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Bolivia

History & Background


The Republic of Bolivia, in the center of South America, is land-locked and surrounded by 5 countries: Paraguay, Argentina, and Chile in the south; Brazil in the east; and Peru in the north. Because it is split by some of the highest mountains in the world, isolation plagues educational progress. La Paz is the government capital of Bolivia, but Sucre is the legal capital and the seat of the judiciary power of the country.

The geographic, political, and economic factors of Bolivia and its demography have long been an impediment to easy progress and development. The country covers 1,098,581 square kilometers (about 425,000 square miles) and, according to the National Institute of Statistics it has an average of about 7.58 inhabitants per square kilometer. The estimates of population range from 8,000,000 to 8,328,700 inhabitants in 2000, depending on the sources. By any estimate, Bolivia has one of the lowest demographic densities in the western hemisphere and a yearly population growth of only about 2.3 percent. Its inhospitable living conditions are reflected in the percentages of land types: 20 percent desert, 11 percent land with negligible irrigation, 40 percent rain forest, approximately 25 percent pasture and meadows, 2 percent inland water, and 2 percent Andean range, including an uninhabited area called the "Altiplano" with arctic weather at more than 5,500 meters high. Only two percent is arable land. As for the population, only 57 percent have access to potable water, and 76 percent have inadequate sanitary facilities. However, in the early 1990s this unfortunate state of affairs began to improve.

Like the rest of the Andean region, Bolivia is believed to have been permanently inhabited for about 21,000 years. Its history is usually divided into three broad historical periods: Pre-colonial (from the origins until 1525), Colonial (1525-1809), and Republican (from 1809 until now). Agriculture seems to have started around 3000 A.D., but not much is known of the period previous to the Tiwanakan culture that started about 600 B.C.E. Centered around Tiwanaku, south of Lake Titicaca, the Tiwanakan civilization developed through colonization rather than conquest. The ruins of Tiwanaku reveal advanced architectural techniques. The causes of the city's disappearance around 1200 A.D. are still a subject of speculation, but it signals the rise of the Aymara kingdom. The Aymara improved the food supply through a very sophisticated system of irrigation, the source of an agricultural prosperity that sustained a large population. The drying out of its system of canals seems a likely explanation for the decline of the region. The Aymara could not contain the expansion of the Quechua-speaking ethnic group. Around 1450, the latter added the highlands to the empire they already controlled. In the early fifteenth century they took the name of Incas after their rulers, and they remained in power until the arrival of the Spanish in 1525. Other ethnic cultures like the Moxos in the lowlands and the Mollos north of where La Paz stands also disappeared in the thirteenth century.

During the Colonial Period, the region became known as "Upper Peru" since it depended on the Viceroyalty of Lima, but it was also known as Charcas because the local government was centered in Chuquisaca (now Sucre). Due to the region's abundance of silver, the Spanish settled and prospered. The conquest brought with it the Roman Catholic Church. The church, led primarily by the Jesuits, became the prime provider of education and continues to deeply influence education, though a parallel private system has become a new feature of Bolivia since 1989. The take-over of education by the Jesuits deeply affected the indigenous populations. First, Spanish, the language of the oppressor, so dominated education that Quechua, Aymara, Guarani/Chiriguano, Chiquitano, and the many other existing native languages were absolutely ignored in the very places where they were the languages of the majority. This change had a dramatic effect inasmuch as the indigenous populations, who still represented 56 percent of the population in 2001, were denied education unless they first became bilingual. Furthermore, since no provision existed for their learning Spanish, the indigenous populations became and remained second-class citizens within their own territories.

