Bolivia is a country with a long and rich history. Certain themes that date back several centuries before the Common Era pervade life in this region of South America. The mixed extremes of geography, from the high plateaus in the Andes to the lowlands of the interior (Figure 22a) have affected decisions made by both natives and foreigners. The country's enormous wealth of natural resources has made it attractive to outsiders yet easily exploited by them as well. A social and economic pyramid resulted and has been maintained for over 200 years by the various political systems that existed largely to serve the needs of the elite. Currently, 20 percent of the population is of European descent. Those of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage comprise approximately seven percent, as do mulattoes (mixed African/European). Native born Indians comprise 60 percent of the population. Calls for nationalism extend only to the interests of the economically powerful. External influences have not lessened the presence of an indigenous population who are finally making their political presence equal the weight of their numbers as the new millennium begins.


Archaeological remains provide evidence of settled villages in modern day Bolivia as far back as 1000 BCE. A society with religion, government and cities existed at that time. Copper remnants date back a thousand years earlier. Successive cultures began to extend influence over wider areas. The Chavin civilization began around 800 BCE, and used textiles and gold, displayed advanced pottery techniques, and had major religious centers. No evidence of this culture exists after 100 BCE. Tribes from the area of Lake Titicaca (Figure 15) began to dominate the region. By 600 CE, the Tiahuanaco dominated the area and maintained control for 600 years. By 1200 CE, regional states and empires, including the Aymara and Quecha tribes, controlled various portions of the area. Speakers of both languages comprise the dominant indigenous groups in Bolivia today.

These powerful tribes were impressive in their ability to create an integrated economic society based on extreme geographic differences. The result was a trade network including products from sharply varied ecological zones. Tribal leaders also relied on ancient patterns of community cooperation, AYLLU, a collective agricultural system where small groups worked together for the common good rather than for individual acquisition. These two features, collective farming and an integrated economy, were readily absorbed by foreign empires.

As the Incas spread south and inland from Peru (Figure 24) in the fifteenth century, these systems contributed to the ease with which they took over the local tribes. Incan leaders added a forced labor system, MITA, where all able bodied adults had to contribute a certain number of days of work each year.

The accomplishments of Incas by the fifteenth century are extraordinary by any standards. Absent the wheel and a written language, they efficiently administered an area that stretched 2500 miles along the western coast of South America (Figure 15). They had an elaborate system of governance with an efficient central bureaucracy. They employed the Ayllu system writ large, and a chain of command that allowed for local autonomy as long as tribute was paid and labor was provided. The empire was connected via 14,000 miles of road. They established a command economy where central authority determined production amounts and distribution. Two thirds of the agricultural yield was turned over to the state yet those under Incan rule could expect the state to provide for them. Incan engineers created a water management system that provided sufficient resources for the dry season. Religion was central and integral to maintaining Incan power, and wisely did not contradict the tenets of local practices. Although the Incas used force when necessary, the years of their control also saw a flowering in the arts.

Spanish explorers, who had arrived in the New World at the end of the fifteenth century, ably exploited discord over succession to the Incan throne in the 1520s (Figure 1). They also used local tribes in this effort. Because the Incans had not forced assimilation, distinct indigenous groups remained in the area. The Europeans easily mobilized these tribes who had chafed under Incan rule and welcomed the newcomers who promised to leave once they had taken the silver and gold they wanted.


The late 1400s witnessed the beginning of European exploration of the Western Hemisphere and the riches the area held was very tempting. The Spanish were first on the scene and along with Portuguese would dominate transatlantic trade for the next two centuries. These areas were sought largely for their material wealth and were colonized rather than settled. The Spanish established a mercantile system where all trade filtered through the mother country. The gains were more than simply material riches. Spain became a powerful force within Europe and this era of exploration also made Europe central in world affairs.

