrigation systems, and dramatically beautiful building techniques for its settlements and ceremonial sites. Subsequently, Aymara Indians (probably from the region of Coquimbo in Chile) invaded and settled in Bolivia, and finally the mighty Peruvian Incas extended their empire into the present Bolivian territory at the end of the 15th century.

In the 1530s, Spanish conquerors who had initially begun to explore Peru also extended their forays into Bolivia, which they called Alto Peru. Among these men were Diego de Almagro and Francisco Pizarro. During the Spanish colonial period, Bolivia was part of the Viceroyalty of Peru. The town of La Plata, in the Charcas region, was founded in 1538 and was the seat of the Audiencia de Charcas (the most important legal body of Colonial Alto Peru). The city of La Paz, which is Bolivia's political capital today, was founded by Alonso de Mendoza in 1548. General Antonio José de Sucre, who fought with Simón Bolívar, gained Bolivian independence from Spain in 1825 and established the República of Bolívar in honor of the liberator. The new republic was formed with a senate and a house of representatives.

Bolivia has been a mining country. First, it was famous for its silver mines in Potosí, which provided great riches to the Spanish Crown during the 16th and 17th centuries. Subsequently, it was one of the first providers of tin for the world market. Pitiful conditions for miners led to the establishment of a radical workers' party, the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), which came to power under President Victor Paz Estenssoro in the 1950s, during whose presidency Bolivia nationalized the mines and underwent agricultural, industrial, and social reforms. The new government also established universal suffrage, extending the ability to vote to women and illiterates.

In 1953, the Agrarian Reform Decree was signed and peasants in the Andean region began taking over lands. The radical and popular reform soon started to moderate itself because of the economic crisis that baffled the country in the 1960s, and the increasing pressure of the United States. In 1964, the government was taken over by pro-U.S. General Barrientos who signed the "Military-Peasant Pact," which promised public works in the countryside in exchange of political support by the peasants.

In 1971, Hugo Banzer, a right-wing general, took power and governed the country for seven years, during which all the efforts of the agrarian reform were reversed and the first drug-trafficking boom began. Even though democracy was reinstated in 1978, Indian demands remained unaddressed. After the New Economic Policy was launched in 1985, trade liberalization flooded Bolivian markets with cheap imported goods, with the consequent closure of many national factories and the increase of unemployment. A decade later, the neoliberal structural adjustment, which brought with it a tremendous social cost, especially for the rural peasants, was complemented by the "second generation reforms" implemented by Sanchez de Lozada. In the 1993 elections, Sanchez de Lozada ran for president in alliance with the Aymara leader Victor Hugo Cardenas as his vice-president.

Parallel to the deepening of economic reforms, Sanchez de Lozada also carried out constitutional reforms that recognized the multicultural nature of Bolivia's population and implemented a Law on Popular Participation (1994), aimed to decentralize the country's administrative system. Consequently, the municipality became an important source of regional power that gave indigenous people space for self-rule. In the 1995 municipal elections, 29% of all councilors elected were from peasant-indigenous backgrounds.

In 1999 the government privatized the water supplies of Cochabamba. The contract was immediately criticized because it carried a sharp increase in consumer prices, which were projected to reach 180% for some sectors of the population. A coalition of urban and rural organizations called Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida was created to oppose the project by sponsoring a series of protests. The use of ethnic language and the invocation of indigenous deities and mythology in the so-called Water War proved successful for mobilizing indigenous communities and attracting international attention, which in the end forced the government to comply with the demands. This triumph proved the strength of indigenous groups and demonstrated the diminishing power of the state to repress new social movements. This awareness was furthered in the 2002 elections, the 2003 Gas War, and the victory of the cocalero leader Evo Morales as the first indigenous president of Bolivia in 2005.


Bolivia is a landlocked South American country of 9.8 million people, more than 60% of whom are Amerindian, speaking mainly Quechua and Aymara as well as Spanish. The rest of the population is divided between Mestizos (European and Amerindian descent), who comprise 30% of the population, and minorities of whites and people of African descent.

