Anyone taking a Bolivia tour will soon discover it has a very interesting history. In 2009 Bolivia re-elected its indigenous President, Evo Morales. An ex-coca farmer with a humble background, he was the result of a long and colourful political history. Bolivia has seen empires rise and fall, revolutions, bitter territorial wars, military coups and struggles with multinational corporations. And somehow from all the chaos, it is a country that has managed to democratically elect a leader from the poorest and least empowered part of its population. How did this happen?
Occupations and independence
The first recorded occupation of Bolivia was by the Tiwanaku culture, a population that grew between 600 and 800 AD to urban proportions from a small agricultural village. Things developed nicely until 960 AD when a big climate shift occurred and drove everyone out of the region by 1000 AD; not a good start for humanity.
Next in were the Incas, expanding rapidly from 1430 to 1530 AD, bringing intricate road systems, irrigation, agricultural terracing and the Quechua language. The Incan expansion was so rapid that the Empire was internally weak, and the Spanish didn’t have much trouble toppling it when they arrived in 1532 AD.
The Spanish settled in the Bolivian highlands for two decades, but had a fairly miserable time of things due to bloody infighting between the conquistadors and rebellions by the suppressed Inca. In 1548 the murder of Gonzalo Pizzaro caused the Spanish Crown to assert its authority, establishing the city of La Paz. Despite a strong hold over the population, native resistance continued for the duration of Spanish rule, with more than 100 rebellions in the 18th century alone in Peru and Bolivia.
Bolivian independence grew from unrest between the criollos, Bolivian born of pure Spanish descent, and the peninsulares, Spaniards who had travelled from Europe to govern the colony. Following the French Revolution, a group of radical criollos were motivated to join with a native Bolivian General to oppose the renewal of the Spanish Constitution in 1812. The General was finally defeated in conflict by the rebel armies of Simón Bolivar and Antonio José de Sucre. On August 6th, 1825, Bolivia was declared independent, with Bolivar considered the founder.
Life after independence
Things got off to a good start in the 19th century with Andres de Santa Cruz, but political problems arose from a confederacy between Peru and Bolivia and before long the next 60 years was dominated by coups and short-lived administrations. Other countries took advantage; since independence Bolivia has lost over half her land to neighbours in wars.
In 1935 Bolivia was defeated by Paraguay in the Chaco War. This crushing blow discredited ruling classes, and army service generated political passions in the indigenous population. The Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR) emerged from the Chaco War in 1941 as a middle-class political coalition eschewing Marxism. It was victorious in the 1951 elections, but the results were deemed fraudulent by the opposition, and its right to the presidency was denied. not a party to take rejection lightly, the MNR led a successful revolt on 9 April 1952, and set into motion the National Revolution. The reforms of the state attempted to incorporate into national life the Aymara and Quechua peasants that the majority of Bolivia’s population, a unique political positioning.
Dictatorships to democracy
The revolution was deemed to have ended when a military Junta overthrew the President in 1964, preceding a turbulent twenty years of military rule characterised by coups, counter-coups and temporary governments. Finally General Luis Garicia Meza carried out a brutal coup in 1980 and his subsequent human rights abuses, links to drug trafficking and hideous economic mismanagement caused the Carter and Regan administrations in the US to sever ties with Bolivia. To this day, the United States and Bolivia are still at odds.
The population tired of the endless savaging by the military, and from the 1985 elections onwards Bolivian governance became democratic. Unfortunately this era was led by hyperinflation at a crippling annual rate of 24,000%. Social unrest, drug trafficking and chronic strikes were the norm. Impressively, under the administration of the MRN within 4 years social and economic stability had been achieved and the military had been kept firmly out of politics. The achievement was slightly soured by the collapse of tin prices in 1985 that saw 20,000 miners laid off, but the trend for open, honest democratic process with peaceful transitions of power continued.
The administration in the mid-90’s began an aggressive policy of privatizing state resources until the Cochabamba “Water Wars” in which an multi-national Corporation raised water rates to the point where the population violently protested and the Corporation was thrown out of Bolivia, resulting in an unsuccessful $25 million lawsuit against the Government. Corruption crept slowly back into the halls of Parliment, as many high-level politicians were implicated in the exploitation of Bolivia’s large natural gas reserves. Following a series of violent blockades and strikes, hasty resignations were made by the top brass in the Government and a full review of the Constitution and renewing of Parliament at the same time as a general election on December 4th, 2005.
Evo Morales – a new kind of president
Evo Morales, indigenous leader and former Coca farmer, had lost out in the 2002 elections following comments by the US ambassador Manuel Rocha warned Bolivian voters that if they voted for Morales the US could cut off foreign aid and close its markets to the country. This stance was no doubt fuelled by Morales’ status as an ex-coca farmer and Bolivia’s reputation as producer of one-third of all cocaine globally. However, he wasn’t held back the second time, and won the 2005 election by a comfortable 54% majority with his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party. He was the first native President elected in Bolivian history. Within a year he had nationalised the Bolivian gas fields, something wanted by the indigenous population for years.
Opinions are mixed about the Morales administration. Since coming to power four departments in Eastern Bolivia have voted to have political autonomy, distancing themselves from central Government. However,one thing that cannot be denied is Morales’ commitment to the native population, which constitute the majority of Bolivia. In terms of democratic representation and equal rights, the Bolivian government is making strides to which the rest of the world should pay attention.