A Short Overview Of South America's Poorest Nation
BOLIVIA is a country of extremes. It is rich in natural resources such as tin and silver, as well as oil and natural gas but the majority live in poverty or near poverty. It is officially South America's poorest country.
It has some of the highest cities in the world, windy Potosi in the south west being some 4,100 metres above sea level, and low-lying forests and pampas where temperatures of 40 degrees centigrade plus conspire with a humidity which has to be felt to be believed.
Bolivia also has the highest concentration of indigenous people in South America at 80 per cent.
Politically, it is said that conflicts in Bolivia are not so much drawn out on class lines but on regional ones but in recent years huge struggles have been waged against the effects of capitalist globalisation.
In 2005 the IMF and World Bank forced a large increase in the price of fuel directly hurting the poor. An uprising exploded on the streets resulting in violent clashes.
On the back of this, current president Evo Morales came to power in 2006, the first president from a native background and who claims to represent them.
In the city of Santa Cruz, home to the economic elite, the middle- and upper classes despise him. They claim that La Paz, the principle city (Sucre is the capital) is sucking the life blood from them, economically speaking, where it is used to fund an overwhelming administrative bureaucracy.
Some right-wing political parties are openly calling for independence for Santa Cruz and some surrounding departments effectively wanting to split the country or at least have more autonomy. A couple of years ago this anger bolied over on the streets of Santa Cruz where much blood was spilled.
Whether or not some new state is realistic, its political expression has a large sympathy from the well-to-do's who are doubly frustarated that Morales is certain to win the next election in December, 2009 - after all he has the native vote in the bag.
That said, there is also anger at Morales but from another direction.
The silver mines of Potosi represent a working class block who were organinsed and campaigned for the current political administation but now many feel betrayed that the government has not changed anything for their lives.
The conditions in the mines are appaling and the slump in the price of silver has ruined many livlihoods in recent years.
Of course as an outsider who has no previous knowledge of the country, it is difficult to say what the future holds.
Bolivia is no stranger to revolutions and dictators, so democrary can never be fully taken for granted, although it has held firm since the early 1980s.
Interestingly, I sense that the middle class which in most countries may be expected to be "moderate" in times of prosperity would not shed too many tears should a military leader attempt to come to power.
On that subject, one previous dictator is worth mentioning.
Mariano Melgarejo may have ruled in the 1860s but the stories are still in circulation today. This man, who was illiterate, brutal and corrupt gives even George W. Bush a run for his money.
He famously wanted a pure bred white horse in the possesion of the neighbouring Brazilians, and in exchange he had the horse's hoof stamped on a map of Bolivia and handed that area of land over. The map was not the largest, and in total he ceded over 100,000 square kilometres of national territory. (To put this in context, the total surface area of my own country, Ireland, is some 70,000 square kilometres.)
He was also seen "reading" a newspaper upside down and when prompted by an aide, he angrily replied that those who can read can read anyway they wish.
But probably the highlight was his proposed defence of France during the Franco Prussian war of 1870. He admired all things French as they represented elegance and sophistication, although he was not able to point out France on the map.
He duly ordered his cavelry to ride to the defence of Paris, and when it was pointed out that there was an ocean in between, namely the Atlantic, he responded by saying they should take a short cut!