education is nominally free and compulsory for children between the ages
of 6 and 14, but the public schools, although increasing in number, do
not meet the needs of Bolivia, which has an illiteracy rate of nearly
In the late 1980s about 888,200 pupils attended primary schools, some
211,500 attended secondary schools, and about 97,200 were enrolled in
institutions of higher education.
Bolivia has ten
universities: at Sucre, La Paz (two), Cochabamba, Llallagua, Oruro,
Potosí, Santa Cruz, Tarija, and Trinidad. Saint Francis Xavier
University (1624), in Sucre, is one of the oldest in the Americas. The
University of San Andrés (1830), in La Paz, is the largest university in
Bolivia, with a student enrollment of about 37,000.
republic, central South America, bounded on the north and east by
Brazil, on the southeast by Paraguay, on the south by Argentina, and on
the west by Chile and Peru. Bolivia is, with Paraguay, the only South
American country without direct access to the sea. In a
northern-southern direction the maximum length of Bolivia is about 1530
km (about 950 mi); its extreme breadth, in an eastern-western direction,
is about 1450 km (about 900 mi). The area is 1,098,581 sq km (424,165 sq
mi), making it fifth in size (after Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and
Colombia) of South American countries.
Land and Resources
The principal physical feature of Bolivia is the Andes Mountains, which
extend generally north to south across the western part of the country.
On the west, near the border with Chile, is the Cordillera Occidental,
or western range, and on the northeast is the Cordillera Real, the main
range of the Andes. The Cordillera Real contains some of the highest
Andean peaks, notably Ancohuma (6550 m/21,489 ft) and Illampu (6485
Bolivia is divided into three distinct regions; the Altiplano, or
plateau region; the yungas, a series of forested and well-watered
valleys embracing the eastern mountain slopes and valleys; and the
llanos, or the Amazon-Chaco lowlands. The Altiplano is about 800 km
(about 500 mi) long and about 130 km (about 80 mi) wide and lies between
the Cordillera Occidental and the Cordillera Real. The northern part,
where the bulk of the population and industry of Bolivia is found,
contains, at its end, Lake Titicaca, the highest large, navigable lake
in the world. The southern part of the plateau is arid. Lying on the
eastern slopes of the Andes is the yungas.
Stretching east and northeast from the mountains are the great Amazonian
plains (llanos) containing large grassy tracts and, along the rivers,
dense tropical forests. Much of this region becomes swampland during the
wet season (December, January, and February); large areas, however, lie
above the flood line and are rich grazing lands. In the southeast,
separated from the Amazonian plains by the Chiquitos highlands (about
1070 m/3500 ft), are the dry, semitropical plains of the Chaco (see GRAN
In the northern and northeastern valleys and plains, the drainage system
consists of the Beni River and its main affluent, the Madre de Diós
River; the Guaporé River, which forms part of the boundary with Brazil;
and the Mamoré River. The Pilcomayo River, the chief river of
southeastern Bolivia, flows through the Chaco to feed the Paraguay
River, thus eventually draining into the Río de la Plata. The
Desaguadero River, outlet for Lake Titicaca, feeds Lake Poopó to the
Although situated entirely within the Tropics, Bolivia, as a result of
its varied elevation, has a wide range of climate. In the higher regions
the climate is cold and dry but generally healthful, in spite of the
cutting winds, the thinness of the atmosphere, and the daily extremes of
temperature. In the lower-lying regions the climate is warmer. The mean
annual temperatures range from about 8.3° C (about 47° F) in the
Altiplano to about 26.1° C (about 79° F) in the eastern lowlands.
Deposits of metallic ores are large and varied. Mineral resources
include tin, lead, silver, copper, antimony, zinc, sulfur, bismuth,
gold, and tungsten. Salt, petroleum, and natural gas are also found. The
soil of certain regions, notably the valleys east of Santa Cruz (the
yungas), is extremely fertile. The annual output of hydroelectric plants
in the late 1980s amounted to 1.1 billion kwh, 74% of Bolivia's total.
