Bolivia’s human history is ancient, with isolated indigenous tribes growing crops and domesticating llamas in Cochabamba and Chuquisaca as long as 5,000 years ago. Some 2,000 years ago, the Aymara people arrived in western Bolivia and founded the Tiwanaku empire. They built an enormous city which could have housed hundreds of thousands of people before eventually going into decline due to a period of prolonged drought around 1000 AD.
Throughout most of the 15th century, the Inca significantly expanded the territory of their empire. New lands included Lake Titicaca and large sections of modern day Bolivia which easily fell under the control of their large and powerful army.
But the Inca heyday wasn’t to last as the more technologically advanced Spaniards arrived just a short time later. In 1532, their first ships sailed along the coast of Peru with the intention of colonizing the entire continent. After a series of bloody battles, they took control of the Inca stronghold of Cuzco and eventually branched out into Bolivia. As is often the case in colonial conquests, the Spanish brutally repressed the native inhabitants, slaughtering many and forcing others to work as slaves. Remarkably, however, Bolivia’s indigenous inhabitants fared much better than most, which is why the country has the highest proportion of natives in South America today.
It didn’t take long for the conquistadors to discover the silver rich mountain of Cerro Rico just outside Potosi. Upon realizing it’s potential, they quickly rounded up a legion of slaves to mine for ore in abhorrent conditions. During colonial times, the Spanish extracted some two billion ounces of ore from the mountain, enough to essentially bankroll their entire colonial mission. Conversely, some six million slaves are estimated to have perished under the mountain.
Bolivia was the first to seek independence in 1809 as political and economic woes in the colonial city of Sucre brought civil unrest to the region. In a moment known as El primer grito de la libertad (the first cry of freedom), revolutionaries mobilized across the city and began fighting for independence. The movement spread across the continent and, as the years went by, Spanish territory began to fall. Bolivia was the last country in South America to achieve independence, some 16 years later in 1825.
Just 10 years after independence had been declared, the Bolivian president of the time formed a confederation with Peru. This alarmed their other neighboring countries who saw this new confederation as too large, powerful and influential. Hostilities first began in the form of elevated tariffs over the commercial trade routes of the Pacific, but as negotiations broke down, they escalated into an all out war. The confederation enjoyed some initial success, but were eventually defeated in a pivotal moment known as the battle of Yungay.
With tensions still high after the War of the Confederation, in the 1870s Bolivia and Chile began bickering for financial reasons. Chilean companies were extracting valuable resources in Bolivian territory and became upset when Bolivia raised taxes after promising not to do so. While most of Bolivia was distracted with the carnival celebrations of 1879, the Chilean army moved in and occupied the region. Despite enlisting the help of their ally Peru, the two were unable to reclaim the land and Bolivia lost its coastline forever, a fact that remains a sore point today.
The Chaco War was another disaster for Bolivia, this time against their eastern neighbor Paraguay. In 1932, speculation was rife that a large section of arid and largely inhabitable land known as the northern Chaco was rich in oil. Before confirming the existence of the black gold and with the encouragement of two rival oil companies, Bolivia and Paraguay began the bloodiest South American war of the 20th century. Some 100,000 soldiers died in the hot sparsely populated region in what some historians have dubbed La Guerra de la Sed (The Thirsty War). Bolivia lost a huge section of land and, ironically, it turned out there was hardly any oil there anyway.
In 1952, a party called the Revolutionary National Movement came to power and instigated what is known as the Bolivian National Revolution. This remarkable switch in Bolivian politics saw power taken away from the white ruling class and new rights awarded to marginalized indigenous communities. Among their leftist policies were agrarian reform, the nationalization of the mining sector, adult suffrage and a focus on rural health and education. The party lost power to a military coup in 1964 but continued to campaign for several decades, albeit with a distinctly more right wing outlook.
Bolivia suffered through a series of military dictatorships throughout the 60s and 70s, with military coups and counter coups becoming the norm. While some regimes were relatively benign, others were brutal, characterized by human rights abuses, corruption, social unrest, drug trafficking and severe financial mismanagement. Democracy was finally restored in the 80s, but fraudulent elections and poor economic growth hindered any real progress. Inflation reached a staggering 50,000% in 1985, causing large sections of the population to lose everything they owned.
After decades of poor economic performance, the Bolivian government resorted to privatizing Cochabamba’s water supply in the early 2000s in order to qualify for vital loans with the World Bank. This led to a sharp price hike of around US$20 per month, a substantial amount considering many citizens were living on just US$100 per month. Tens of thousands took to the streets in protest, blocking off highways and essentially paralyzing the entire nation. The government responded by declaring a state of emergency, arresting journalists and commandeering radio stations. The protest escalated to include teachers, police, the military and coca growers, all with their own unique demands. Finally, after several months and numerous deaths, privatization contracts were ripped up, rates returned to normal and peace was restored.
Privatization stirred up another major conflict, this time relating to the country’s expansive natural gas reserves. Many Bolivians, particularly indigenous from the countryside, were angry at getting ripped off by multinational energy companies who kept the majority of the profits. Things reached boiling point in late 2003 when large scale protests left over a hundred dead, mostly civilians. Two presidents were forced to resign over the fiasco which saw La Paz become completely blocked off from food and supplies for several days.
The Gas Wars paved the way for Evo Morales to win the presidency in 2006 with an impressive 54% of the vote. A pivotal leader of the protest movement, Morales held true to his key election promise of completely nationalizing the natural gas sector. Subsequent increases to commodity prices saw his government become flush with money which he distributed among Bolivia’s poorest to the applause of many. But recent years have not been so kind to the president, with a number of scandals causing his popularity to plummet. Love him or hate him, there’s no doubt Morales has played an important role in Bolivia’s history.