Bolivia shares a border to the north and east with Brazil, to the west with Peru, to the southeast with Chile, to the south with Argentina, and to the southeast with Paraguay. Bolivia has a very diverse climate and territory. In the western part of the country, the Andean Cordillera extends from north to south with some of the highest peaks in South America. The center of the country consists of fertile valleys, and the lowlands extend towards the east to the Amazon rain forest.


Spanish-speaking Bolivians account for only 36% of the total population, while the majority of the people speak one of the two predominant indigenous languages: Quechua, the language spoken originally by the Incas, or Aymara, a language spoken by Amerindians prior to the arrival of the Incas. Spanish names of saints are very popular, as are Catholic names such as Jesús, José and, for girls, María. Many Quechua- and Aymara-speaking people have Amerindian last names and Spanish first names.


A myth of the early Incas and other Amerindians was that a White, bearded teacher, or the Creator God called Viracocha, had come to teach the Indians and would return. When the Spanish conquerors arrived in the 16th century, the Incas, who by then had extended their empire into Bolivia, mistook the white Spanish conquerors for Viracocha and, perhaps, companions of his. This belief was very widespread and existed even as far away as Mexico, where the Aztecs called this figure Quetzalcoatl, and it contributed to the Spaniards' easy entry into the major Amerindian cities. The Spanish exploited these myths for their own benefit.


Around 80% of Bolivians are Roman Catholic. However, among the Aymara- and Quechua-speaking Amerindian groups, certain beliefs and rituals remain that stem from local religions, which pre-date the Spanish conquest. The respect for nature is embodied in the belief in Mother Earth, known as Pachamama.

Among the Aymara, there is a household god known as Ekeko, a god of prosperity who also presides over matchmaking prior to marriage and helps people without homes. An important festival in La Paz, Bolivia's mountain capital, called the Alasitas, is held principally in honor of Ekeko. The artisans sell miniatures of everything imaginable, and people buy them believing that the things they represent will be plentiful in their homes. Ekeko means "dwarf," and he is generally a benevolent god.


Bolivians, in common with many other Latin Americans, celebrate the main Catholic holidays such as Easter and Christmas, as well as Corpus Christi. They also celebrate Labor Day and their Independence Day on August 6.

A major festival celebrated in March is Pookhyái, celebrated in the Andean town of Tarabuco in the department of Sucre. It was here that the famous heroine Juana Azurduy made her mark, leading her people against the Spanish in the Battle of Jambati on 12 March 1816, liberating the town. Pookhyái is a Quechua word meaning "entertainment," and during the festivities dozens of groups in local costume dance and sing, and the whole town, together with thousands of visitors, takes part in a special Quechua Mass and procession. It is a joyful celebration during which Bolivians give thanks for their freedom as a nation.

Carnival is celebrated throughout Bolivia the week before Lent, and the best-known celebration is the colorful Entrada in the town of Oruro. The Diablada, one of the most representative dances, has elaborate costumes and masks of the devil. Choreographed as a battle between good and evil, the dancers celebrate the triumph of good, in the person of the Archangel Michael, over evil, in the person of Lucifer and his devils. Other groups reenact the Conquest, where the Spanish conquerors such as Francisco Pizarro fight with the Incas, and the feasting and dancing last for several days.


Most children in Bolivia receive the Catholic sacraments of baptism at birth, First Communion at the age of seven, and confirmation at puberty. Many Bolivian families regard these ceremonies as important events.

During the teenage years, Bolivian boys and girls are still expected to maintain close ties with their families. The poverty of many Bolivians means that young people work, often from a young age, to supplement the family income.

Many Bolivians marry in church, but they have to have a civil marriage as well. When a person dies, the full religious rites of the Catholic Church are often followed. A priest will often attend a dying person, who may wish to offer a final confession. Among many Indian communities, Catholic and Indian beliefs coexist.


A formal greeting will include the words "mucho gusto," which is the equivalent of the English "pleased to meet you." There is also an informal greeting, "Qué tal?" which means, "How are you?" But Bolivians do not stop there. It is also considered polite to inquire about the welfare of other family members, and the greetings can become quite elaborate.