Given the power and extent of the Incan empire, the ease with which the Spanish conquered the area seems surprising, but to many of the indigenous peasantry, the Europeans were simply one more in a long line of overlords. The horses and gunpowder that accompanied the Spanish certainly made this task easier, as did a willingness to use force to subjugate the indigenous population. Disease accomplished what guns did not, and within a generation, the Spanish easily dominated a large portion of South America (Figure 3).

The Spanish came for gold and silver but took back crops, such as the potato and corn. The Europeans learned new agricultural methods from the local population. They also used native labor and resurrected MITA, the forced labor system. In many ways, the Spanish copied their Incan predecessors and allowed for local authority as long as it did not contradict the goals of their empire. Considering the native population, very few Spaniards came, and as a result the area was colonized rather than settled. Just enough Spanish came to administer the area rather than a large migration that would have made the new land their home. The relatively small number of European immigrants led to racial mixing and the creation of stratification based on birth. Because fewer than 250,000 Spaniards came, a large indigenous population persisted.

The Spanish colonists' primary interest in the native South American population was as a source of labor. When the Indian population proved insufficient to the task of mining the gold and silver, the Europeans generated a slave trade, bringing Africans to the Western hemisphere (Figure 10). While only a small portion came to Bolivia, overall ten times as many African slaves arrived in South America and the Caribbean as did in North America. Of the Africans who arrived and survived, many mixed with the Europeans, creating even more strata in the Latin American population.

For the Spanish who came to the new world, there was ample opportunity and ability to attain wealth and power that was not possible at home. Those who did settle in South America would exert enormous influence, particularly as the Spanish government only allowed those born in Europe to hold positions within the colonial administration. In addition to those who sought their fortune, the Catholic Church also came to the Americas and was used to help subjugate the native population. Again local, indigenous beliefs were incorporated into the overarching structure of the imposed religion.

By the late 1600s, the Spanish presence in Bolivia lessened, largely due to a decline in silver output (Figure 9). Although there were still ample supplies, surface mining now gave way to shaft mining, necessitating more advanced techniques that required large capital outlays and expertise. Unwilling to commit to such expenditures, the Spanish Crown brought little more to the area. Bolivia became peripheral to Spain's American empire and all segments of Bolivian society suffered from this decline.


By the late 1700s, the ideas of the Enlightenment spread through the Western world. Educated Europeans, on both side of the Atlantic, clamored for the rights and roles of individuals. In Bolivia, close to 20 percent of the population was of European descent but had no say in the governance of their colony. The Spanish attempted to restrict and reorganize all elements under their jurisdiction, only feeding a shared sense of powerlessness that could be easily exploited by the leaders of the independence movement. Unrest in the colonies was compounded by problems at home. Napoleon's conquest of Spain in the early years of the nineteenth century led to the placement of his brother on the Spanish throne in 1807. Those who had been agitating for independence in Bolivia felt little loyalty to the foreign monarch. Successful revolutions in the United States and France showed the ability of the people to bring change.

Two extraordinary leaders, Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin, came onto this early nineteenth century scene. They mobilized the Creole population, those of European descent who had been born in the colonies. This elite portion of Bolivian society successfully used the indigenous peasantry to achieve their goals. The Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere (Figure 8) could not have been achieved independence without the tacit support of the British. They favored the independence of these areas, not on ideological or humanitarian grounds, but for economic gain. The British saw the wisdom of ending the mercantile restrictions imposed by the Spanish crown. Free trade with these states would provide markets for British goods and the ability to influence areas without having to administer them directly. As Britain industrialized in the nineteenth century, its navy was used to support a burgeoning world economy they easily dominated. British resources generated more gains when they were used for trade rather than the persistent warfare that had dominated the eighteenth century. Hence, when United States President James Monroe issued his doctrine in 1823 stating that the Western Hemisphere should be free of all colonial powers, it was the gunboats of the British navy that assured compliance.