Plants and Animals
Because of the wide variations in elevation, plant and animal species of
nearly every climatic zone are found in Bolivia. A coarse grass, called
ichu, grows on the largely barren high plateau in the west. Para rubber
trees, more than 2000 species of hardwood trees, and vanilla,
sarsaparilla, and saffron plants are common in the tropical forests of
the east. The llama, found chiefly on the Altiplano, is an efficient
beast of burden. Alpaca and vicuña also inhabit the plateau, and
monkeys, puma, jaguar, armadillo, and a variety of reptiles, birds, and
insects are found predominantly in the tropical Amazon Basin.
The population of Bolivia (1989 estimate) was 7,193,000. Population
density was only about 7 per sq km (about 17 per sq mi), one of the
lowest in South America. Roughly 55% of all the people are Native
American, and about 30% are mestizo, of mixed blood. The remaining
inhabitants are white, mainly of Spanish descent. About 51% of the
people live in rural areas.
The official languages of Bolivia are Spanish and two Native South
American languages, Quechua and Aymara; about 40% of the Native American
population speaks no Spanish. Roman Catholicism is the religion of the
great majority of the population.
For administrative purposes the republic is divided into nine major
political divisions, called departments: Santa Cruz, El Beni, Tarija,
Potosí, La Paz, Chuquisaca, Pando, Cochabamba, and Oruro.
The constitutional capital of Bolivia is Sucre (population, 1988
estimate, 95,635); La Paz (1,049,800), the largest city, is the
administrative capital. Other important cities are Santa Cruz (1987
estimate, greater city, 577,800), a major trade center; Cochabamba (1988
estimate, 377,259), in a fertile farming region; Oruro (195,239), in the
mining district; and Potosí (114,092), also in a mineral-producing area.
Primary education is nominally free and compulsory for children between
the ages of 6 and 14, but the public schools, although increasing in
number, do not meet the needs of Bolivia, which has an illiteracy rate
of nearly 35%.
In the late 1980s about 888,200 pupils attended primary schools, some
211,500 attended secondary schools, and about 97,200 were enrolled in
institutions of higher education.
Bolivia has ten universities: at Sucre, La Paz (two), Cochabamba,
Llallagua, Oruro, Potosí, Santa Cruz, Tarija, and Trinidad. Saint
Francis Xavier University (1624), in Sucre, is one of the oldest in the
Americas. The University of San Andrés (1830), in La Paz, is the largest
university in Bolivia, with a student enrollment of about 37,000.
In dress, language, architecture, and life-style, the large Native
American population follows the ways of its ancestors with an admixture
of modified Spanish traditions. Clothing is colorful and suited to life
in high altitudes. Holidays and religious festivals are celebrated by
dancing and festivities. The Spanish-speaking population, which is
largely European in ancestry, and is educated and better off
economically, has adopted some of the Native American customs but
generally follows Western traditions. See LATIN AMERICAN LITERATURE;
LATIN AMERICAN MUSIC.
Although many of the largest mining operations were nationalized during
the 1950s, successive Bolivian governments have encouraged private
industrial development and actively sought foreign investment capital.
Annual budget figures for the late 1980s show revenues and expenditures
balanced at about $2.9 billion.
Agriculture, Fishing, and Forestry
Agriculture is extremely important to the Bolivian economy, employing
nearly half the labor force and accounting for about 23% of the annual
gross domestic product. Bolivia's agriculture suffers from antiquated
farming methods, uneven population distribution, and inadequate
transportation. Although now self-sufficient in the production of sugar,
rice, and meat, Bolivia must still import certain foodstuffs. The chief
Bolivian crops are potatoes, sugarcane, cotton, coffee, maize, rice, and
wheat; a major share of farm income derives from the illicit growing and
processing of coca leaves, the source of cocaine. Fishing is a
relatively unimportant industry in landlocked Bolivia. The lack of
transportation facilities has prevented large-scale exploitation of
wealth in the Bolivian forests, which cover more than half the country's
area, mostly in the east.
Mining, Manufacture, and Trade
Mining, a major industry in Bolivia, was hampered in the late 1980s by
weak prices on world markets. Bolivia has long been one of the world's
leading producers of tin. In 1952 its three major tin-mining operations
were nationalized under the Corporación Minera de Bolivia (COMIBOL).
