Bolivia is a pyramid society whose social composition has changed little over time. The small elite are of European descent and the large indigenous population comprises the bottom tier. This societal structure began during the European colonization of the area in the sixteenth century. The hierarchy that was established five centuries ago remains remarkably intact. What led to the development and persistence of this social and economic structure? How did the elite obtain and maintain control? Why has the indigenous population only recently begun to have political clout commensurate with its numbers? Most importantly, how does this mix of people all contribute to the broader question of what does it mean to be Bolivian?


Two hundred years ago, these numbers and the economic and social pyramid that took shape during the first century after Spanish conquest in the 1520s remain virtually unchanged (Figure 23). The conquistadors mixed little with the native population. Even the Incas who ruled the area for the previous two centuries had little direct contact with the indigenous population and permitted local autonomy as long as it did not interfere with the goals of the empire. Furthermore, the number of Spaniards who came in the first century of rule was proportionately low compared to the native population, who were needed desperately by the conquerors to work the mines and the land. African slaves were brought to the area when it became clear that the native population could not provide the necessary labor. (1)

In today's environment, these ethnic divisions are joined by distinctions of region, occupation and amount of urbanization. Overall, Bolivia has a low population density and much of the land remains difficult to inhabit. Approximately 40 percent of Bolivians reside in the Altiplano, a 50,000 square mile plateau located between two large mountain ranges in the Andes (Figure 25) , 30 percent in the eastern plains region and another 30 percent in the highland valleys of central Bolivia. Close to 90 percent of the population speaks Spanish although more than half of the residents speak a tribal language as well. Only 40 percent speak Spanish exclusively. This data shows the strong persistence of indigenous languages among the Indian population. A century ago, only 20 percent of the population spoke Spanish. The increase in Spanish literacy reflects the impact of state sponsored educational programs that comprise 23 percent of the federal budget. (2)

Race is a complicated subject in Bolivia. Being white has less to do with physical characteristics than an awareness of the longstanding power of European descendents in Bolivian society. Dress, food and language all reflect a person's orientation and values. Those who emulate the Spanish origins of Bolivia's political and economic elite are currently being challenged by the ascendancy of indigenous politicians who promote a regard for the non-European roots of Bolivia. For the last decade, these leaders have fomented popular unrest as a means to express discontent with the status quo and claim power for those long marginalized. The election of the country's first indigenous president in December 2005 is profound. Evo Morales suggests a new path for Bolivia. At his inauguration he wore native garb and spoke Aymara, the language of his tribe that dates back before the Incan conquest in the 15th century.


The primary interest of the Europeans in Bolivia was its ample supply of precious metals. The Spanish, who arrived in the 1520s and ruled for the next 300 years, were not interested in settling the area and only a total of 250,000 Spaniards arrived during their first hundred years of rule. As part of Spain's mercantile economy (Figure 7) and (Figure 8), Bolivia existed only to provide these raw materials. The goal was to gain as much as possible while doing only what was necessary reap the desired benefits. While this was the Crown's intention, other factors did shape the experience. The arrival of the Catholic Church had a large impact on the development of life in the Western Hemisphere.

Culture did not flow in one direction only and the Spanish gained many things from the experience that they had not intended, including farming techniques and crops. These new lands presented an opportunity for many ambitious young Spaniards to make a fortune. The largely male emigration from Europe resulted in racial mixing. The Spanish also needed the indigenous population to work in the mines. Throughout North and South America, the Europeans hoped that the native born population would provide sufficient labor to meet their needs, but eventually they instituted a transatlantic slave trade in order to develop and sustain their work force (Figure 10).

Spanish success in Bolivia and the rest of South America brought more than material wealth. For two centuries, Spain dominated international trade and helped solidify the centrality of Europe in world affairs. As time passed, the Spanish method of mercantilism grew weak in contrast to the strong market economies developed by England and France. As Spain's power waned throughout the eighteenth century, British influence increased in Bolivia. Although the English would not directly control the area, they benefited enormously from gaining access to these now unprotected markets.


