Landlocked Bolivia is equal in size to California and Texas combined. Brazil forms its eastern border; its other neighbors are Peru and Chile on the west and Argentina and Paraguay on the south. The western part, enclosed by two chains of the Andes, is a great plateau—the Altiplano, with an average altitude of 12,000 ft (3,658 m). Almost half the population lives on the plateau, which contains Oruro, Potosí, and La Paz. At an altitude of 11,910 ft (3,630 m), La Paz is the highest administrative capital city in the world. The Oriente, a lowland region ranging from rain forests to grasslands, comprises the northern and eastern two-thirds of the country. Lake Titicaca, at an altitude of 12,507 ft (3,812 m), is the highest commercially navigable body of water in the world.
Famous since Spanish colonial days for its mineral wealth, modern Bolivia was once a part of the ancient Inca empire. After the Spaniards defeated the Incas in the 16th century, Bolivia's predominantly Indian population was reduced to slavery. The remoteness of the Andes helped protect the Bolivian Indians from the European diseases that decimated other South American Indians. But the existence of a large indigenous group forced to live under the thumb of their colonizers created a stratified society of haves and have-nots that continues to this day. Income inequality between the largely impoverished Indians who make up two-thirds of the country and the light-skinned European elite remains vast.
By the end of the 17th century, the mineral wealth had begun to dry up. The country won its independence in 1825 and was named after Simón Bolívar, the famous liberator. Hampered by internal strife, Bolivia lost great slices of territory to three neighboring nations. Several thousand square miles and its outlet to the Pacific were taken by Chile after the War of the Pacific (1879–1884). In 1903, a piece of Bolivia's Acre Province, rich in rubber, was ceded to Brazil. And in 1938, after losing the Chaco War of 1932–1935 to Paraguay, Bolivia gave up its claim to nearly 100,000 sq mi of the Gran Chaco. Political instability ensued.
In 1965, a guerrilla movement mounted from Cuba and headed by Maj. Ernesto (Ché) Guevara began a revolutionary war. With the aid of U.S. military advisers, the Bolivian army smashed the guerrilla movement, capturing and killing Guevara on Oct. 8, 1967. A string of military coups followed before the military returned the government to civilian rule in 1982, when Hernán Siles Zuazo became president. At that point, Bolivia was regularly shut down by work stoppages and had the lowest per capita income in South America.
In June 1993, free-market advocate Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada was elected president. He was succeeded by former general Hugo Bánzer, an ex-dictator turned democrat who became president for the second time in Aug. 1997. Bánzer made significant progress in wiping out illicit coca production and drug trafficking, which pleased the United States. However, the eradication of coca, a major crop in Bolivia since Incan times, plunged many Bolivian farmers into abject poverty. Although Bolivia sits on South America's second-largest natural gas reserves as well as considerable oil, the country has remained one of the poorest on the continent.
In Aug. 2002, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada again became president, pledging to continue economic reforms and to create jobs. In Oct. 2003, Sánchez resigned after months of rioting and strikes over a gas-exporting project that protesters believed would benefit foreign companies more than Bolivians. His vice president, Carlos Mesa, replaced him. Despite continued unrest, Mesa remained popular during his first two years as president. In a July 2004 referendum on the future of the country's significant natural gas reserves (the second largest in South America), Bolivians overwhelmingly supported Mesa's plan to exert more control over foreign gas companies. Mesa managed to satisfy the strong antiprivatization sentiment among Bolivians without shutting the door on some limited form of privatization in the future. But rising fuel prices in 2005 led to massive protests by tens of thousands of impoverished farmers and miners, and on June 6 Mesa resigned. Supreme court justice Eduardo Rodriguez took over as interim president.
Bolivia's First Indigenous President Asserts the Rights of the Native Population
Bolivian Indian activist Evo Morales of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) won 54% of the vote in Dec. 2005 presidential elections, becoming the country's first indigenous president. He carried out two of his three major initiatives in 2006: nationalizing Bolivia's energy industry, which is expected to double the country's annual revenues; and forming in August a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, which will ensure greater rights for indigenous Bolivians. His third major initiative is to legalize the growing of coca, which many Bolivians consider an integral part of their culture. In July 2007, Morales announced plans to nationalize the country's railways, which for the past 10 years have been run by investors from Chile and the United States. His controversial coca policy, his plans to limit foreign investment, and his close ties with the leftist governments of Venezuela and Cuba have predictably antagonized the United States. Morales has referred to himself as the “United States' biggest nightmare.”
