Bolivia Table of Contents

Bolivia was characterized for the forty years after 1839 by a chaotic political situation and a declining economy. The country relied on taxes paid by the Indians as its main source of income. Although some of the government's leaders during this period tried to reform the country, most fit the description of caudillos bárbaros (barbaric caudillos), a term used by Bolivian writer Alcides Arguedas for inept and corrupt rulers.

Santa Cruz was succeeded in June 1839 by General José Miguel de Velasco Franco (1828, 1829, and 1839-41), who tried to control the political intrigues and maneuvering between the supporters and opponents of Santa Cruz. After failing to repel yet another invasion by Gamarra, Velasco was overthrown. Gamarra was killed in November 1841 near La Paz in the Battle of Ingavi, in which General José Ballivián y Segurola defeated the Peruvian forces and ended Peruvian expansionism.

Ballivián y Segurola (1841-47) is remembered for restoring relative calm to the nation between 1842 and 1847. Reversing Santa Cruz's protectionist policies, Ballivián y Segurola encouraged free trade. He also promoted the colonization of the Beni. Nonetheless, the main income continued to come from the taxes paid by rural Indians. These included not only a head tax but also a tax on coca leaves, which were consumed almost exclusively by the Indian population. Although nearly 90 percent of all Bolivians lived in rural areas according to the 1846 census, agriculture generated little revenue. Most haciendas stagnated, and only the collection of chinchona bark (for the production of quinine) and coca leaves increased in the valleys.

After the overthrow of Ballivián y Segurola in 1847, Manuel Isidoro Belzú Humérez (1848-55) emerged as the most powerful figure in Bolivia. Unlike his predecessors, Belzú sought the support of the masses. In order to gain the backing of the Indians, he started a campaign against the aristocratic landowners, seized their land, and incited the Indians to destroy the homes of the landowners. He also hoped to get the support of the artisans who had been hurt by the free-trade policies of Ballivián y Segurola by restricting the role of foreign merchants in Bolivia and limiting imports.

Belzú's effort succeeded in one sense because he fended off forty-two coup attempts during his rule. "Tata" Belzú, as he was called by the Indians (like the head of the ayllu in preColumbian times), has been seen as the precursor of Andean populism. Attempting to stir the masses in demagogic speeches, Belzú completely alienated the Bolivian establishment with his reign of terror. As efforts to overthrow him increased, he resigned in 1855 and left for Europe.

José María Linares Lizarazu (1857-61), a member of the elite that had opposed Belzú, overthrew Belzú's son-in-law, General Jorge Córdova (1855-57), and became the first civilian president. Linares reversed Belzú's protective policies and encouraged free trade and foreign investment, mainly from Britain and Chile. During his presidency, mining output increased because of technological innovations, such as the steam engine, and the discovery of huge nitrate deposits in the Atacama Desert (in present-day Chile).

Although the mining sector improved, it failed to stimulate agricultural production, and most haciendas continued in a relative state of stagnation. This malaise contributed to the survival of campesino communities during the nineteenth century, despite repeated assaults on their common landholdings by various governments. But the tax burden on the Indians resulted in campesino revolts in Copacabana.

The overthrow of Linares by a military coup in 1861 initiated one of the most violent periods in Bolivian history, under General José María Achá Valiente (1861-64). Achá is remembered for the "murders of Yáñez," the massacre of seventy-one Belzú supporters (Belcistas), including General Córdova, ordered by Colonel Plácido Yáñez, the military commander in La Paz, in 1861.

In late 1864, General Mariano Melgarejo Valencia (1864-71) seized the presidency and became the most notorious of Bolivia's caudillos. Relying primarily on the military, he remained in power for more than six years despite his mismanagement, drunkenness, and corruption, as well as constant intrigues against him. Hoping to improve the economy by opening up the country to foreigners, Melgarejo signed a series of treaties with Chile and Peru for free trade. In an 1867 treaty with Brazil to secure water rights to the Atlantic Ocean, he ceded 102,400 square kilometers of territory, hoping to break Bolivia's isolation.

Melgarejo started a formidable assault on Indian communal land, ostensibly in order to improve agricultural production. He decreed that the Indians were the owners of their parcels only if they paid a large fee within sixty days. If they failed to do so, their land would be auctioned off. The resulting sales increased the size of the haciendas, and massive Indian uprisings against his rule became more violent. Opposition against Melgarejo mounted in all sectors of society as the term melgarejismo came to signify amoral militarism; in 1871 he was overthrown and later murdered in Lima.

Agustín Morales Hernández (1871-72) continued Melgarejo's ruling style, despite his promise of "more liberty and less government." Morales was assassinated, however, by a nephew in 1873. Two presidents with high integrity, Tomás Frías Ametller (1872-73) and General Adolfo Ballivián (1873-74), did not last long because of constant intrigues. Under their rule, Bolivia opened the port of Mollendo in Peru, which reduced the country's isolation by connecting the Altiplano by train and steamship on Lake Titicaca to the Pacific Coast. But in 1876 Hilarión Daza Groselle (1876- 79) seized power and became another military caudillo, as brutal and incompetent as Melgarejo. He faced many insurrections, a massive demonstration by artisans in Sucre, and widespread opposition. Hoping to gather the support of nationalist Bolivians to strengthen his internal position, Daza involved his country in the disastrous War of the Pacific.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress