What Should I Know About Bolivia?

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  • Written By: Rebecca Partington
  • Edited By: Lucy Oppenheimer
  • Last Modified Date: 13 October 2019
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Bolivia is a landlocked country in central South America surrounded by Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, and Peru. Home to over nine million Bolivians as of 2007, the country has three official languages — Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara. Its largest city is Santa Cruz de la Sierra and it has two capitals — Sucre, its constitutional capital, and La Paz, its administrative capital.


The area has been settled for approximately 13,000 years. The Incan Empire developed here during the 1200s and grew to dominate much of the surrounding area. It continued to do so until the Spanish defeated them and colonized the area in 1533. During most of the Spanish colonial era, the area was called "Upper Peru" and was under the control of the Viceroy of Lima. Silver mines, run by slaves, was the primary source of wealth for the Spanish empire.

Political History

In 1809, the people of Bolivia declared their independence, and after 16 years of turmoil, named their country after Simón Bolívar, a hero in the war for independence. Conditions remained unstable for many years largely due to struggles with neighboring countries. As a result, the nation lost direct access to the ocean, as well as over half its territory during various wars. When the price of silver increased in the late 1800s, some economic and political stability returned.


A series of governments characterized by corruption and instability have controlled Bolivia since the 1800s. Juan Evo Morales Ayma, the president elected in 2005, has taken efforts to stabilize the country. One effort includes a campaign to reduce the illegal trade in coca, which is a major problem as Bolivia can provide up to 80% of the world's cocaine when at peak production. Morales also plans to amend the constitution in order to give more power to the indigenous majority.


The geography of Bolivia is quite varied, with the Andes mountains and Bolivian Altiplano in the west, while part of the Amazon rainforest lies in the east.


Even though Bolivia is rich in natural resources, it has one of the poorest economies in South America due to a string of corrupt governments and the influence of foreign powers. However, economic reforms are now in place that may help to remedy this situation.


The largest indigenous groups are the Quechua, with approximately 2.5 million people, the Aymaras, with about 2 million people, the Chiquitano, with about 180,000, and the Guaraní, with about 125,000. Approximately 56% of the population is Amerindian, about 30% is Mestizo (mixed Amerindian and European ancestry), and about 15% is Caucasian. Most citizens are Roman Catholic, although Protestantism is increasing in popularity.


Bolivian culture has been heavily influenced by the Quechua, the Aymara, and the popular cultures of other Latin American nations. Soccer is the national sport and is very popular. Bolivia is becoming increasingly urbanized, so many people are beginning to fall away from traditional practices and thus it is difficult to define a single national culture.


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