PRESIDENT: Evo Morales (Jan. 2006 - 2018; reelected in 2010 and 2014)
POPULATION: 10.6 million
KEY EXPORTS: Natural gas, coca, silver, tin
|Independence in 1825.
|Union with Peru (1836-1839) fails. Chaos, rule by caudillos.
|Chile seizes Bolivia's coast in War of the Pacific. Growth of mining.
|Acre province (rubber producing, in north) ceded to Brazil.
|Uprisings by Indians and miners are brutally suppressed.
|Land ceded to Paraguay after defeat in the Chaco War.
|Victor Paz Estenssoro (MNR) wins election, is ousted by army, then takes control again in a revolution (1952), bringing about land reform, nationalization of mines, etc.
|Military coup; Che Guevara is killed while trying to mobilize workers.
|Military's development plans (Gen. Banzer) fall short.
|Political chaos, hyperinflation. Paz Estenssoro becomes pres. (1985), stops inflation with harsh economic "shock" therapy. Tin market collapses, miners laid off. U.S. anti-drug intervention.
|Strikes block proposed nationalization of mines.
|Several people were killed in April during protests against economic emergency.
|Pres. Hugo Banzer resigns, replaced by V.P. Jorge Quiroga. Quiroga urges free trade as the solution to Bolivia's poverty.
|Ex-Pres. Hugo Banzer died of cancer. MNR won a plurality of votes in pres. elections; Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada became president, in deal with MIR. Constitutional reforms to make political system more open.
|Repeated strikes and roadblocks by transport workers, miners, and coca growers protesting austere economic policies. 27+ people died as La Paz police mutinied. Hunger strike by 25 legislators of MAS and Pachakuti Indigenous Mvt. (MIP). After protests against natural gas exports, Pres. Sanchez de Lozada resigns in Oct.
|Referendum on natural gas exports. Strike shut down all the airports for one day.
|More tumult in the streets. Interim Pres. Carlos Mesa resigns amid protests demanding energy nationalization. Evo Morales is elected president in Dec., winning 55%. He pledges to end cooperation with U.S. in fighting drugs.
|Cuba-Venezuela-Bolivia trade alliance is announced in Havana. Morales sent troops into natural gas installations to back up govt. takeover. Huge march in Santa Cruz protested Morales' plans to centralize government authority in La Paz.
|Deadly protests in Cochabamba by supporters of Pres. Evo Morales, demanding resignation of governor. Constituent assembly reconvened in Sucre; protests against proposed new constitution.
|Referenda in Santa Cruz, Tarija asserting more autonomy are approved. Morales declares the votes "illegal." Army troops took over in Pando, after state of emergency was declared. Morales halted anti-drug cooperation with U.S. govt.
|Pres. Morales was reelected in Oct. with 61.4% of the vote.
Bolivia is mostly mountainous, but there is a substantial flat upland area known as the Altiplano. In the middle of this region is Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. It divides Bolivia from Peru. In the Yungas region northeast of La Paz and the Chapare region north of Cochabamba, coca is widely cultivated, and most of the crop is processed into a paste that is refined into cocaine. The north and northeast of Bolivia are part of the Amazon rain forest. The territory along the coast to the southwest used to belong to Bolivia until it was defeated by Chile in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883). Bolivia has been landlocked ever since, a major impediment to its national development. Eastern Bolivia consists of mixed farmland and woodland that turns into desert scrubland the farther southeast you go. That is the harsh region where petroleum and natural gas are found and where the Chaco War was fought with Paraguay in the 1930s.
