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Bolivia - History

The Andean region has probably been inhabited for some 20,000 years. Around 2000 BC, the Tiwanakan culture developed at the southern end of Lake Titicaca. The Tiwanakan culture centered around and was named after the great city Tiwanaku. Tiwanaku was the capital of a powerful pre-hispanis and pre-inca empire that reached it's apogee between the year 500 and 900 AD. It's influence spread over a wide area of the southern Andes and adjacent regions.The remains of their monuments testify to the cultural and political importance of a civilization clearly differentiated from other pre-hispanic cultures of the Americas. The people developed advanced architectural and agricultural techniques before disappearing about 1200 AD, probably because of extended drought.

Roughly contemporaneous with the Tiwanakan culture, the Moxos in the eastern lowlands and the Mollos north of present-day La Paz also developed advanced agricultural societies that had dissipated by the 13th century. Around 1450, the Quechua-speaking Incas entered the area of modern highland Bolivia and added it to their empire. They controlled the area until the Spanish conquest in 1525.

During most of the Spanish colonial period, this territory was called “Upper Peru” or “Charcas” and was under the authority of the Viceroy of Lima. Local government came from the Audiencia de Charcas located in Chuquisaca (La Plata--modern-day Sucre). Bolivian silver mines produced much of the Spanish empire’s wealth. Potosi, site of the famed Cerro Rico--“Rich Mountain”--was, for many years, the largest city in the Western Hemisphere. As Spanish royal authority weakened during the Napoleonic wars, sentiment against colonial rule grew. Independence was proclaimed in 1809. Sixteen years of struggle followed before the establishment of the republic, named after Simon Bolivar, on August 6, 1825.

Independence did not bring stability. For nearly 60 years, short-lived, weak institutions and frequent coups characterized Bolivian politics. The War of the Pacific (1879-83) demonstrated Bolivia’s weakness when it was defeated by Chile. Chile took lands that contained rich nitrate fields and removed Bolivia’s access to the sea.

An increase in world silver prices brought Bolivia prosperity and political stability in the late 1800s. Tin eventually replaced silver as the country’s most important source of wealth during the early part of the 20th century. Successive governments controlled by economic and social elites followed laissez-faire capitalist policies through the first third of the century.

Indigenous living conditions remained deplorable. Forced to work under primitive conditions in the mines and in nearly feudal status on large estates, indigenous people were denied access to education, economic opportunity, or political participation. Bolivia’s defeat by Paraguay in the Chaco War (1932-35) marked a turning point. Great loss of life and territory discredited the traditional ruling classes, while service in the army produced stirrings of political awareness among the indigenous people and more of a shared national identity. From the end of the Chaco War until the 1952 revolution, the emergence of contending ideologies and the demands of new groups convulsed Bolivian politics.

Bolivia’s first modern and broad-based political party was the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR). Denied victory in the 1951 presidential elections, the MNR led a successful revolution in 1952. Under President Victor Paz Estenssoro, the MNR introduced universal adult suffrage, carried out a sweeping land reform, promoted rural education, and nationalized the country’s largest tin mines.

Twelve years of tumultuous rule left the MNR divided. In 1964, a military junta overthrew President Paz Estenssoro at the outset of his third term. The 1969 death of President Rene Barrientos, a former junta member elected president in 1966, led to a succession of weak governments. The military, the MNR, and others installed Col. (later General) Hugo Banzer Suarez as president in 1971. Banzer ruled with MNR support from 1971 to 1974. Then, impatient with schisms in the coalition, he replaced civilians with members of the armed forces and suspended political activities.

The economy grew impressively during most of Banzer’s presidency, but human rights violations and fiscal crises undercut his support. He was forced to call elections in 1978, and Bolivia again entered a period of political turmoil. Elections in 1978, 1979, and 1980 were inconclusive and marked by fraud. There were coups, counter-coups, and caretaker governments.

In 1980, Gen. Luis Garcia Meza carried out a ruthless and violent coup. His government was notorious for human rights abuses, narcotics trafficking, and economic mismanagement. Later convicted in absentia for crimes, including murder, Garcia Meza was extradited from Brazil and began serving a 30-year sentence in 1995 in a La Paz prison. After a military coup forced Garcia Meza out of power in 1981, three separate military governments in 14 months struggled unsuccessfully to address Bolivia’s growing problems. Unrest forced the military to convoke the Congress elected in 1980 and allow it to choose a new chief executive. In October 1982--22 years after the end of his first term of office (1956-60)--Hernan Siles Zuazo again became president. Severe social tension, exacerbated by hyperinflation and weak leadership, forced him to call early elections and relinquish power a year before the end of his constitutional term.





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Page last modified: 19-12-2012 19:54:18 ZULU