Sucre is the judicial capital of Bolivia, with a population of 215,778 (2001 census). Called La Plata or Chuquisaca during the colonial period, the city was the seat of the Audiencia of Charcas and after independence the capital of Bolivia. Chuquisaca is also the name of the surrounding department, of which Sucre is the capital. Closely tied to the silver-mining center of Potosí, Sucre was the residence of many silver-mine owners throughout its history.
In 1538 or 1539 Pedro de Anzures founded La Plata on a site inhabited by the Yampara ethnic group. It quickly became the administrative center of the vast territories of the southern Andean region. At 8,500 feet, it boasted a temperate climate that made it an ideal site for haciendas producing foodstuffs for Potosí. In 1552 La Plata became the new Episcopal seat and in 1559 the seat of the Audiencia of Charcas, the highest colonial judicial body in the vast region south of Lake Titicaca to Paraguay and Argentina. This jurisdiction later became the basis for the territorial claims of the Republic of Bolivia.
The city reached its apogee during the seventeenth century, when most prosperous Potosí silver-mine owners took up residence there. Pedro Ramírez del Aguila's seventeenth-century description reveals an urban center intent on the celebration of ostentatious religious rituals and other such luxuries. This wealth was not restricted to the city alone. Indeed, one eighteenth-century traveler compared the sumptuous haciendas of the nearby Cachimayo valley to the aristocratic manors of Spanish Cantabria. Farther south, the Cinti region provided warm valleys that produced wine and fruit for consumption in Potosí. However, only a few hundred kilometers east lay the dangerous Indian frontier. In the sixteenth century the Chiriguano Indians had attempted to conquer the Potosí mines. Although the Spanish later set up a series of fortress-towns in the eastern Tomina jurisdiction, warfare kept the Chuquisaca frontier in constant flux until the 1780s.
La Plata was one of the first cities in Spanish America to experience political unrest after Napoleon's 1808 invasion of Spain. When on May 25, 1809, the president of the audiencia imprisoned Jaime Zudáñez, a radical favoring independence, a popular revolt erupted. Spanish troops sent from Buenos Aires suppressed the uprising by December 1809. Clashes with guerrilla forces allied with the Chiriguano continued until 1818, which decimated the surrounding countryside.
The city became independent as a result of the invasion of the Colombian army under Antonio José de Sucre in 1825. La Plata (now renamed Sucre) became the capital of the new Republic of Bolivia. Despite its status as the capital, few Bolivian presidents resided in town, as they managed the country (and put down revolts) while moving from city to city.
Many mine owners remained in Sucre, but only an infusion of fresh capital and entrepreneur ship from merchants-turned-miners helped revive the silver-mining industry in the 1860s. By the 1870s the mining elite had gathered much financial and political power, which they used in the aftermath of the War of the Pacific (1879–1884) to seize national control through the Conservative Party. The last four decades of the nineteenth century constituted the region's second boom period, during which Sucre elites remodeled their houses to imitate Parisian styles and built ostentatious hacienda houses in the Cachimayo valley. Prosperity was a double-edged sword for the surrounding Indian communities who lost their lands to the miners. In turn, the demand for cattle heightened by the silver boom brought about a period of intense frontier expansion to the east and the final subjugation of the Chiriguano.
The declining price of silver put an end to the boom in the late 1890s. In the wake of this loss of economic clout, the Conservative Party lost the Federalist War (1898–1899), and La Paz became the de facto capital, with Sucre keeping only the Supreme Court. Since then the Sucre economy has stagnated. A brief petroleum rush and an attempt by elites to form new mining companies in the early twentieth century failed because of a lack of capital. The last refuge of the Sucre elites, their haciendas, were confiscated and divided among estate workers after the 1953 agrarian reform.
In the early twenty-first century, Sucre and the surrounding region is one of the poorest areas in the country. The city is mainly service-oriented and survives in great part on the income brought by the many students who come to study. The only other regular source of income is that from oil wells in the former Chiriguano territory. Tourism has also expanded since UNESCO declared Sucre a World Heritage Site in 1991.
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Langer, Erick D. Economic Change and Rural Resistance in Southern Bolivia, 1880–1930. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.
Mendoza, Gunnar, et al. Monografía de Bolivia, vol. 1. La Paz: Biblioteca del Sesquicentenario de la Repúplica, 1975.
Querejazu Calvo, Roberto. Chuquisaca: 1539–1825. Sucre: Impr. Universitaria, 1987.
Wolff, Inge. Regierung und Verwaltung der kolonialspanischen Städte in Hochperu, 1538–1650. Cologne, Germany: Böhlau, 1970.