Why and how has the indigenous population persisted? The Aymara and Quechan Indians speak languages that predate the Incan conquest of the fifteenth century (Figure 15). Many factors have contributed to this persistence. Limited European migration after conquest allowed for the retention of tribal integrity (Figure 23). Because economic gain was the primary reason for migration, Bolivia was not seen as an extension of Spain, but merely a place to gain material wealth. After the decline of its silver mining in the late seventeenth century, few new Spanish immigrants came. Likewise, the persistence of a mercantile economy did not result in a shift to wide-scale agricultural production until the late nineteenth century. As a result, small farming communities, Ayllu, remained undisturbed for centuries as long they provided revenue to the state, both during European rule and after independence. The persistence of an economic lifestyle carried over to culture, education, folkways, diet and dress. Even the arrival of the Catholic Church with the Spanish did not alter indigenous practices which co-existed with the more formal rituals of the church.

As the twenty-first century begins, there are still many Bolivians who lived as their ancestors did. Recent battles over coca production reflect this persistence and the power of heritage. The coca plant remains the purview of the small indigenous farmer, supporting a lifestyle that has existed for centuries. Bolivian farmers use this crop for tea and a chewing substance, like tobacco. Once exported, coca is turned into cocaine. Strong pressure has been brought by United States and other nations to curtail coca production and the Bolivian government was able to cut the amount of acreage under cultivation in half between 1990 and 2005. These actions had a profound effect on Bolivia's farmers and sparked popular protests, increasingly the means by which the poor and powerless are making their voices heard in Bolivia. A former coca farmer himself, President Evo Morales began his public career organizing coca farmers in protest and included a promise to decriminalize coca as part of his campaign.

All issues of economic modernization in Bolivia are filtered through the prism of ethnic identity. The indigenous population, which feels increasingly empowered, use their numbers to fight for what they want.


The status quo in Bolivia has existed for so long that recent upheavals have resulted in an unsettled atmosphere. Those Bolivians long without power are eager to exercise influence, but the potential for exploitation exists. Nations where democracy functions did not become that way easily or quickly. Both the United States and Britain have followed long and complicated paths to their present political landscape. Yet the people of Bolivia are eager. The elite are concerned that their security may be squandered to compensate for past inequities. Many are not sure if Morales' calls for land confiscation and nationalization of some industries will destroy the overall structure of Bolivian society.

The province of Santa Cruz (Figure 25) highlights many of these tensions. The importance of Santa Cruz in Bolivia is relatively recent. The population rose from 50,000 to 1.3 million during the last 50 years. Although the area contains one-fifth of the country's residents, it produces half of its tax revenues. The discovery of natural gas in the region has contributed to its status, as has the presence of the headquarters of most of the international corporations that do business in Bolivia. The conservative elite of Santa Cruz fears President Morales' calls for land confiscation and nationalization of key industries. They fear that communism will be forced upon them and resent direct government involvement in their economy. Many Bolivians note the irony that this same group did not protest government insistence on privatization of resources 25 years ago. But the area is also home to many indigenous Bolivians who provide the labor to support the region's wealth. In recent months, Morales has allowed the entrance of Venezuelan troops to help preserve order, a stance that has resulted in calls for secession or lessening of federal control.


Nationalism is an elusive concept in a country like Bolivia that is not a natural geographic or political entity. The country's borders have resulted from a series of agreements that followed Bolivia's independence in 1826 (Figure 11) and (Figure 14). The country has no real ideological foundation. The recent advent of indigenous power, however, draws on a consistent component of Bolivia's history.

The notion of who is a foreigner is also important to this nation's persona. To the indigenous population, it is as much the non-Bolivian as the white elite who have prevented them from fully realizing the potential of their country. The crushing poverty of their lives tells them that they are not full partners in their own land. But the victory of President Morales shows them that there is an alternative. Morales is smart and careful. He states that he is not rejecting foreign investment but promoting investment in Bolivia. While his rhetoric may sound like political doublespeak to American ears, his words find a welcome audience among the people of Bolivia.

  1. How have the demographic divisions within Bolivia both strengthened and weakened the country?
  2. What does each group in Bolivia have to gain by the changes President Morales hopes to make?
  3. What does each group in Bolivia have to lose by the changes President Morales hopes to make?
  • Bower, Daniel. The World in the Twentieth Century. Saddle River, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1999.
  • Klein, Herbert S. A Concise History of Bolivia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Romero, Simon. "In Bolivia's Affluent East, Anger at Morales Growing." The New York Times. December 26, 2006.
  • Library of Congress Website: A Country Study: Bolivia
Norman B. Leventhal Map Center (