Lake Titicaca, the birthplace of the Incas, is one of Bolivia's most sacred and historic sites. But the history of Bolivia begins thousands of years before the arrival of the Incas. The Tiwanaku culture, which eventually spread to the area from northern Argentina and Chile all the way up to southern Peru, was one of the most highly developed pre-Columbian civilizations. From 1600 B.C. to 100 B.C., the Tiwanaku made the important move of domesticating animals, which allowed them to become more productive farmers. From 100 B.C. to A.D. 900, the arts flourished in the Tiwanaku culture. But it wasn't until A.D. 900 to 1200 that the Tiwanaku became warriors and set out to dominate the area that is now Bolivia. A drought destroyed the heart of the Tiwanaku region in the 13th century, and when the Incas swooped down from Peru around 1450, the Tiwanaku had broken up into small Aymara-speaking communities. The Quechua-speaking Incas dominated the area until the arrival of the Spanish in 1525.
Bolivia proved to be the crown jewel of the Spanish empire. As early as 1545, silver was discovered in southern Bolivia. Over the next 200 years, Potosí, home of Cerro Rico (the "rich hill," which was the source of all the silver), became one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world. Getting rich quickly was the name of the game for most European settlers in Bolivia. Other than the development of Potosí and transportation systems to deliver the silver to the rest of the world, much of Bolivia remained neglected. Indigenous men were forced to work in the mines, often for no pay. This was only the beginning of a system of inequality and sharp class distinctions that to this day exist in Bolivia.
Not surprisingly, the first rumblings for independence arose in the area of Chuquisaca (present-day Sucre, which was then the administrative capital of Potosí). The first revolutionary uprising took place in Chuquisaca in 1809, but Bolivia did not win independence until August 6, 1825.
The age of the republic did not bring much glory to Bolivia. In the next 100-plus years, Bolivia lost its seacoast to Chile in the War of the Pacific (1879-83); in 1903, after a conflict with Brazil, Bolivia was forced to give up its access to the Acre River, which had become a valuable source of rubber; and in the Chaco War (1932-35), Bolivia surrendered the Chaco region, which was believed to be rich in oil, to Paraguay. The high price of silver in the late 19th century and the discovery of tin in the early 20th century kept Bolivia afloat.
After the Chaco War, which drained Bolivia's resources and caused great loss of life, the indigenous people began to distrust the elite ruling classes. In December 1943, the pro-worker National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) organized a revolt in protest of the abysmal working conditions and inflation. This was the beginning of the MNR's reign of power. In 1951, the MNR candidate, Víctor Paz Estenssoro, was elected president, but a military junta denied him power. In 1952, the MNR, with the help of peasants and miners, staged a successful revolution. The MNR managed to implement sweeping land reforms and nationalize the tin holdings of the wealthy. Under the reign of Estenssoro, the government also introduced universal suffrage and improved the educational system.
The MNR managed to hold on to power until a coup in 1964. For the next 20 years, Bolivia became a pawn in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. A series of military revolts brought power to both leftist and right-wing regimes. In 1971, Hugo Bánzer Suárez became president with the support of the MNR and instituted a pro-U.S. policy. In 1974, because of growing opposition, he set up an all-military government. He was forced to resign in 1978. In the ensuing years, a series of different leaders were unable to deal with the problems of high inflation, growing social unrest, increased drug trafficking, and the collapse of the tin market. Víctor Paz Estenssoro returned to power in 1985. He kept the military at bay and was able to create economic stability. Finally, in 1989, Jaime Paz Zamora, a moderate, left-leaning politician, was elected president; he worked to stamp out domestic terrorism, bringing a semblance of peace to the country. In 1993, a mining engineer, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, was elected president. He worked successfully to reprivatize public business, an effort that actually helped the economy. In 1997, Hugo Bánzer Suárez returned to power. He worked with the United States to eradicate coca growing, with much opposition from local farm workers. The late 1990s marked another period of social unrest for Bolivia, with frequent strikes that paralyzed the nation.
President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada was elected president in 2002, but his cooperation with the United States in eradicating coca growing (and thus causing much unemployment) turned most of the country against him. When he signed a deal to export Bolivian gas to the United States and Mexico and transport it via Chile, he sparked a tinderbox of protest among the nation's indigenous people. In late 2003, the anger erupted in violent demonstrations in La Paz and El Alta, the neighboring city. Thousands of peasants flocked to the city from rural areas to participate in the revolt. The situation deteriorated quickly and more than 70 people were killed by the police. On October 17, 2003, more than a quarter of a million protesters rallied in La Paz's Plaza de San Francisco, near the Presidential Palace. Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada stepped down and fled to Miami; Vice President Carlos Mesa was appointed president. Things returned to normal very quickly but again erupted in early 2005. The gas issue polarized the nation, with the poorer indigenous people accusing the European elite of selling their country's valuable resources.
Bolivia Today -- In June 2005, Mesa was forced to resign and Supreme Court judge Eduardo Rodríguez was placed as head of an interim government. In December 2005, former coco farmer Evo Morales was declared Bolivia's first indigenous president. Feared by conservatives for his close relationship with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and frequent jabs at the United States, Morales has enjoyed great popularity among the lower classes that make up the bulk of the population. However, a new constitutional assembly has caused uproar in the eastern provinces, and nationalization of the country's gas reserves has scared off foreign investors. A declaration of autonomy by the eastern (richer) provinces has further polarized a society that some say is near a breaking point. It remains to be seen whether Morales can keep both sides happy and his country together.
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