On Dec. 9, 2007, Morales presented a new constitution to congress. The new chapter, which will give indigenous people more rights, recognize 37 official languages, and grant indigenous communities autonomy, was approved by 164 of the 255 constituent assembly members. The opposition boycotted the meeting, however, claiming that the document is illegal because it was not approved by the required two-thirds majority. Regardless of the opposition, the government plans to submit the document to a referendum in 2008.
On May 4, 2008, at least one person died and many were injured when clashes broke out in the Santa Cruz province after a poll was held in opposition to President Morale's government. The government strongly disapproved of the prosposed referendum, which would give more autonomy to the Santa Cruz province, including the ability to elect its own legislature, raise taxes for public works, and create its own police force.
On Aug. 10, 2008, President Morales won a recall referendum with 63.5 percent of voters supporting his administration. The recall vote was an unsuccessful effort to remove Morales from office by Podemos, an opposition party—Morales has garnered criticism from some lowland provinces for his policies, including the acceptance of financing from Venezuela.
On Sept. 10, 2008, President Morales ordered the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, to leave the country, accusing Goldberg of "conspiring against democracy" and encouraging rebel groups who were protesting in eastern Bolivia.
In November, 2008, relations between Bolivia and the United States deteriorated further—the U.S. suspended duty-free access for Bolivian exports and President Morales suspended U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operations, accusing its agents of espionage.
A new constitution that extended the rights of the indigenous majority, granted increased autonomy to the states, and allowed the president to run for a second five-year term was passed in a national referendum in January 2009 despite widespread protests.
In December, Morales was elected to a second term, taking more than 60% of the vote, well ahead of his conservative opponent.
Constitutional Court Rules That Morales Can Seek Third Term
In the spring of 2013, Bolivia's Constitutional Court ruled that President Evo Morales could run for a third term in the 2014 elections. Even though the country's constitution only allows two consecutive terms, the court ruled that Morales's first term would not be counted because it predated Bolivia's current constitution, which was amended in 2009. The 2009 constitution limited both the president and vice-president to two consecutive terms. Opposition and critics said the ruling proved that the government controlled the court.
In May 2013, President Morales expelled the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID). Morales had threated to expel the agency for some time, accusing it in the past of funding groups that opposed his policies such as a planned highway through a rainforest preserve. A state news agency in Bolivia reported that the USAID was "accused of alleged political interference in peasant unions and other social organizations." USAID, which had nine American employees in Bolivia, had already reduced its presence in the country. In 2007, USAID had an $89 million budget for programs in Bolivia. However, the budget had been decreased to $17 million in 2013.
Meanwhile, on May 16, 2013, hundreds of teachers, miners and other workers marched into Bolivia's capital. It was the 11th day of demonstrations for higher pensions. Protestors asked for their pensions, which ranged from $21 to $28 a month, to be doubled. Protestors attempted to take over the plaza where the government was located and miners set off dynamite. Police fought off protestors with tear gas.
Morales Embroiled in Controversy Involving NSA Leaker Snowden
Bolivia found itself involved in the international controversy surrounding the future of Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who leaked top-secret information about U.S. domestic surveillance to several news organizations in June 2013. President Morales offered asylum to Snowden. Bolivia was one of about 20 countries from which Snowden sought asylum. On July 3, the plane carrying Morales from Russia back to Bolivia was diverted because several European nations, believing that Snowden was on board the plane, refused Morales access to their airspace. The move created a diplomatic furor, and Morales called the incident an "affront to all [Latin] America," and the vice president, Alvaro Garcia, said Morales was "being kidnapped by imperialism."
France apologized the day after the incident. Morales's regional allies, including presidents from Argentina, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela, met in a show of solidarity and demanded an explanation about the incident.
Morales Wins Third Consecutive Term
President Evo Morales won a third consecutive term on Oct. 12, 2014, taking 61% of the vote. His closest opponent in the election was the Democratic Unity Party's Samuel Doria Medina who received 24.5%. During his victory speech, Morales said, "This victory is the victory of the anti-colonialists and the anti-imperialists."
Morales dedicated his third term re-election to Hugo Chávez. Critics expressed fear that Morales would follow Chávez's lead and attempt to stay in office past 2020. The Constitution currently bars him from seeking a fourth term, but last year Bolivia's Constitutional Court ruled that Morales could run for a third term in the 2014 elections. Many suspect his party would seek another change to the Constitution, allowing him to run again like Chávez did in Venezuela.
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