Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the world despite having an abundance of natural resources (Figure 25) . Its wealth has been concentrated in the hands of an economic, social and ethnic elite since the Spanish conquered the area in the 1520s. Bolivia's indigenous population dates its origins back several hundred years and remains intact (Figure 23).More than half the population still speaks tribal languages that existed prior to the Incan conquest in the fifteenth century. Bolivia's economy is based on subsistence agriculture and raw materials sold on the world market, rendering the nation subject to economic forces beyond its control.
In the modern era, Bolivia was ruled first by the Spanish and then by those of European descent within the country. The large indigenous population had little say in the economic or political decisions made in their country. Decades of wide spread poverty and corruption, coupled with the willingness to protest against long standing inequities, has allowed the urban and rural poor to make their voices heard. In December 2005, the nation elected Evo Morales, its first indigenous president. He began his political career organizing coca farmers and used social activism to achieve political gains for his people.
Morales' primary goal is to return the wealth of Bolivia to all residents of his country and end centuries of foreign domination of the domestic economy. He has taken steps to nationalize key industries, recognizing that complete confiscation of property will not be successful. He has allowed foreign companies, particularly in the mining and petroleum industries, to remain and use their expertise to provide a larger share of their profits to the Bolivian government. He is aided in this approach by Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela who continues to use his nation's vast oil reserves to wield enormous power in the region (Figure 26).
As Bolivia grows more independent and closer to Venezuela, the nation is distancing itself from its long time ally and financial supporter, the United States. The relationship between the two nations is complex. For many years, America has provided financial support to the struggling nation yet does so with both a sense of cultural superiority and policies that make protection of US business interests its first priority. Revenues from natural gas are increasing the wealth of the Bolivian government. These assets plus the visible support of Chavez allows Morales to promote both his nation's real independence and an anti-American stance.