The representatives of the Roman Catholic Church privileged their own compatriots, the newly arrived Spaniards and Europeans, so that education, with the exception of a few Indian leaders, excluded Indians and women. Under the best of circumstances, education became the choice instrument of transculture, of subversion, and of the loss of the Amerindian cultural heritage and identity. The fact that 95 percent of the total population of Bolivia is now Catholic demonstrates the degree of the sweeping transcultural indoctrination that occurred in the country after the arrival of the Spanish. Although independence was declared in 1809, it was not until August 6, 1825, when, after a long struggle, Bolivia was established. Named in honor of Simon Bolivar, one of the heroes of Independence, the country, at the time of independence, was more than twice its present size. After the independence a series of brief, unstable constitutions were implemented. When the country engaged in the war of the Pacific against Chile and Peru (1879-1883) it was weak, due to a succession of coups. In 1884, Chile won the nitrate-rich Atacama desert, Bolivia's only seacoast access. This loss irremediably damaged the economy.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Bolivia's situation was somewhat improved by the world increase in the price of silver and later by the exploitation of tin. But bad capitalist policies left the majority of indigenous population living under the most primitive conditions in deplorable poverty, all for the benefit of a small elite.

Bolivia engaged in the Chaco war against Paraguay from 1932 until 1935, and was defeated, losing about 60,000 men, a large part of its territory, and its last strategic access to the sea through the Paraguay River. After the war, the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, MNR, emerged as a popular party. The Amerindians, representing the majority in numbers, had gained political awareness while serving in the Bolivian military; nevertheless, they had no access to education, no economic opportunities, and no representation in politics. They grew tired of having no representation in the political arena, and their demands remained inadequately answered. The last straw came when the MNR, which had gained victory in the 1951 presidential elections, was denied its victory. Soon afterwards a rebellion erupted, culminating in the 1952 revolution. A civilian government was established under the presidency of MNR leader Victor Paz Estenssoro (1952-1964). A series of reforms improved the conditions of indigenous peoples: universal suffrage, the development of rural education, the spread of primary education, and the implementation of important land reforms. Most of the Altiplano taken from the Amerindians was returned to them. Tin mines were nationalized, as were both the Bolivian mining corporations.

In spite of such progress, human rights were not respected, and a military junta overthrew the presidency in 1964. One of its members, Rene Barrientos, was elected president in 1966 but died soon after in 1969. It was during his presidency in October 1967, that Che Guevara attempted to start a Cuban type revolution. The army later executed him. In response, a series of military coups occurred and weak governments succeeded until Colonel Hugo Banzer Suarez became president in 1971. In spite of an impressive growth of the economy during his presidency, the suspension of political activities that he enforced reduced his initial popularity. Fraudulent successive elections took place in 1978 and 1979. There was a short break of successions in 1979 and 1980 when Lidia Gueiler Tejada became the first female president, but in 1980, after coups and counter-coups, the ruthless General Luis Garcia Meza, a known human rights abuser and trafficker in narcotics, led a violent coup. He remained in office only until 1981. After leaving office, General Luis Garcia Meza was convicted in absentia, extradited from Brazil, and began serving a 30-year sentence in 1995.

Several short-lived military governments and other weak leaders followed until 1985. Paz Estenssoro was then returned to power thanks to a coalition between the MIR (Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionario or Revolutionary Left Movement) and the MNR, winning over General Hugo Banzer Suarez, representing the Nationalist Democratic Action Party (ADN). However, the situation he inherited was precarious. The economy was in crisis, annual inflation was at 24,000 percent, strikes and unrest were rampant, and drug trafficking was widespread. Paz Estenssoro managed to achieve stability in four years but at a high price. The 1985 collapse of tin prices forced his government to lay off more than 20,000 workers, leading to social unrest. In the 1989 elections, General Hugo Banzer Suarez, who had learned his lesson from the previous elections, formed the Patriotic Accord (AP) with the MIR and won. Paz Zamora became the president and continued the reforms begun by Estenssoro. He ordered the 1992 crackdown against the domestic terrorism of the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army (EGTK). His integrity became questionable when he was later investigated for his personal ties to drug trafficker Isaac Chavarria.

