Bolivia is South America’s poorest country, with about 60 percent of the population of 9.1 million mired in poverty.
Under President Evo Morales, who was elected in 2006, the country has seen a stretch of economic growth unrivaled in Bolivia’s turbulent recent history, largely a result of high prices for mineral exports and prudent economic policies. Even after spending heavily on cash payments to poor families, Mr. Morales’s government has still maintained a budget surplus.
Shortly after taking office, Mr. Morales nationalized the country’s oil and natural gas industries. Feared as a radical move, the nationalization was in effect a renegotiation of terms with foreign energy companies that have stayed in Bolivia. As energy prices rose, the country’s finances improved markedly.
Miners demanding pay raises exploded small dynamite charges Tuesday trying unsuccessfully to break through a police cordon protecting the government’s headquarters, injuring four officers and shattering windows, authorities said.
The miners joined public school teachers in a protest march organized by the Bolivian Workers Central, which called for a two-day strike to press demands for raises higher than the 7 percent offered by the government.
In December 2005, Bolivians elected Movement Toward Socialism leader Evo Morales president - by the widest margin of any leader since the restoration of civilian rule in 1982 - after he ran on a promise to change the country's traditional political class and empower the nation's poor, indigenous majority. However, since taking office, his controversial strategies have exacerbated racial and economic tensions between the Amerindian populations of the Andean west and the non-indigenous communities of the eastern lowlands. In December 2009, President Morales easily won reelection, and his party took control of the legislative branch of the government, which will allow him to continue his process of change.
The period 2003-05 was characterized by political instability, racial tensions, and violent protests against plans - subsequently abandoned - to export Bolivia's newly discovered natural gas reserves to large northern hemisphere markets. In 2005, the government passed a controversial hydrocarbons law that imposed significantly higher royalties and required foreign firms then operating under risk-sharing contracts to surrender all production to the state energy company in exchange for a predetermined service fee. The global recession slowed growth, but Bolivia recorded the highest growth rate in South America during 2009.
Bolivia is one of the world's largest producers of coca, the raw material for cocaine. A crop-eradication programme, though easing the flow of conditional US aid, has incensed many of Bolivia's poorest farmers for whom coca is often the only source of income.
Bolivia has three official languages: Spanish, Aymara, and Quechua. In addition there are dozens of isolated languages that are each spoken by a few thousand people. Various waves of immigrants have also added to this mixture.
Bolivia is not a large country compared with its South American neighbors, but it still covers 424,164 square miles (1,098,580 square km), making it twice as big as Texas and only a little smaller than Alaska. It is a landlocked country with no direct access to the sea.
Doctors, public health workers and medical students also clashed with police Tuesday during their nationwide strike opposing a decree by leftist President Evo Morales extending the working day of state medical workers from six hours to eight. Police fired tear gas and water cannons.
The country has the second-largest reserves of natural gas in South America, but there have been long-running tensions over the exploitation and export of the resource. Indigenous groups say the country should not relinquish control of the reserves, which they see as Bolivia's sole remaining natural resource.