Most of the tin mines are located in the vicinity of Oruro; the annual
output of tin concentrates in the late 1980s was about 7000 metric tons.
Bolivia is also a major world producer of bismuth and antimony. Also
mined are tungsten, lead, zinc, copper, and silver. Petroleum and
natural gas production increased in importance in the 1960s and early
'70s; by the late 1980s Bolivia was virtually self-sufficient in
Manufacturing enterprises are on a small scale; industry accounts for
about 11% of the gross domestic product and employs 9% of the labor
force. Sugar refining, leather working, tobacco processing, and the
manufacture of cement, chemicals, paper, furniture, glass, explosives,
and matches are key industries. More than two-thirds of all
manufacturing is in La Paz, which is also the center of domestic trade.
Bolivia has long been dependent on mineral exports: Natural gas
accounted for 36% of export earnings in the late 1980s, and tin provided
13%. Silver, antimony, lead, copper, zinc, tungsten, coffee, and sugar
are also important exports. Imports consist mainly of machinery, motor
vehicles, electric equipment, and manufactured goods. In the late 1980s
annual imports totaled about $730 million, and exports about $724
million. The United States, Argentina, and Brazil are Bolivia's
principal trading partners.
Currency and Banking
The basic unit of currency is the boliviano, equivalent to 1 million old
Bolivian pesos (3.07 bolivianos equal U.S.$1; 1990). The Banco Central
de Bolivia is the sole bank of issue. Several state-owned development
banks provide investment credits to small mining and agricultural
operations. Foreign and domestic private financial institutions also
operate in the country.
Transportation and Communications
The total Bolivian railroad trackage is about 3640 km (about 2260 mi).
Railroads connect the landlocked country to ports on both the Atlantic
and Pacific oceans. The principal line connects La Paz with the free
port of Antofagasta, Chile.
About 40,990 km (about 25,470 mi) of roads exist in Bolivia; only a few
are hard-surfaced, and many are passable only in the dry season. The
national airline, Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano, provides regular air service
between the major Bolivian cities, with other Latin American countries,
and with the U.S. About 14,000 km (about 8700 mi) of rivers are
navigable by light-draft vessels.
About 3,939,100 radio sets, 447,500 television receivers, and 182,400
telephones were in use in the late 1980s. Bolivia has some 13 daily
Bolivia's labor force exceeded 1.7 million in the late 1980s. Nearly the
entire nonfarm labor force is organized, most of it in unions belonging
to the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), the central labor federation.
Peasant unions were established after the 1952 revolution.
Bolivia is a republic governed under a constitution passed in 1947 and
Executive power is vested in a president and vice president, elected for
terms of 4 years by direct popular vote of married persons over the age
of 18 and single persons over 21. Neither can be reelected to an
immediate succeeding term. The president appoints the cabinet. Among
other presidential powers is the right to rule by decree.
Health and Welfare
Health conditions are poor in Bolivia. In the mid-1980s the country had
1 physician for every 1600 inhabitants. The infant mortality rate is
among the highest in South America; malaria, dysentery, and tuberculosis
are common, and there was a serious outbreak of yellow fever in the late
1980s. Medical services and hospitals are particularly inadequate in
rural areas. Bolivia has a comprehensive social insurance plan, but it
covers less than half the working population.
The Bolivian congress is bicameral, composed of a senate of 27 members
(3 from each department) and a chamber of deputies of 130 members. All
are elected for 4-year terms.
The principal political parties are the National Revolutionary Movement
of the Left (MNRI), the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), and
Nationalist Democratic Action (ADN).
Bolivia is divided into nine departments administered by prefects
appointed by the president. Each department is divided into provinces,
administered by subprefects appointed by the president. Important cities
and towns have popularly elected councils.
