Bolivia History

Updated May 3, 2023 | Infoplease Staff


Famous since Spanish colonial days for its mineral wealth, modern Bolivia was once a part of the ancient Inca empire. After the Spaniards defeated the Incas in the 16th century, Bolivia's predominantly Indian population was reduced to slavery. The remoteness of the Andes helped protect the Bolivian Indians from the European diseases that decimated other South American Indians.

But the existence of a large indigenous group forced to live under the thumb of their colonizers created a stratified society of haves and have-nots that continues to this day. Income inequality between the largely impoverished Indians who make up two-thirds of the country and the light-skinned European elite remains vast.

Pre-Columbian History

The first people arrived in the Andes region around 10,000 BCE.

Over time, the communities in the Lake Titicaca area coalesced into the Tiwanaku Polity, a multicultural network of families. This would become one of the most significant civilizations in the Andes, with large-scale agriculture, trading, and an urban population. The Tiwanaku period would last from 1200 BC to 1000 AD.

Around 1000 BC, the Aymara Kingdom emerged as the most powerful entity in the region. The Aymara and Tiwanaku struggled for dominance until the area was incorporated into the Inca empire in 1450.

At that time, the Inca Empire included areas currently in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Chile, and Colombia.

Despite a strong central government and military, the Incas never fully conquered either the Ayamara or the nomadic peoples of the lowlands. This would help to bring about their fall to the Spanish in the 16th century.

Spanish Colonial Rule

By 1533, the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire was complete. Present-day Bolivia was known as Charcas and was under the rule of the Viceroy of Peru in Lima. Locally, control fell to the Audencia de Charcas, located in the modern-day constitutional capital of Sucre.

The discovery of silver in the area caused explosive economic and population growth. The Spanish brutally enslaved the local population. In 1781, Tupac Katari led a rebellion against indigenous people and laid siege to La Paz.

Back in Europe, the Napoleonic Wars were weakening the Spanish government. Combined with anti-colonial sentiment in the Spanish colonies, it would eventually spell the end of colonial rule.

19th Century

On May 25, 1809, there was a popular uprising in Chuquisaca (now known as Sucre) against Ramón García León de Pizarro, the Spanish governor of Chuquisaca. The Chuquisaca Revolution was followed by the La Paz Revolution on July 16 of the same year.

Both uprisings were crushed by Spanish authorities, but over the next few years, the Spanish American Wars of Independence rocked the continent.

A republic was declared in Bolivia on August 6, 1825. The republic was named The Republic of Bolivar after Simon Bolivar, the military leader who successfully led Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama to independence from the Spanish.

The country won its independence in 1825 and was named after Simón Bolívar, the famous liberator. Hampered by internal strife, Bolivia lost great slices of territory to three neighboring nations. Several thousand square miles and its outlet to the Pacific were taken by Chile after the War of the Pacific (1879–1884).

The remainder of the 19th century was a time of war and shifting alliances between Bolivia, Peru, and Chile. It was also a time of political instability. A worldwide increase in the price of silver in the last part of the century returned prosperity and stability to the country.

20th Century

In the first part of the century, tin replaced silver as Bolivia’s most valuable export. Economic and social elites controlled the country, and economic inequality was severe.

In 1903, a piece of Bolivia's Acre Province, rich in rubber, was ceded to Brazil. And in 1938, after losing the Chaco War of 1932–1935 to Paraguay, Bolivia gave up its claim to nearly 100,000 sq mi of the Gran Chaco. Political instability ensued.

Conditions were exacerbated by Bolivia’s defeat in the Chaco War (1932-1935), which resulted in significant land concessions to Paraguay. In 1943, Bolivia entered the second world war on the Allied side.

1952 saw a revolution by the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR). The MNR undertook several important reforms, including nationalizing the tin mines, agrarian reform, and instituting universal suffrage.

A military coup in 1964 under René Barrientos overthrew the MNR. Barrientos ruled until his death in 1969. His successor was deposed by a second military coup.

In 1965, a guerrilla movement mounted from Cuba and headed by Maj. Ernesto (Ché) Guevara began a revolutionary war. With the aid of U.S. military advisers, the Bolivian army smashed the guerrilla movement, capturing and killing Guevara on Oct. 8, 1967.

A string of military coups followed before the military returned the government to civilian rule in 1982, when Hernán Siles Zuazo became president. At that point, Bolivia was regularly shut down by work stoppages and had the lowest per capita income in South America.

In 1971, Colonel Hugo Banzer Suarez led a third military coup and ruled as a dictator until 1978. A fourth coup deposed Banzer.

In 1982 a military junta handed over power to a civilian administration led by Silez Zuazo. Zuazo resigned in 1985 after a general strike and attempted coup. Parliament installed Paz Estenssoro as president.

In 1989, Jaime Paz Zamora became president and entered a power-sharing pact with former dictator Hugo Banzer. Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada served as president from 1993 to 1997, when Banzer was again elected. Banzer served as president until 2001.

In June 1993, free-market advocate Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada was elected president. He was succeeded by former general Hugo Bánzer, an ex-dictator turned democrat who became president for the second time in Aug. 1997. Bánzer made significant progress in wiping out illicit coca production and drug trafficking, which pleased the United States.

However, the eradication of coca, a major crop in Bolivia since Incan times, plunged many Bolivian farmers into abject poverty. Although Bolivia sits on South America's second-largest natural gas reserves as well as considerable oil, the country has remained one of the poorest on the continent.

21st Century

President Banzer withdrew from office in 2001 and was replaced by his vice president, Jorge Quiroga. Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada succeeded Quiroga as president in 2002.

In 2002 and 2003, government proposals to institute an income tax, eradicate coca crops, and export Bolivia’s natural gas via Chile resulted in violent protests. De Lozada resigned and was replaced by Carlos Mesa, after months of rioting and strikes over a gas-exporting project that protesters believed would benefit foreign companies more than Bolivians.

Further protests followed other gas export proposals. Resource-rich districts and indigenous-majority areas pushed for autonomy from the central government.

Despite continued unrest, Mesa remained popular during his first two years as president. In a July 2004 referendum on the future of the country's significant natural gas reserves (the second largest in South America), Bolivians overwhelmingly supported Mesa's plan to exert more control over foreign gas companies.

Mesa managed to satisfy the strong anti-privatization sentiment among Bolivians without shutting the door on some limited form of privatization in the future. But rising fuel prices in 2005 led to massive protests by tens of thousands of impoverished farmers and miners, and on June 6 Mesa resigned. Supreme court justice Eduardo Rodriguez took over as interim president.

In 2005, indigenous activist Evo Morales became the country’s first indigenous president.

Morales embarked on an ambitious slate of social, human rights, legal, educational, and economic development initiatives. His nationalization of the energy industry in 2006 brought him into conflict with the United States, as well as with industrial leaders.

After it was revealed that USAID had provided financial support to opposition forces, fuelling violent conflict, a diplomatic crisis ensued between the two countries. Morales won the next election handily and ruled until 2019 when he resigned amid violence over suspected election fraud.

An interim president, Jeanine Anez Chavez served until the November 8, 2020 inauguration of Luis Alberto Arce Catacora.