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I've only been to Bolivia once and didn't spend much time there -- only about a week or so -- and my memories of the highlands, unfortunately, are not pleasant.  I had come down with traveler's diarrhea just about the time I entered the country and though I was already acclimated to high altitudes after spending a couple of weeks in and around Cuzco (3000 meters above sea level) the bump up to La Paz's nearly 4000 meters altitude was rough on my weakened physical condition.  The fact I smoked around a pack of cigarettes a day didn't help me much, nor did negotiating the steep hills around the city of La Paz.  After a few days surviving on hard-boiled eggs and coca tea, I moved on to Potosí, located on a high desert at the base of the Cerro Rico (more on that later).  And a few days after that, I moved on, crossing the border into Argentina for a whirlwind visit.

I also can't claim to be much of an expert on the country, beyond the general knowledge a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American history would be expected to acquire.  My master's advisor was something of an expert, and his book on Bolivia's 1952 revolution is one of the few I've read devoted solely to the country's history.

Nevertheless, I would venture to guess my scant experience with Bolivia represents volumes more than most of the kossacks who have mocked the country and its president since Evo Morales's plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Vienna the other day.  Below the fold I'll share some of the things I know.


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The best place to start a discussion of Bolivian history is with Tiwanaku, the capital of a vast pre-Columbian empire that peaked around the eighth century and whose influence continued until its collapse, probably as a result of climate change, sometime in the eleventh century. Scholars tend to see Tiwanaku as a precursor to the somewhat later Inca Empire, as its range of influence included the southern Peruvian highlands where the Incas arose a few centuries later.

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Tiwanaku, Wikimedia Commons

About a decade after the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in the 1530s, and long before the Spaniards had established effective, stable political control over the immense territory, silver was discovered in the Cerro Rico de Potosí.  The lodes there would eventually prove to among the richest silver deposits yet found in the world, and in fact when I visited the mountain in 1986 wildcat miners still continued to pull low grade ore out of it.  

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Cerro Rico de Potosí, UNESCO

UNESCO calls Potosí "the world's largest industrial center" in the sixteenth century, and it undoubtedly provided the principal source of wealth for Spain's Peru colony.  The tribute labor system organized by the colonial state in the 1570s became the nexus for a regional market economy that extended into southern Peru and northwestern Argentina, which provided food, labor, and textiles for the voracious desert development pole.  While Potosí silver extraction rates began to decline in the seventeenth century from the ridiculous high levels of the earliest years (when miners were encountering ore that was nearly pure silver), the city remained an important and prosperous center throughout the colonial era.  Wikipediacites a population estimate of nearly 200,000 in the late 1600s, which would make Potosí among the most populous cities of the day.  Even the estimate I commonly use, 150k, would place Potosí in the first rank of world cities in the late seventeenth century.

Most of the Bolivian population to this day lives on the Altiplano, the high Andean plain of 4000 meters or more, and the vast majority of the population self-identifies as Indian or has substantial Indian ancestry.  The World Factbook identifies 15% of the population as white, 30% as Quechua (a linguistic-ethnic division), another 25% as Aymara, and another 30% as having mixed ancestry. Since the Spanish conquest, political, social, and economic power has always been monopolized by the white minority.  In the late 1770s, Bolivian Indians, both Aymara and Quechua participated in the broad anti-colonial uprising led by the Peruvian Quechua leader Tupac Amaru II, and following Tupac Amaru's capture and brutal execution, Bolivian Aymaras continued the rebellion under the leadership of Tupac Katari for another year, laying siege to La Paz until Katari himself was also captured and executed.

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Tupac Amaru II, Wikimedia Commons

The recent experience of mass, bloody Indian uprisings led Peruvian and Bolivian elites to hold back from joining the independence movements that swept South America beginning around 1810 and taking real force after 1818.  Bolivia, in fact, was liberated by a foreign army loyal to the Venezuelan independence hero Simón Bolívar, and ultimately the grateful elites named their country after him -- after he had rejected their offer to become president for life.  The unusual path to independence, however, resulted in a lack of consensus over how the country should be organized politically -- other than general agreement that the Indian majority should be excluded from political participation -- and the budding political crisis was complicated by the fact the Potosí silver mines had finally reached the limit of commercially viable exploitation.  Without a stable source of foreign exchange and lacking a functioning civil society, Bolivia descended into a series of dictatorships and several pointless foreign wars.  

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Tupac Katari, Wikimedia Commons

In the last of these, the so-called War of the Pacific (1879-1883) fought with ally Peru against Chilean aggressors, Bolivia lost to Chile its westernmost province of Antofagasta and in the process lost its only outlet to the sea.  Adding insult to injury, Chilean nitrate mining in the newly conquered territory became that country's principal source of foreign exchange through the early twentieth century, fueling an economic boom that Bolivian elites looked on enviously.

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Nitrate miners in Chile, Wikimedia Commons

All was not lost for Bolivia, however, because global demand for tin exploded in the 1890s as a result of the expanding market for canned food in the United States and Europe, and the Cerro Rico -- along with other locations in Bolivia -- had massive quantities of tin ore.  Through most of the twentieth century, tin exports would be Bolivia's major source of foreign exchange, and through the late 1940s provided enough wealth for the white ruling class to maintain its power and its lifestyle.

In 1952, however, Bolivia underwent a social revolution.  While the causes of that revolution are too complex to go into here, the fact that it happened is central to understanding the entire country in the late twentieth century.  Led by middle class intellectuals and politicians, the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) brought together rural Indians and tin miners to defeat the Bolivian army and usher in sweeping reforms.  The tin mines were nationalized, and the leftist miners union given direct representation in the leadership of the state mining company, and large landed estates were broken up in a comprehensive agrarian reform that gave land to the tillers.

The revolution did not, however, give political power to peasants and miners, consolidating power instead in the hands of the urban elites that had led the movement in 1952.  Over time, the miners union lost its representation in the mining company and agricultural production for the market dropped both as a result of peasants consuming more of what they produced and loss of economies of scale as production shifted from plantation agriculture to microfarming.  The revolutionary leadership accepted military aid from the United States, and eventually found itself overthrown by the US-trained generals.  Bolivia entered another long period of political instability, but the agrarian reform remained in force and most peasants retained title to their own land.

When Che Guevara left Cuba in the mid-1960s with the idea of sparking a broad Latin American social revolution, he looked at a map and decided Bolivia's central location made it an ideal staging area.  What he didn't realize, though, was that Bolivia's peasants, recent participants in their own revolution and beneficiaries of a relatively effective agrarian reform, had no interest in joining his movement.  Within a few months, Che was tracked down by the CIA and executed.

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Che Guevara in Bolivia

I would argue that to understand Evo Morales you need to grapple with the historical context that brought him to the presidency.  The political movement he leads for the first time since the Spanish conquest provides an effective political voice to the country's Indian majority.  While the country remains desperately poor, its economic growth rate over the last few years is among the best in Latin America, averaging over 5% in the last two years.

I have no idea if Snowden will wind up there.  If he does, though, it will be as the result of a sovereign decision of a sovereign state.  

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to litho on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 09:36 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Community Spotlight.

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