In 1993, MNR's Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was selected as president by a coalition between the MBL (Movimiento Bolivia Libre or Free Bolivia Movement) and the UCS (Unidad Civica Solidaridad or Civic Solidarity Unit). Many reforms took place, including the Capitalization Program, which let investors acquire 50 percent ownership and management control in public enterprises. People opposed to these changes instigated frequent social disturbances until 1996. In the 1997 elections, General Hugo Banzer Suarez (ADN) again formed a coalition with the MIR, UCS, and CONDEPA (Conciencia de Patria or Patriotic Conscience) parties, and the Congress selected him as president. On August 6, 1997, he took office. Significant to the big picture is the fact that in the 176 years of its independence Bolivia had 189 governments.

Some facts about the poverty level of Bolivia are necessary to help understand the reforms in the educational system and to appreciate the country's current problems. According to the U.S. Department of State, the per capita income was officially in US$1,100 in 1997. In spite of an apparent large increase in income in 1999, the average purchasing power parity was estimated at $3,000 per capita, making Bolivia the poorest country in South America. The external debt was $5.7 billion, and 70 percent of the population lived below the poverty line and suffered from malnutrition. But this data shows only a part of the picture; the fact that the average income in Bolivia is the lowest of the continent is, of course, important, but the inequalities among Bolivians themselves are far worse. While 10 percent of the population receives 40 percent of the total national income of Bolivia, 40 percent of the population is in poverty, totaling only 10 percent of the same national income.

After the tin crash and the 1985 peak of inflation, unemployment rose to 20 percent in 1987; by 1999 it was estimated at 11.4 percent along with widespread underemployment. The rapid growth of the population, fostered by improved health, has made it difficult to increase the percentage of literacy. In 2000, the birth rate was 31.86 per 1000 versus a death rate of 8.36 per 1000. Infant mortality decreased by more than half, from 124.4 per thousand in 1989, to approximately 60.44 per 1000 in 2000. Life expectancy figures improved from 52 years in 1989 to an estimated 61.19 years in 2000 for males, and from 56 years to an estimated 66.34 years for females, though this life expectancy remains comparatively low. The overall population is young; 39.11 percent of the population is under 14-years-old (1,624,404 males and 1,564,057 females), 56.42 percent is between 15 and 64, and 4.47 percent is 65-years-old or above (164,473 males and 199,849 females). The literacy rate, rose from 75 percent in the mid-1980s, to 79.4 percent in 1998, with a large gap between genders: 90.5 percent for males against 76.0 percent for females. These literacy figures compare well to the ones given by the State of the World's Children data for 1995: 91 percent and 76 percent, respectively, for males and females.

The number of ethnic groups and languages complicates the picture of educational reform in Bolivia. The majority of the population is Amerindian. There are approximately 30 percent Quechua, 25 percent Aymara, nearly 30 smaller Amerindian subgroups, 30 percent mestizos, and 5 to 15 percent whites. These groups represent nine major linguistic groups with many subdivisions. As a rule very few Amerindians intermarry, and not all speak Spanish. Other factors that impact schooling are the distance from home to the nearest facility, and the lack of infrastructure and security. Inadequate means of transportation and communication still slow progress in Bolivia. Only 2,872 kilometers of the 52,216 kilometers of roads were paved in 1995, including 27 kilometers of expressways. However, recent community participation programs are accelerating the very slow process of modernization. In 1999 alone, for example, these efforts resulted in 791 kilometers of improved farm-to-market roads and 693 new hectares of land under irrigation. In 1999, 13 of the 32 official airports were paved; there were, in addition, some 1096 unofficial unpaved airstrips.

The first television set appeared in Bolivia in 1969. The 1999 State of the World's Children listed 672 radio sets per thousand people for the year 1995, and 115 television sets per thousand. In 1997 there were 5.25 million radio accesses, 900,000 televisions, 6 daily newspapers, and 400,000 telephones. The number of Internet providers rose from 5 in 1999 to 31 at the onset of 2001. At that time the country also had 7 cybercafés, 22 computer companies, 6 main television stations, 6 main radio stations, 7 daily newspapers, and 4 periodicals and weekly papers. Telephones had multiplied, and there were 10 telecommunication providers. The advance of technology constitutes a significant improvement for the prospect of education.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceBolivia - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education