The History of Tarija Bolivia

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ESPAÑOL The History of Tarija is interesting and this summary will give you a good idea of how Tarija became a part of Bolivia, after initially belonging to the territory governed by Argentina. You can learn about Tarija in more detail by reading the books listed below.

The History of Tarija, Bolivia


During the pre-Colombian period, the southern region of Bolivia, now known as the department of Tarija, was populated by Churumata and Tomata indigenous tribes that had settled in the central valleys of the area, near today's city of Tarija. Smaller portions of the region to the west (an area that is now part of the department of Potosí) was occupied by the Lipez, Chichas, and Moaguacas cultures and the area to the southeast (currently the Chaco region) was populated by various tribes influenced by the Guaraní, such as the Chiriguanos, Chané, Chorotes, Wichis or Matacos, and Tobas.

In 1470 the area was invaded by armies of Quechua warriors from the Tawantinsuyo (the Incan Empire), who conquered the natives and deported entire communities to other provinces of the Inca Empire as slave labor. The Chiriguanos, meantime, expanded from the South toward the central region and took possession of territories around the Pilcomayo and Bermejo rivers; therefore, when the Spaniards arrived, only the Chiriguanos and tribes of Tomatas, a very peaceful people, still inhabited the area.


The Conquest

According to historian Mario Barragán, the Spanish colonization of Tarija occurred earlier than originally thought. There were already settlements or remainders of Spanish expeditions when those who are historically considered to be the official founders arrived. What is known for certain is that in 1535 an expedition led by Captain Diego de Almagro, on his way to explore Chile for the first time, arrived in the Chapaco valley. ("Chapaco" is a name given the citizens of Tarija.) What isn’t certain is whether or not Tarija was actually named in honor of Francisco de Tarija, allegedly a member of Almagro's troops.

Further on, at least two other Spaniards, Captain Núñez del Prado and Don Luis de Zárate, founded forts in the area of La Calama, near a river by the same name, in the valley of the Tomatas. Neither of these towns lasted very long and only inns for travelers and a few small structures remained.

The Foundation

Given that the valley was constantly invaded by the indomitable Chiriguanos, who resisted being subjugated at all costs, the Spaniards decided it was necessary to establish a city that would serve as a containment wall to protect both the friendly Tomata Indians and the scattered Spanish garrisons in the area, against incursions by the natives. Therefore, at the beginning of 1574, the Viceroy of Peru, Don Francisco de Toledo, visited La Plata (which today is the city of Sucre) to commission an expedition to found a town in this southern region.

The person elected for this task was Don Luis de Fuentes y Vargas. The Viceroy, the governor of La Plata, and the judges of the Audiencia de Charcas (the Charcas Courts) met on the 22nd of January 1574 at the main church to draw up an official letter naming Captain de Fuentes as the Corregidor (Chief Magistrate) and Justicia Mayor (Chief Justice) of the newly founded town for six years. Don Alonso de Ávila was named as treasurer and Don Álvaro Ruiz de Nava was named commissioner in charge of supervising the fulfillment of this expedition. Ancient documents show that they were given horses, cattle, pack animals, food and provisions, agricultural tools, seeds, clothing, and other primary necessities.

On March 16th a group of about fifty people left La Plata and headed to the Villa Imperial de Potosí and from there they headed down through the region of Chichas toward the valley of Tarija. There were thirty soldiers under the command of Blas Cerneño, of the Luis de Fuentes’ captains, several women and relatives of the conquistadores, and an unknown number of servants, mostly indigenous. In Potosí they collected provisions and more people joined them. From there they continued on until arriving at the valley of Tomatas, in Tarija, in mid April.

