Bolivia’s Brink

Photograph by George Steinmetz National Geographic July 2008

Bolivia, the only landlocked country in South America besides Paraguay, is a nation full of contrasts. The terrain varies from the high, harsh mountain ranges and plateaus of the west to the lush, humid tropical lowlands in the east to the scrubby, flat Chaco region bordering Paraguay to the south. Bolivia’s population is equally diverse. Sixty-two percent of the people identify themselves as indigenous, and most of them live in the western highlands. The rest of the population is mainly lighter-skinned European descendants and mixed-race people, who live principally in the eastern lowlands.

These groups are often at odds with one another. The white and mixed-race elite typically detests the left-leaning, nationalist policies of President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian who has made the well-being of the poor and indigenous majority of the country his priority.

Political turmoil is nothing new in Bolivia. The country gained its independence from Spain in 1825, but sovereignty was no guarantee of stability. Its tumultuous past includes countless coups, short-lived constitutions, military dictatorships, and institutionalized corruption. During the disastrous War of the Pacific (1879-83) it lost its coastline and rich nitrate fields to Chile. The Chaco War with Paraguay (1932-35) resulted in a terrible loss of life as well as the political awakening of Bolivia’s poor and disenfranchised, including its indigenous majority.

That war was followed by military coups and countercoups, some of which brought profound change to the country. Colonel German Busch Becerra's government (1937-39), for example, gave Indian communities legal recognition and passed a new constitution that included a labor code. More coups followed, leading to the Bolivian national revolution in 1952. One of the most significant changes the revolution brought about was universal suffrage: The elimination of literacy and property requirements allowed women and Indians to participate in elections for the first time. Another important consequence was wide-reaching agrarian reform, including the abolition of forced labor and the distribution of private property to Indian farmers and other peasants.

Some say the political rise of Evo Morales in the 1990s and his election to the presidency represents a new, ethnic revolution. Absolute power is no longer in the hands of the light-skinned elite minority. Instead, the Indian majority—mostly Quechua and Aymara, but also several dozen smaller ethnicities spread across the country—are seizing power by being elected to all levels of government and slowly garnering more economic power.

In 2006 Morales nationalized the hydrocarbon industry and began an ambitious land-reform program, with the goals of keeping the nation's wealth within its borders and of redirecting funds toward social reform for the poor. This infuriated the generally affluent, white citizens of the Santa Cruz department, an administrative division in the country's east, and those of nearby departments; they wanted to retain control of their region's vast resources, principally the oil and natural gas reserves, which are significant. On May 4, 2008, the Santa Cruz department held a historic referendum on regional autonomy. Many in Bolivia and around the world feared that violence would erupt as the contentious vote approached.

Over 80 percent of Santa Cruz's electorate voted to give the region more autonomy and more control over its resources, according to the official results reported by Agence France-Press and the BBC. Although the results were greeted with both joyful celebrations and sporadic violence, President Morales officially dismissed the results.

Morales has now called for new elections on August 10, in which the nation will vote on whether he and the national governors should stay in office. Bolivia continues along its volatile path.

Guillermoprieto, Alma. Bolivia's New Order. National Geographic (July 2008), 88-103.

A Country Study: Bolivia. Library of Congress.

Morales Dismisses Autonomy Vote. BBC News, May 5, 2008.

Morales Sets Bolivia Recall Date. BBC News, May 12, 2008.

Other Resources
Democracy Center of Bolivia.

Andean Information Network

Government of Bolivia.

Official Web page of Evo Morales.

Los Pueblos Indigenas de Bolivia: Diagnostico Sociodemografico a Partir del Censo del 2001.

Dunkerley, James. Evo Morales, the 'Two Bolivias' and the Third Bolivian Revolution—Part I.

Lovato, Roberto. The Importance of Being Evo Morales. New America Media, September 28, 2007.

Museo de la Coca (Coca Museum).

Indians and Politics in Latin America—After Evo Morales. Latin American Special Report, July 2007.

El Pueblo Ayoreo, Entre el Campo y la Ciudad, el Territorio y sus Estrategias de Sobrevivencia. Centro de Estudios Juridicos e Investigacion Social, February 12, 2005.

Buxton, Nick. Interview With Abel Mamani. Upside Down World, April 3, 2006.

Pueblos Indigenas de Bolivia.

Apoyo Para el Campesino-Indigena del Oriente Boliviano.

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Confederation of the Indigenous People of Bolivia.

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Gama Etnica y Lingüística de Bolivia en un Revolucionario Estudio. April 29, 2006.

Romero, Simon. In Bolivia's Affluent East, Anger at Morales Is Growing. New York Times, December 26, 2006.

Photos from Evo Morales's 2005 presidential campaign, by Kathryn Cook.

Photos of Bolivia, by Jeremy Bigwood.

Cocalero, a film by Alejandro Landes.

The Devil's Miner, a PBS film.

Bessire, Lucas. Isolation. Cultural Survival Quarterly (April 2008).

Canessa, Andrew. Natives Making Nation: Gender Indigeneity and the State in the Andes. University of Arizona Press, 2005.

Gill, Lesley. Teetering on the Rim: Global Restructuring, Daily Life, and the Armed Retreat of the Bolivian State. Columbia University Press, 2000.

Julien, Catherine. History of How the Spaniards Arrived in Peru, by Titu Cusi Yupanqui. Hackett Publishing Company, 2006.

Kohl, Ben, and Linda Farthing. Impasse in Bolivia: Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance. Zed Books, 2006.

Lamb, Simon. Devil in the Mountain: A Search for the Origin of the Andes. Princeton University Press, 2004.

Ledebur, Kathryn, and Coletta A. Youngers. Bolivian Drug Control Policy. WOLA, August 2007.


The Altiplano of South America is a high-elevation plain, around 12,000 feet above sea level, surrounded by the tall mountain ranges of southern Peru, Bolivia, and northern Chile. Although this arid, cold, and windswept plateau may appear deserted, it supports a diverse range of animal life, including llamas, vicuñas, chinchillas, guinea pigs (known as cui), the Andean condor, and three species of flamingos, which breed in the region's salt lakes.

Famous for its seemingly boundless supply of natural resources, the Altiplano and the bordering Andes may be the greatest source of mineral wealth in the world. Historically world-renowned for its rich silver deposits, the region also contains vast amounts of zinc, tin, copper, lead, antimony, bismuth, gold, and tungsten. Endless supplies of salt are mined at the Altiplano’s salars, or salt flats—the starkly beautiful, white Salar de Uyuni, in the southwestern corner of Bolivia, is the largest salt deposit in the world.

Guillermoprieto, Alma. Altiplano. National Geographic (July 2008), 66-87.

Expedition: Into the Altiplano. National Geographic Adventure (December 2003/January 2004).

Minerals of the Andes.

Last updated: June 3, 2008