Men shake hands, but it is customary among urban men and women to greet each other with a kiss.

Visits are considered an important form of social communication and can take a number of forms: many religious festivals and important family events are occasions for reunions of family and friends. When people visit, it is customary to offer a small cup of black coffee. A pre-Columbian drink that still exists in the Andean region is chicha. Made from fermented corn, it is consumed by people in towns and villages.

Bolivian society is divided by marked classes, which do not mix easily. In some small cities young people are still very traditional when it comes to dating. Families keep a close watch on their daughters' friends and social contacts. In many places, girls are not expected to date boys who are unknown to their parents. The parents will inquire about the boy's family or may already know his family. A girl is not expected to date boys outside an approved social circle. Many people marry when they are still quite young, and the custom of having a novio or steady boyfriend in a serious relationship is seen as appropriate for a girl.


Bolivia is one of the poorest countries of the Americas, and the people's health suffers accordingly. A serious disease called chagas, carried by the bite of the vinchuca beetle, which is particularly prevalent in the rural lowlands, has no known cure and eventually affects the heart. One estimate suggests that as many as a quarter of Bolivians are affected by this disease, although precise figures are not obtainable.

Many Bolivians, particularly in some of the Indian communities in rural areas, live outside of the cash economy altogether. They lead a sustainable, simple lifestyle. In the major cities, such as La Paz, which is the capital, or Cochabamba or Sucre—the legal capital, a more modern lifestyle prevails that is similar to that in major towns in other parts of Latin America.

Housing in the countryside often involves simple huts of adobe with thatched roofs. In the towns and cities, brick and cement are used, and red tiles are used for roofs in the traditional Spanish manner.

Many people who do not have access to a car use buses and trucks for local and inter-town travel. Even though practically all towns are connected by extensive bus routes, pack animals are used in the more-remote highland areas.


Women in one sense have a lower status than men in Bolivia, yet in another sense they are at the center of family life and are regarded as very important in their role as mother, wife, and member of the extended family unit. In the lower classes, women are the economic support of the family. Since colonial times, Indian women have taken part in commercial activities in the country.

Although the trend is changing, families have traditionally been quite large in Bolivia: six or seven children are not uncommon. Families do not consist only of a father, a mother, and their children, but include many relatives such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The traditional extended family is the main social support system in Bolivia.


In the cities, men wear trousers and shirts, or suits, and women wear skirts and blouses or dresses. Bolivian Indian women wear voluminous skirts, shawls, and bowler-shaped hats. This manner of dressing is a hybrid form, since it derives from old-Spanish fashion. Men in the countryside often wear ponchos, which are derived from the Spanish cape, particularly in the cooler climate of the Andean highlands, where they are woven from wool and serve to keep out the cold mountain winds. In the countryside many Indians maintain their traditional, distinctive ethnic clothing.


The bedrock of the Bolivian diet in the Andean highlands or altiplano is the potato, and many poorer people in this region eat a mainly carbohydrate-based diet. Main meals in the major towns include some meat, but there is also rice, quite often served with potatoes as well as some salad or vegetables. Visitors to Bolivia do not necessarily share the preference for plain and filling food. Instead they enjoy, as many Bolivians do, some of the tasty snacks.

One of these is the turnover or empanada, which varies from country to country in Latin America. The flour used to make the turnovers is made from wheat. Empanadas, which are shaped like half moons and are often fluted at the edges, are fried or sometimes baked. The imaginative aspects relate to the wide variety of fillings, which include chicken, cheese, and beef. A typical midmorning Bolivian snack is the salteña, a spicy round chicken, meat, or vegetable pie stuffed with olives, onions, hard-boiled eggs, and other ingredients.

In La Paz, the Bolivian capital, pieces of beef heart are grilled on skewers. These are known as anticuchos. A hot, peppery sauce called llajua is often served with meats. In the lowlands and the Amazon region, exotic meats such as alligator, armadillo, and agouti are also eaten, while fine salmon trout from Lake Titicaca is a delicacy.