Luis de Fuentes liked the area with its green and fertile hills, so he decided to establish the “villa” (town) near the La Calama river, near some marshes. But further on he noted there was a place where the Tomata indigenous people lived. It was at an elevation that overlooked the entire valley and was well protected by a fort that had been built during the Inca period. The fort could still be used and they would be able to defend themselves from the Chiriguanos, and the river would provide water. He moved his entire group to this new site, and on the 4th of July, 1574 he founded the Villa de San Bernardo de la Frontera de Tarixa, on the shores of the river, which he renamed Nuevo Guadalquivir. The first town was named partially after a saint the Spanish captain was very devoted to (San Bernardo) and Tarixa is either the last name of Francisco de Tarija, as explained above, or an indigenous word (some believe the founders changed its pronunciation because they couldn’t say it correctly.)

Within a short time the new town began to grow and the streets around its main plaza (originally called Plaza de Andalucía but now called Plaza Luis de Fuentes) were drawn. Churches were built, as were the government building (Casa de Gobierno), a fort, and several large homes, and little by little more streets and inhabitants were added. Nearby ranches and small villas were established and the entire region came to be known as “Nueva Andalucía” (New Andalucía) because its founders and first townspeople were all either from the Andalucian and Basque regions of Spain.


Between the 18th Century and the beginning of the Wars for Independence from Spain that took place throughout South America in the early 1800’s, Tarija was a part of the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata (present day Argentina), and administratively was dependent upon the Intendencia (Council) de Potosí. The region supplied fruits and grains to the Audiencia de Charcas (Charcas Courts) and the province of Salta, and above all was known as a region with exceptionally good vineyards (planted by Jesuit priests in the 17th Century).

When the war against Spain began, Tarija was summoned to the Cabildo (town hall meeting) of Buenos Aires in 1810 and sent a delegate to the meeting to help coordinate joint forces to fight against the Spanish royal army. (Some historians disagree on whether or not Tarija participated with a delegate) but what remains clear is that Tarija joined in the fight for independence as a part of the Provincias Unidas del Río de la Plata (the La Plata River United Provinces). Tarijeño soldiers, known commonly as the “Montoneros”, headed by Moto Méndez, Avilés, Pérez de Uriondo, Rojas, and the León brothers, fought against the royal army and finally were victorious on the 15th of April 1917 in the battle of La Tablada de Tolomosa, four kilometers from the city of Tarija.


After the last colony declared its independence from Spain in 1825, the former Audiencia de Charcas became known as the República de Bolívar (the Republic of Bolivar). However, the province of Tarija was not a part of this territory. Until this time it was still a part of the Province of Salta (present day Argentina) under the jurisdiction of the United Provinces of the La Plata River.

Thus began a long dispute between these two nations as both wanted ownership of this territory, giving rise to the Cabildo (town hall meeting) of Tarija on the 26th of August, 1825 during which Tarijeños made the decision to separate from Salta and become a part of the Republic of Bolivar. Mariscal Antonio José de Sucre, second president of Bolivia, himself heard the arguments. A diplomatic mission from Argentina appealed the decision, requesting Tarija be reintegrated into Argentina. Sucre agreed to do so if the Argentineans would agree to recognize the new independent Republic of Bolivar and renounce ownership of the Puna de Atacama mountain pass area, which Argentina also claimed to own.

The affair was a failure, and the conflict continued through the 24th of September, 1831 when Bolivia’s third president, Andrés de Santa Cruz, created the Department of Tarija, separating it from Potosí. However, the law wasn’t put into effect until 1839, putting the issue to rest, and declaring this valley region a part of Bolivia. Tarija’s borders were once again drawn. It lost the areas of Chichas and Sud Lipez, which were declared a part of the department of Potosí. Tarija has six provinces.


The Chaco War

Along with the department’s struggle for autonomy in recent years, the dispute over land that ended in war in the 1930’s has been one of the events that most deeply marked Tarija’s modern history. The region known as the Chaco Boreal was a desert half a million square kilometers in size that occupied most of the territory of Tarija as well as parts of two other Bolivian departments and Northern Argentina. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Paraguayan colonists settled in the Paraguay River region. By the time petroleum was discovered in 1928, the border crisis was already in advanced stages and there had been confrontations between Bolivian and Paraguayan troops at border posts. Paraguay officially declared war on the 10th of May, 1932, although battles actually began several months later when Bolivian troops captured a Paraguayan fort near the Chuquisaca Lagoon in July 1932. Paraguay counterattacked, recovering its fort, and Bolivia responded by capturing two more.