The shared interests of segments of Bolivia's population would be quickly abandoned after independence. While the peasants had been integral in gaining freedom, no one in a position of leadership believed that keeping the poor farmers armed was a wise plan. There was no call for universal manhood suffrage. Indeed, just as in the young United States, property ownership was the criteria for inclusion in the political process, and less than twenty percent of the male population was able to participate. The indigenous population, which comprised close to 60 percent of the Bolivia population when independence came in 1825, did not participate in deciding the fate of their country (Figure 14).


The new country had a great many problems to solve, including boundary disputes (Figure 9) and (Figure 10), a declining silver industry, limited access to capital, and conflicts with the Catholic Church. These problems would plague the country for much of the next two centuries. One immediate issue was the absence of a strong administrative system. When the Spanish left, so too did the bureaucrats who had been running the country. Limited voting and education did not provide for the creation of a local administrative class. For most, independence brought little change as leaders of European descent mimicked colonial rule.

The success of the country was linked in large measure to its economic capability. Those ruling Bolivia prevented diversification and development, and remained beholden to the world market for the price of metals, first of silver and then of tin. Because they did not create a manufacturing segment of the economy, Bolivians imported finished goods and in many ways were reduced to a form of economic colonialism. Relations between the individual countries of Latin America (Figure 12) and (Figure 13) mirrored the mercantile system as they all imposed protective tariffs to shield their domestic economies. These actions further reduced access to necessary resources to make capital investments, which further retarded economic development.

The indigenous population lived as it had for centuries, involved in subsistence agriculture on collective land holdings. With declining revenues from the mining sector, the government had to rely more on internal taxation, a move which increased the burden on the agrarian population. Efforts to generate income from the sale of confiscated church lands did nothing to benefit the masses that lacked any resources with which to purchase these properties. Economic divisions widened even more.

At various times throughout the century, there were those who tried to enact reforms but only when the burgeoning tin industry necessitated a coordinated system, were real advancement made. While the development of transportation and communication served the interests of the economic elite, these changes had little impact on the rural population, which in the middle of the nineteenth century comprised almost 90% of the Bolivian population. A shift towards commercialization in agriculture ended collective farming in the free indigenous communities. Disruption of social norms resulted as many left the land for new urban areas.


In the last hundred years, the various governments of Bolivia have tried different approaches to strengthen the economy, but the nation remains one of the poorest in the world. Republican systems of government gave way to state run socialism which was replaced in the last two decades with a forced privatization. Yet wealth remains concentrated in the hands of the few, and the economy is still contingent upon world market prices for its raw materials.

There have been improvements in education and popular political participation. The era of elite political control has ended as reforms made in the middle of the twentieth century resulted in a more literate population. Also, mine workers exercised their collective strength in unions and used this power in the political arena. After World War Two, civilian governments established some social welfare programs and provided state funds and financial incentives for economic growth and basic improvements. Even when the military took power in the 1960s, the government continued these policies. Only in the 1980s, when these programs brought Bolivia to the brink of financial disaster, was there insistence on a return to market forces and civilian rule in order to secure financial assistance from the International Money Fund, the World Bank, and the United States.

External influences have remained strong and for most of the century, the United States replaced Europe as the primary outside force in both politics and economics. Along with its support, the US imposed demands regarding internal political and economic choices. The governments of Bolivia have complied with these requests, which ranged from guarantees that the populist regimes of 1950s rejected communism to promises in the 1990s to reduce the export of coca leaves that were turned into narcotics. No economic reform that would have undercut US business interests has been implemented. The recent discovery of natural gas in Bolivia has led to one more phase of the elite benefiting from a resource that has not helped the general population.

  1. What aspects of elite rule have persisted throughout Bolivia's history?
  2. Despite all that has happened in Bolivia over the last 800 years, how and why has the indigenous population remained in tact?
  3. How has the connection between economics and politics persisted in Bolivian history?
  4. What factors contributed to the marked differences between the development of North and South America?
Norman B. Leventhal Map Center (