Judiciary and Defense
Justice is administered by the supreme court, which is composed of 12
members, elected by the congress to 10-year terms, and by district and
local courts. Military training is universal and compulsory, but in
practice only a small percentage of those registered for service are
drafted. In the late 1980s the combined strength of the armed forces was
The territory of Bolivia, a part of the ancient empire of the Incas, was
conquered in 1538 by the Spanish conquistador Hernando Pizarro, younger
brother of the Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro, who subdued Peru,
heart of the Inca Empire. Within the next 40 years, Spanish settlements
were formed at Chuquisaca (present-day Sucre), Potosí, La Paz, and
Cochabamba, and numerous silver mines, in which the Native American
population was compelled to labor, were opened. For some 200 years the
area, known as the Audiencia of Charcas, was one of the most prosperous
and populous centers in the Spanish colonies; Potosí may have been the
largest city in the western hemisphere. The area began to decline in the
18th century, and by the end of it, the mining industry was in a state
Revolts in 1809 led to the Wars of Independence. Bolivia declared its
independence of Spain on August 6, 1825 and took the name of Bolivia on
August 11. A constitution drafted by the South American revolutionary
leader Simón Bolívar, eponym of the country, was adopted by a congress
at Chuquisaca in 1826. It vested supreme authority in a president chosen
From the beginning of its national existence, Bolivia was plunged into a
state of nearly chronic revolution and civil war. The first president,
General Antonio José de Sucre, was expelled from the country after
holding office for only two years. During the next half century,
interludes of political tranquility were brief and infrequent. For a
while (1836-39) Bolivia was in a confederation with Peru, but a Chilean
invasion brought an effective end to it, increasing the turbulence.
Short wars and disputes with both Peru and Chile followed.
By treaties made in 1866 and 1874 regarding the disputed Atacama Desert,
famed for its rich nitrate fields, the 24th parallel of south latitude
was adopted as the Chile-Bolivia boundary line in that region. In
addition, various customs and mining concessions in Bolivian Atacama
were granted to Chile. Disputes arose between the two countries over the
latter provisions, and in 1879 Chile seized the Bolivian port of
Antofagasta. In the resulting struggle, called the War of the Pacific,
Bolivia and its ally Peru were defeated by Chile. Bolivia was stripped
of its one seacoast possession, becoming a landlocked country. A treaty
ratified in December 1904 recognized the perpetual dominion of Chile
over the disputed territory but granted Bolivia free access to the sea.
A dispute with Brazil concerning the possession of the Acre region was
settled in 1903, by the cession of about 180,000 sq km (about 70,000 sq
mi) to Brazil in return for a money indemnity and small territorial
The Bolivian government subsequently became involved in boundary
disputes with Argentina, Peru, and Paraguay. A peaceful solution of the
dispute with Argentina was reached in 1925. Peru and Bolivia settled
disputes over the peninsula of Copacabana by appointing in the 1930s a
joint commission to decide the border.
The Paraguay-Bolivia boundary dispute arose over the Chaco Boreal, a low
region lying north of the Pilcomayo River and west of the Paraguay River
and extending to the undisputed boundary of Bolivia. Both Bolivia and
Paraguay claimed the entire territory. In July 1932 an undeclared war
broke out (see CHACO WAR). A peace treaty was signed in July 1938.
Since the founding of the United Nations in 1945, Bolivia has desired
that the General Assembly consider its petition to regain a seaport on
the Pacific coast and has also broached the matter before the
Organization of American States. Chile, opposing Bolivia's ambitions,
alternatively declared Arica a free port in 1953 and granted Bolivia
special customs and warehousing facilities.
The period after 1930 was marked by further internal strife. In that
year, a revolution overthrew President Hernando Siles, who had governed
for two years without convening the national legislature. Daniel
Salamanca, elected president in 1931, was overthrown in 1934 by a clique
under Vice President Tejada Sorzano, who in turn was ousted by a
military junta led by Colonel David Toro. Toro was largely successful in
his attempts to extricate the country from the desperate conditions
resulting from the world depression and the Chaco conflict with
Paraguay. He made enemies, however, in influential quarters, and in 1937
he was ousted by a group led by Lieutenant Colonel Germán Busch, chief
of the general staff.
In 1938, during Busch's second term as president, a new constitution was
adopted. Busch abolished the new constitution in April 1939, however,
and set up a totalitarian state. Four months later he was found dead of
a bullet wound, an alleged suicide. General Carlos Quintanilla, who then
assumed the presidency, restored the 1938 constitution and stated that
the army would exercise control until new elections could be held.
