The history of Bolivia dates back to around 400 BC when the Aymara established a great city known as Tiahuanaco (Tiwanaku) in western Bolivia. Varying accounts suggest the city grew to 50,000 people although one account reports that satellite imaging indicates a larger metropolitan area of more than one million people.
Whatever the true figures the Aymara were clearly a resourceful people developing a rich culture with great architecture. Tiahuanaco appears to have disappeared around 1,000 AD and was replaced by smaller states before the Incas finally expanded into the area sometime around the mid-1400s.
Around 1524 the Spaniards came to the area in the form of Francisco Pizarro, Diego de Almargo and Hernando de Luque. Battles with the Incas were inevitably won by the Spaniards and they established new cities at Chuquisaca (1538), La Paz (1548), Cochabamba (1571) and Oruro (1606).
Silver was discovered by the Spanish and the usual complex governmental arrangements started to impose themselves on the locals. The area now known as Bolivia was known as Upper Peru and initially was part of the Viceroyalty of Peru before becoming part of the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata.
By the 1780s resentment towards the Spanish had grown and more than 100 revolts broke out in different areas. However, the Indians (and Criollos – of Spanish descent but born in South America) were disunited and their rebellion was crushed by the Spanish.
Nevertheless Spanish authority in South America weakened with the Napoleonic Wars and in 1809 the people of La Paz declared independence, calling their new country after Simón Bolívar. Although the rebellion was crushed, it was only a matter of time and on 6th August 1825 Bolivia became truly independent.
Simón Bolívar was briefly President of Bolivia between August and December 1825, but arguably their first true President was Antonio José de Sucre who ruled from December 1825 to April 1828. He was followed by José María Pérez de Urdininea who lasted four months and José Miguel de Velasco Franco who also lasted four months (although he was then the 6th, 8th and 13th President before his death in 1859). The longest ruling President of this era was Andrés de Santa Cruz who lasted from 1829 to 1839.
Unfortunately Andrés de Santa Cruz tried to unite Bolivia and Peru through the War of the Confederation (1836 – 1839) but lost to Chile who felt threatened by the idea. Another war, the War of the Pacific was fought by Bolivia as she tried to retain a strip of coastline and avoid becoming a landlocked country; again Bolivia lost.
Although starting from a low point, the tin mining and silver industry helped revive Bolivia’s economic fortunes in the late 1800s and a degree of stability was maintained. The early part of the twentieth century was also relatively quiet but the Chaco War (1932 – 1936) when Bolivia lost to Paraguay a large portion of Gran Chaco was a turning point (the two sides lost around 50,000 dead apiece).
The next few years were turbulent, a coup d’état in 1936 was to be the first of many, although it was a time when new political movements flourished. In 1942 the then centre-left Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) was founded and was to remain one of the most influential political parties throughout the remaining years of the twentieth century and into the new millennium. They became part of a military civil regime between 1943 and 1946 but were deposed in 1946 by the Revolutionary Left Party (PIR). In 1949 they instigated a civil war but were defeated. They were back again in 1951 with Víctor Paz Estenssoro as their new President. It was during this period that the three largest tin companies in Bolivia were nationalised. The MNR also introduced universal suffrage, giving the Aymara and Quechua peasants, who comprised about 60% of the population, a say in government for the first time.
Although this was a period of reform, or because of the reforms it was followed, from 1964 onwards, with a series of juntas bringing in nearly 20 years of military rule. Arguably the only successful General was Hugo Banzer between 1971 and 1978; he was able to instigate high levels of economic growth.
But with the more successful came the bad; on 17th July 1980 Luis García Meza instigated a violent coup d’état often referred to as the Cocaine Coup. His period in office was corrupt, violent and noted for drug trafficking activities, but mercifully it ended in August 1981.
There followed three more military governments that were marginally better but it wasn’t until 1985 when Víctor Paz Estenssoro of the MNR was returned to office for the fourth time that things started to calm down. He managed to stabilise the economy through neoliberal policies under something called Decree 21060. He also re-instated some basic human rights whilst continuing a series of reforms.
In a turbulent but surprisingly well managed election in 1989 a new moderate centre-left president, Jaime Paz Zamora of the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) came to office and continued the reforms. Another election in 1993 saw the peaceful transition of power to Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada of the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement–Revolutionary Liberation Movement Tupaq Katari (MNR–MRTKL). The democratic trend, although not without its flaws, continued in 1997 when Hugo Banzer, this time as a civilian and aged 71, under the Nationalist Democratic Action (AND) banner, was elected President.
Banzer was diagnosed with cancer in 2001 and forced to hand over to his Vice-President until fresh elections in 2002 brought in Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada of the MNR once more. De Lozada only narrowly defeated Evo Morales of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) and in 2005 Morales achieved his dream and became the first indigenous (he is from the Aymara people) President of Peru.
Morales was re-elected in 2009 with 64.22% of the vote and has pursued a radical Socialist policy throughout his period in office although many radical socialists would disagree and suggest that he is “reconstituting neoliberalism”. Whatever the reality, Morales portrays himself as a champion of the poor, the working classes and the indigenous people. Morales is standing once more in the 2014 Presidential election and is expected to win although possibly not quite so comfortably.
The President is elected for a five year term.
The bicameral Congress comprises the lower house or Chamber of Deputies which has 130 members and the upper house or Chamber of Senators which has 36 Senators; both houses are elected for five year terms.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Bolivia at joint 113th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 33 (where 100 is least corrupt).