A landlocked country of central South America. It is bounded by Brazil and Paraguay to the north and east, Argentina to the south, and Peru and Chile to the west.
In the south-west is a great plateau, the Altiplano, some 800 km (500 miles) long and 3,660 m (12,000 feet) high, set between two even loftier ranges of the Andes. At its northern end is the southern shore of a huge mountain lake, Titicaca, while in the south there are vast salt pans. The north-east by contrast has low plains with hot, wet rainforest and several navigable rivers. Southward the ground rises to plains which are covered with woodland and grass.
The mountains of Bolivia offer large deposits of minerals: mining is the principal industry, and the country is developing its capacity to smelt mineral ore. Other industry includes chemicals, textiles, and food-processing. Natural gas accounts for 60% of exports, while tin, of which Bolivia is one of the world's largest producers, provides another 30%. Bolivia produces enough petroleum for internal consumption. Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy despite periodic droughts and floods. Principal crops are sugar cane, potatoes, and maize. The coca plant, from the leaves of which the drug cocaine is produced, grows freely; it is smuggled to Colombia for processing. Bolivia's economy has suffered from protracted political instability, fluctuating commodity prices, a large external debt, high inflation, and lack of investment.
The area became an important Ayamará Indian state between 600 and 1000 ad but was conquered by the growing Inca state c.1200. Some Ayamará continued to resist, however, and were not completely subdued until the late 15th century, Spanish conquest followed six years after Francisco Pizarro's landing in Peru in 1532, and in 1539 the capital at Charcas (modern Sucre) was founded. The discovery of silver deposits in the Potosí mountains in 1545 led to the establishment of the Audiencia (a high court with a political role) of Charcas, under the viceroyalty of Peru. Revolutionary movements against Spain occurred here earlier than anywhere else in South America – at La Paz in 1661, Cochabamba in 1730, and Charcas, Cochabamba, La Paz, and Oruro in 1776–80 – but all failed.
Independence was finally won under José de Sucre, at the battle of Ayacucho (1824). A National Assembly declared Upper Peru independent, and named it Bolivia after Simón Bolívar. A short-lived Peru-Bolivian Confederation was formed (1825–39). Control of the Atacama coast region, where rich guano nitrate deposits were found, was challenged by Chile in 1842 and finally lost in 1884 in the disastrous War of the Pacific. A series of military dictatorships (1839–80) was succeeded by more liberal regimes, with Liberal and Republican Parties alternating. In 1930 a popular revolution elected a reforming President, Daniel Salamanca. In 1936, following the disastrous Chaco War, military rule returned. In 1952 the Bolivian National Revolution overthrew the dictatorship of the junta, and Paz Estenssoro, leader of the MNR (Movimento Nacionalista Revolucionario) Party returned from exile and was installed as President. Tin mines were nationalized, adult suffrage introduced, and a bold programme of social reforms begun. Paz was re-elected in 1960 but overthrown in 1964 by a military coup. In 1967 a communist revolutionary movement, led by Ché Guevara, was defeated. Military regimes followed each other quickly. Not all were right-wing, and that of General Juan José Torres (1970–71) sought to replace Congress by workers' soviets. Democratic elections were restored in 1978, when the first woman President, Lydia Guelier Tejada, briefly held office. There was another military coup in 1980 and a state of political tension continued until 1982, when civilian rule was restored. Since then a succession of Presidents – including the return of Paz Estenssoro (1985–89) and a former military dictator, Hugo Banzer (1997–2001) – has struggled with economic problems and the unrest caused by attempts to resolve them. Free-market reforms led to economic growth in the 1990s and vigorous action was taken against the cultivation of coca. However, progress stalled thereafter: economic growth slowed from 1999, and coca production increased in the early 21st century. In 2006 Juan Evo Morales became President and announced the nationalization of Bolivia's gas fields.
La Paz (administrative); Sucre (judicial)
1,098,581 sq km (424,164 sq miles)
1 boliviano = 100 centavos
Roman Catholic 92.5%; Baha'i 2.6%
Quechua 40.0%; Mestizo 27.0%; Aymara 24.0%; White (mainly Spanish extraction) 8.0%
Spanish, Aymara, Quechua (all official)
UN; OAS; Andean Community; Non-Aligned Movement; WTO