One of the last former colonies of Spain to be liberated in South America, Bolivia took its name from Simon Bolivar, "the Liberator." It had been a part of the Viceroyalty of Lima and was originally known as "Upper Peru." During the colonial era, Potosi was one of the biggest and wealthiest cities in the entire world, but the silver ores gradually became depleted and the region stagnated. For several years in the 1830s Bolivia and Peru became politically united, but military defeat by Chile forced the two countries to split up again. Another war with Chile in 1879 resulted in the loss of Bolivia's sea coast, and it has been landlocked ever since. Bolivia benefited from growing tin exports in the early 20th century, but the depression of the 1930s left it in a desperate situation. In 1932 the military ruler sought to rally popular support by launching a war against its neighbor to the southeast, Paraguay. The "Chaco War" backfired terribly as the highland Indians in Bolivia's army were ill-suited to the hot, dry climate of the Chaco Desert, and Bolivia actually lost land. This ignominious defeat set the stage for growing social ferment, culminating in the Revolution of 1952, led by Victor Paz Estenssoro and his National Revolutionary Movement (MNR). Paz Estenssoro was overthrown in 1962 and Bolivia was ruled by a succession of military dictators of various ideological stripes for the next twenty years. Gen. Hugo Banzer held power longer than any other, from 1971 until 1978. His downfall unleashed a period of political chaos which resulted in the collapse of government authority in the early 1980s as the generals finally gave up and let the civilians run things. Unchecked spending and foreign borrowing resulted in hyperinflation, and prices rose over 10,000% in 1985! It was at that point that Paz Estenssoro was elected president again, but to the surprise of many he pushed strict monetary austerity and free-market reforms that undid much of the "reforms" his MNR had enacted back in the 1950s! It saved the country from economic ruin, though at a high human price: many thousands of workers lost their jobs and many families went hungry. Even the left-leaning government that won power in 1989 recognized the success, refraining from any major relapse into economic folly.
For most of the 1990s Bolivia made steady progress on the economic front, but the high national debt burden has yet to be lifted and it still causes human suffering. The country survived the economic turbulence that swept the continent in 1998, but there have been sporadic outbreaks of violent protests. Former dictator Hugo Banzer won the 1998 elections but respected democratic norms and earned a measure of respect from his former enemies. His major initiative was to increase cooperation with U.S. anti-drug policies.
Bolivia is an extreme example of the social stratification that exists to varying degrees in much of Latin America. It has a small European-descended elite, a smaller middle class, and a poor majority of mostly indigenous ancestry. The country's culture is heavily influenced by the Indian heritage. The language of the Tiahuanaco civilization, Aymara, is widely spoken in the countryside; a smaller number of people speak Quechua, the language of the Inca empire. As in Peru, Indians in Bolivia still use coca for ceremonial and medicinal purposes, just as in ancient times.
Because of the sharp social divide between rich and poor, which is accentuated by the ethnic component, politics in Bolivia tends to be unstable, and democracy is not firmly established. During the 1990s there was a broad consensus that the severe economic austerity measures introduced by President Paz Estenssoro were necessary, and that Bolivia had to maintain a good reputation with international creditors. Since the rise of indigenous movements in the 1990s under coca-growing advocate Evo Morales, however, this consensus has collapsed. The stunning electoral victory of Morales in December 2005 put Bolivia in the footsteps of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, with mobilization of working class people seeking to transform society. Bolivia is now reverting to old fashioned statist populism, putting its credit standing at high risk. Under the government of Morales, Bolivia has emphatically rejected the free trade alternative, and is pursuing regional integration with Venezuela, turning its back on other Andean Group members. As another consequence, the proposed pipeline for exporting natural gas (either through Peru or Chile) will not be built. Under the new constitution, the Bolivian congress is called the "Plurinational Legislative Assembly." Corresponding to each member there is a backup ("suplente") who can apparently cast votes in case the member is absent.
In October 2014, President Evo Morales was reelected to a third term with 61.4% of the vote. His Movement Toward Socialism built an even stronger majority than before in Congress.
Senate: 37 seats (four from each state plus one) serving five-year terms.
Chamber of Deputies: 130 seats, 77 from single-member districts, and 53 by proportional representation from party lists on a departmental, serving five-year terms.
|Movement Toward Socialism * / Indigenous Peoples' Action
|Democratic Unity (?)
|Christian Democratic Party **
NOTE: Width of each column shows each party's approximate strength. Colors and positions (left to right) represent ideological leanings, which are often vague. Numbers show how many seats each party has in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. Minor parties are not shown.
* The party of President Evo Morales.
** Democratic Unity and the Christian Democratic Party are evidently allied as "Progress Plan for Bolivia / National Convergence" in the Senate.
SOURCES: CIA World Factbook, U.S. State Dept., senado.bo, diputados.bo, electionguide.org