In 1940 General Enrique Peñaranda was elected president, and on April 7,
1943, during World War II, he announced a state of war against the Axis
powers. In December 1943, Peñaranda was ousted in a coup staged by the
National Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario,
or MNR), a reformist party that included pro-Axis sympathizers. The new
government, headed by Lieutenant Colonel Gualberto Villarroel, was
compelled by economic pressures to maintain good relations with the
Allied powers. Villarroel headed a totalitarian regime until he was
overthrown and killed in July 1946.
The government continually faced opposition from both left and right,
and after the discovery of a Communist plot early in 1950, the Communist
party was outlawed.
The Regime of Paz Estenssoro
In May 1951, the exiled MNR leader Víctor Paz Estenssoro won nearly half
the presidential election vote. Because no candidate had a clear
majority of the vote, election of a president from among the three
leading candidates fell to Congress. In order to prevent the election of
Paz, the incumbent president, Harriaque Urriolagoitia, placed the
government under the control of a military junta and resigned. General
Hugo Ballivián was appointed president, but in April 1952 his government
was overthrown by the MNR, and Paz returned from exile to assume the
presidency. The Bolivian government embarked on a prolabor,
anti-Communist program, the key features of which were the
nationalization of tin mines, the redistribution of land from
expropriated estates, and the diversification of the economy. Throughout
the 1950s and into the 1960s the Bolivian economy suffered from a steady
drop in world tin prices and from inflation. The tin mines proved
consistently unprofitable; government efforts to reduce the size of the
force employed in the mines and to restrain wage increases met with
resistance from the leftist unions. The Bolivian constitution prevented
the reelection of Paz in 1956, but Vice President Hernán Siles Zuazowon
election as the MNR candidate; the result of this election was a
continuity of policy. Paz was reelected in 1960 and in the following
year pressed for the adoption of a new constitution that extended the
economic authority of the government and permitted the reelection of an
incumbent president. Paz was reelected in 1964, but many of his earlier
supporters left him, charging that the MNR was less reformist and more
oppressive than it purported to be. Also, the government policies proved
generally ineffective in meeting the existing economic problems. Paz was
overthrown in November in the aftermath of an uprising by miners, and
his government was succeeded by a military junta headed by his former
vice president, Lieutenant General René Barrientos Ortuño.
Rule by the Army
In the ensuing two years, the military government succeeded in
instituting reforms in tin-mining operations, including reopening the
industry to private and foreign investment. Barrientos, who was elected
to the presidency as a civilian in July 1966, was forced, however, to
depend heavily on armed force to put down Communist-led guerrilla
movements concentrated in the mountainous mining regions. The Bolivian
army reportedly smashed the rebel forces in October 1967, in a pitched
battle near the village of Vallegrande. Che Guevara, aide to Cuban
Premier Fidel Castro, was captured in that encounter and executed
shortly afterward. Barrientos was killed in the crash of a helicopter in
April 1969 and a series of short-lived governments followed, most led by
military men. General Juan José Torres Gonzáles was overthrown by
Colonel Hugo Banzer Suárez in August 1971. The Banzer regime moved from
a relatively moderate position to full military control in 1974. Banzer
stepped down in 1978, pending restoration of civilian government, but
elections in 1979 and 1980 were each followed by renewed military
intervention. By 1982 the country's earnings from tin production had
declined, and foreign debt continued to rise. The illegal export of
cocaine was thriving, and the U.S. was pressing Bolivia to take decisive
steps against the drug traffic.
In October 1982 Hernán Siles Zuazo was installed as president; he faced
several cabinet crises and was unable to resolve problems brought on by
international banks. After an inconclusive popular election, Congress
chose Victor Paz Estenssoro as president in August 1985. His
government's attempts to cut down coca production and the sale of
cocaine, aided by a contingent of U.S. troops from July to November
1986, were only partially successful and very unpopular. Jaime Paz
Zamora, who finished third in the popular election of May 1989, became
president of Bolivia in August after winning a congressional runoff. The
next presidential elections, held in June 1993, were won by mining
entrepreneur Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.