Primary education is available in principle to all Bolivian children, but it did not really reach the villages until the reforms instituted by the Revolutionary National Movement (MNR) under Victor Paz Estenssoro in the 1950s. Since then, secondary education has also become more accessible. Today, primary education for children 6 to 13 years of age is free and officially compulsory, although school attendance is difficult to enforce in some areas. Secondary education, lasting up to 4 years, is not compulsory. At the end of the 20th century about four-fifths of the primary-age children were attending school. Most education is state-supported, but private institutions are permitted.

The nation's eight state universities are located in each of the departmental capitals except Cobija (capital of Pando department), and there are numerous private schools, including a Roman Catholic university. The largest institutions of higher learning are the University of San Andrés (founded 1930) in La Paz and Major University of San Simón (1832) in Cochabamba.


Traditional music in the Bolivian Andes features flutes such as the quena and the panpipe, as well as stringed instruments derived from the Spanish guitar called charangos. To the un-tutored Western ear, this music can sound mournful, but attention rewards the listener, who marvels at the skill of the musicians and the range of tones and rhythms often suggestive of majestic mountain heights and the freedom of magnificent birds wheeling joyfully in the sky. Mountain dancing is often demure and suggests a mixture of Amerindian and Spanish courtly influences, whereas in the lowlands and in the Tarija region the music of warmer climates is more exuberant.

Bolivia has many fine churches that date from Spanish colonial times. Among painters who excelled in religious themes is Holguín, whose paintings of the birth of Christ and the birth of the Virgin Mary are displayed in the town of Sucre in the exquisite Church of La Merced, built in 1581.

Among Bolivian writers, one of the best known is Alcides Arguedas, who died in 1946. He was also a sociologist and a diplomat and served for a time as Bolivia's Minister for Agriculture. He dealt with major aspects of Bolivian Indian life, and his novels include Raza de Bronce (which translates as "The Bronze Race"), Vida Criolla, Pisagua, and Wata-wara. Another important modern writer is Augusto Céspedes, who examined the lives of the immensely wealthy Bolivian tin barons in a novel called El Metal del Diablo (which means "The Devil's Metal"). Bolivia has produced several excellent poets, among them Ricardo Jaimes Freire at the beginning of the 20th century. Julio de la Vega is exuberant in his Poemario de exaltaciones. Jaime Saenz was the first to use superrealism. Oscar Cerruto is a major Bolivian poet, and among current poets one of the best is Pedro Shimose, the son of Japanese immigrants to Bolivia. The essayist Fernando Diez de Medina is also worth mentioning.

The poetry and songs of the Quechua language constitute a significant tradition for Quechua-speakers in Bolivia and Peru alike. In this language are included hymns, prayers, songs of love and war, satirical pieces, epic poems, plays, stories, and songs of mourning. A vivid example of the latter, which actually formed part of the mourning rituals upon the death of the last Inca king, Atahualpa, who was murdered by the Spaniards, can be found in the poem El Llanto de las Nustas.

Among Bolivian Indians, who form a significant part of Bolivia's population, it is no exaggeration to say that their history has been one of suffering and loss.


In rural areas, many Bolivians work as farmers on small land-holdings. Miners have a long tradition in Bolivia, beginning with the silver mines of the Potosí region during Spanish colonial times and continuing with the tin mines. When there was an international tin crisis in the 1980s, thousands of tin miners were left destitute and, to avoid starvation, many made their way to the lowlands to grow coca leaves for the illegal cocaine industry. The Bolivian government has embarked on a crop substitution program, encouraging other crops, some of which can be exported. Since so many depend for their livelihood on farming, the government has had to adopt a gradual approach to this ongoing problem, which essentially has its roots in drug consumption in developed countries.

In the towns many people are employed in casual labor, as street vendors and hawkers, in the construction industry, as domestic servants, or as plumbers, electricians, or carpenters. There is also a professional middle class; the traditional professions such as law and medicine are still popular, but there are also increasing numbers of engineers and technicians of various types.

