A Brief History of Bolivia

By Tim Lambert

Early Bolivia

The people of Bolivia were civilized for hundreds of years before the Spaniards conquered the area. The city of Tiahuanaco was founded in what is now Bolivia about 400 BC. At its peak, it had a population of about 40-50,000, and its people created great works of architecture. They also worked in pottery, silver, copper, and obsidian.

From about 700 AD onward Tiahuanaco ruled a great empire in Bolivia and southern Peru. However, about 1,000 AD the empire broke up and was replaced by small states.

In the 15th century, the Incas conquered Bolivia. However, in 1533 the Incas were in turn conquered by the Spaniards.

The Spaniards founded cities in Bolivia at Chuquisaca (1538), La Paz (1548), Cochabamba (1571) and Oruro (1606). In 1545 silver was discovered at Potosi and the Spanish used forced labor to mine the silver. Many of the Indians who were forced to work in mines died there. Many more died of European diseases.

Not surprisingly the Bolivian Indians were resentful and in 1780 their anger boiled over into rebellion. The Indians believed they could revamp the old Inca Empire and replace the unjust and oppressive Spanish rule. However, the Indians were disunited and they failed to capture La Paz. By 1782 the Great Rebellion in Bolivia was crushed.

Yet in 1809 another rebellion began. People of Spanish descent led this one. It began when Napoleon’s army occupied Spain and he deposed the Spanish king and made his brother Joseph king of Spain. For many South Americans already dissatisfied with Spanish rule that was the last straw. In 1809 the people of La Paz declared independence. The rebellion was quickly crushed but the movement for independence in Bolivia became unstoppable. Fighting continued across the continent and the Spanish armies were gradually defeated.

Independent Bolivia

More and more regions of South America became independent until on 6 August 1825 Bolivia finally joined them and became independent from Spain. The new nation was named Bolivia in honor of Simon Bolivar the hero of the independence movement.

However the new republic of Bolivia faced economic depression and many silver mines were abandoned. Bolivia became a backward and impoverished state.

The first president of Bolivia was General Sucre. He was followed by Marshal Andres de Santa Cruz who was president from 1829 to 1839. In 1836 he tried to unite Bolivia with Peru but the Chileans felt threatened and they fought the War of the Confederation in 1836-39 to break up the union.

In 1879 Bolivia increased taxation on Chilean-owned nitrate companies. The result was a war called the War of the Pacific. In 1884 Bolivia lost the strip of coast she controlled and became a landlocked country.

However, in the late 19th century the silver industry in Bolivia revived helped by capital from Britain and Chile and by new technology.

Economically Bolivia prospered. Tin mining boomed and it replaced silver mining as the main industry. Meanwhile, railways were built in Bolivia linking parts of Bolivia. In the north, a rubber industry boomed. However politically Bolivia was split between Conservatives and Liberals.

Then in 1899 Bolivian Liberals rose in rebellion. The so-called Federal Revolution ended with the Liberals seizing power. Then in 1900 rubber tappers in the Acre region rebelled demanding independence. They were supported by the Brazilians and in 1903 the Bolivian government decided to sell Acre to Brazil.

In 1920 the Conservatives staged a coup in Bolivia and regained power. In the 1920s mining in Bolivia flourished but after the Wall Street Crash in 1929 the Bolivian economy suffered severely.

In July 1932 border disputes led to the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay. The war went very badly for Bolivia and many of her men died in the conflict. The war ended in 1935 but in 1936 army officers staged a coup. They introduced a regime they called military socialism and they nationalized the holdings of the American Standard Oil Company.

During this time radical ideas were spreading in Bolivia and the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionaria or MNR was formed. In 1943 the MNR formed an alliance with some army officers and they staged a coup. Gualberto Villarroel led the new government. However, Villaroel was overthrown by a revolution in 1946 and he was hanged outside the presidential palace. Bolivia was then ruled by a coalition of traditional parties until 1951 when the army took control.

Modern Bolivia

However, in 1952 the MNR launched a revolution and returned to power in Bolivia. They then embarked on a program of reform. The three biggest tin companies in Bolivia were nationalized and universal suffrage was introduced (everybody was given the vote).

However, in mid-1950s Bolivia suffered from high inflation. Faced with economic troubles the Bolivian government turned to the USA for help. The USA gave loans and the economy stabilized but in 1964 the army staged another coup.

For most of the next 18 years, Bolivia endured military dictatorship. Despite the repression, the Bolivian economy boomed and the population grew rapidly. However, in the early 1980s, the economy took a downturn. Faced with mass demonstrations and international condemnation the last junta stepped down and Congress was restored. In 1982 Hernando Siles Zuazo became president of Bolivia.

However, during his reign, Bolivia suffered major economic problems including raging inflation and he stepped won in 1985. His successor Paz Estenssoro managed to curb inflation but in 1989 he was replaced by Paz Zamora. Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada replaced him in 1993. He undertook a privatization campaign and under him, the Bolivian economy grew.

However, the Bolivian economy flagged from 1999 but it began to grow again in 2003. Then in 2005 left-wing Evo Morales was elected president with plans to nationalize industry. Morales was re-elected president of Bolivia in 2009.

Today Bolivia remains a poor country but it is rich in resources. Perhaps its greatest resource is tourism and it has beautiful scenery and wildlife. Bolivia suffered in the recession of 2009 but the economy recovered. Today the Bolivian economy is growing steadily. Bolivia is becoming more prosperous and there is reason to be hopeful about its future. Today the population of Bolivia is 11 million. 

La Paz

Last revised 2022