For three years both countries fought under extremely harsh conditions with a great number of losses for both sides. Bolivia had more troops than its adversary and was better armed, but there was a large amount of territory to cover and its military barracks were very far from the battlefields. Supplying its troops was a nightmare. To make matters worse, Bolivian troops were not familiar with the desert in which they had to fight as many of them were from mountain and valley regions. Soldiers from Santa Cruz, Chuquisaca and above all, Tarija, were invaluable as they knew the area better.

In addition, political instability in the country and military logistical errors led the Bolivian army to suffer one loss after the other and this cost several commanders in chief, including Hans Kundt (of Germany) and Enrique Peñaranda (of La Paz), as well as President Salamanca, their jobs. Despite this, to the exasperation of Paraguay, Bolivia had more resources with which to continue fighting and the battled continued. However, by 1935 Bolivia’s troops had retreated from the entire Chaco area to a fort very near the town of Villamontes, in Tarija’s petroleum region. Here, in April of this year, the last battle of the Chaco War was fought when Bolivia successfully halted the Paraguayan advance. Both countries, exhausted, signed an armistice on the 12th of June, 1935.

In 1938 a peace treaty was signed in Buenos Aires. Bolivia lost a major part of the Chaco region that had belonged to Tarija, although fortunately it did not include the areas we now know contain some of the largest gas fields on the continent. Neither of the countries was content with the agreement, and both were in economic ruins. Over 60 years later, presidents Evo Morales (of Bolivia) and Fernando Lugo (of Paraguay) signed another definitive border agreement on the 27th of April, 2009. With these losses, Tarija was reduced in size from 183,116 Km2 during colonial times to its current size of 37,623 square kilometers.

The Autonomy Process

Despite the fact that it is one of the country’s largest oil producers, Tarija has not benefited economically as it should have as profits are managed by the national government. The region is supposed to receive the first 11% of profits, and then 50% (in theory) of royalties from these natural resources. Because of this and other disagreements with the national government, Tarija decided to follow in the footsteps of Santa Cruz and declare itself autonomous. Tarija struggled side by side with the departments of Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando, which held departmental referendums and finally won its autonomy when nearly 80% of its population voted to be autonomous, despite all efforts made by the national government to the contrary. These four departments came to be known as the “Media Luna” (the Half Moon) because they occupy the entire Eastern half of the country.

After Santa Cruz held its Autonomy Referendum to approve new statutes for the department, the same question was posed to the citizens of Tarija on the 22nd of June, 2008: “Do you agree to approve the autonomy statutes of the department of Tarija, so that they will become the legal norms by which all inhabitants, public officials and authorities of this department, who decided to become an autonomous department during a referendum on the 2nd of July, 2006, must immediately and obligatorily be governed, preserving national unity?”

The answer: 79% voted Yes. President Evo Morales’ government was greatly displeased with this result and attempted to disqualify the question. The government has filed a lawsuit against Tarija’s first elected Prefect (governors who until then had been named by the Presidency) Mario Cossío. Despite this, the statutes voted on by these departments had to be included in Bolivia's New National Constitution (voted on in December 2009) thus acknowledging the power of each region to govern itself and manage its resources. The last departmental elections were held on the 4th of April, 2010 and since then a Legislative Assembly has been created to oversee local policies. Tarija’s governor is in charge of the department’s executive branch. In addition, this region’s official name is now the Autonomous Department of Tarija.

If you speak Spanish, read the following books about Tarija’s history:

“Luis de Fuentes y Vargas y la fundación de Tarija,” by Federico Ávila.
“Tarija en la Independencia del Virreinato de La Plata,” by Eduardo Trigo.
“Crónicas de Tarija,” by Elías Vacaflor Dorakis.

Correspondent: Alura Gonzales

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