Organized labor had been the most important interest group in the Bolivian economy since 1952. The country's labor unions were some of the strongest in Latin America and were characterized by their activism, militancy, discipline, and political influence. However, the majority of the population works in the informal sector, and are thus not entitled to labor union benefits. Although primarily associated with La Paz, the informal sector also included a rural component and an illegal component linked to the coca industry. The urban and legal informal sector was estimated to contribute about 12% of gross domestic product (GDP) and employ as much as 60% of the labor force in recent years. Most analysts believed that this sector increased in the late 1980s because of public sector layoffs and the depressed mining industry.

The total labor force was 4.79 million in 2006 with 17% employed in manufacturing, 40% in agriculture, and 43% in services. Total unemployment was estimated at 8% in 2006, with a large number of workers underemployed. The law prohibits child labor under age 14, but this is generally ignored. Approximately one in four children between the ages of 7 and 14 are employed in some way. The minimum wage is subject to annual negotiation and in 2002 was set at $59 per month. This does not provide a decent standard of living for most families, and most workers earn more than the minimum.


All kinds of modern sports are played by Bolivian youth. There are interschool athletic competitions, as well as professional basketball, volleyball, and soccer teams. Probably the most popular sport is soccer, and major towns have stadiums filled with enthusiastic crowds during matches. Bolivians gained international recognition for soccer, particularly after their national team placed second at the 1997 Copa America (South American Championship). In addition, the cities of La Paz, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz have professional-quality golf courses. Bolivians have also won Latin American boxing championships.


As in many other Latin American countries, there are many cinemas in Bolivia and people enjoy going to the movies. There are also theaters in most of the main towns. One of the major theaters is the Teatro Municipal in La Paz, where enthusiasts can see both classical and modern plays as well as dance performances and musical events.

In the town of Santa Cruz, there are modern and popular discos to which many young people enjoy going. There are also good discos in La Paz, Cochabamba, and Sucre.

One of the most enjoyable events in Bolivia is Oruro's Carnival, celebrated everywhere but with interesting variations related to local costumes, dancing, and music.


One of Bolivia's major crafts is weaving. Most young girls in rural areas learn to weave and spin, and it is thought that this ancient craft has been in existence in Bolivia for thousands of years. Patterns and colors vary according to region; quite often the patterns are either geometric or zoomorphic (depicting animals), while occasionally they show aspects of domestic life. Alpaca and llama wool were used traditionally, but sheep's wool is also used today.

Garments woven in the traditional way include warm and practical ponchos as well colorful hats with long ear-coverings, useful in cold mountain weather, known as chullos.

Many interesting musical instruments are made in Bolivia, including the armadillo-backed charango— a type of guitar—as well as native violins and a wide variety of woodwind instruments.


The serious social problems in Bolivia relate to the continuing poverty of so many of its inhabitants. Despite many efforts to eradicate coca production, hundreds of thousands of people are employed in its growth and distribution. Many peasant farmers who are often desperately poor have attempted to grow other types of crops. The crop substitution programs instigated by the Bolivian government offer replacement crops such as coffee and bananas, which are certainly not as lucrative as coca and which make earning a decent livelihood difficult for many people.


The 1998 Bolivian Human Development Report stated that gender inequities were considered very critical, concluding that Bolivian women have lower levels of human development than men and that their education and income levels are below those of men. However, women's status has been improved since 1992 thanks to the promulgation of the Family Violence Law and the Quota Law, which mandates a 30% quota for women's representation in national and local elections.

In addition to changes in legislation, changes in the economy and employment have meant growing numbers of women are holding entrepreneurial positions. Educational opportunities are also increasing for women. Moreover, new women's political organizations have been created, such as the Political Forum for Women and the Bolivia Town Council Association, which have taken the lead in pushing for gender equality.


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Zalamea, Jorge. La poesía ignorada y olvidada. Bogotá: Ediciones La Nueva Prensa, 1965.

—revised by C. Vergara

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