Freedom in the World
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On August 6, 2001, ailing President Hugo Banzer Suarez, a dictator-turned-democrat and the Americas' most successful state crusader against the production of narcotics, turned over the presidency to Vice President Jorge Quiroga. The Banzer government had committed itself to shutting down the illegal cultivation of coca (used to produce cocaine) and narcotrafficking during its five-year term, and, as Banzer prepared to step down, the country was well on its way to achieving that goal, although in September the government was forced to admit that its claim of having eliminated all coca production from the Chapare valley was somewhat exaggerated. The highly respected Quiroga, known for his firm anti-corruption stance, fills out the one year remaining of Banzer's term, but cannot seek reelection in 2002. He pledged to continue Banzer's fight against governmental and judicial corruption and in favor of more foreign investment as a means to stimulate economic growth and reduce poverty. His more immediate task, however, was to prevent the succession of protests, demonstrations, and military actions by a variety of social groups that had made Bolivia ungovernable during Banzer's last months in office. By year's end, a serious police corruption scandal added significantly to Quiroga's challenge.
After achieving independence from Spain in 1825, the Republic of Bolivia endured recurrent instability and military rule. However, the armed forces, responsible for more than 180 coups in 157 years, have stayed in their barracks since 1982.
As a result of recent reforms, presidential terms run five years and congress consists of a 130-member house of representatives and a 27-member senate. The principal parties are Banzer's conservative National Democratic Action (ADN); its governing coalition partner, the social-democratic Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR); and the center-right Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR). Banzer had come in first in elections in 1985, but a parliamentary coalition instead selected the octogenarian former president, Victor Paz Estenssoro, the founder of the MNR. In 1989 the MIR's Jaime Paz Zamora, who had run third in the polls, became president through an alliance with the ADN.
In 1993, the MIR-ADN candidate was retired General Banzer, who came in second to the MNR's Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada, a planning minister in Paz Estenssoro's 1985-1989 administration. Sanchez de Losada oversaw the massive privatization of Bolivia's state-owned enterprises and, under U.S. pressure, stepped up coca eradication. A series of labor strikes and mass protests in early 1995 was followed by the imposition by Sanchez de Losada of a six-month state of siege.
In February 2001, Banzer announced proposals to reform the constitution in order to decentralize and broaden political participation, to overcome social exclusion and to establish a social pact to strengthen the country's democratic institutions. In the months before his resignation, he had tried to convene a "national dialogue" on Bolivia's mounting problems as a means of creating a policy consensus between the government, the opposition, and nongovernmental organizations.
As he assumed the presidency, Quiroga enjoyed wide popularity and respect, despite growing popular disenchantment with the ADN government. Quiroga pledged to continue Banzer's fight against governmental and judicial corruption and for more foreign investment as a means to stimulate economic growth and reduce poverty. Despite Banzer's suffering from advanced cancer in his lungs and liver, in September his term as leader of the ADN was extended for two more years, as party factions were locked into infighting over who would be the ADN's candidate to succeed Quiroga. According to the United Nations Development Fund, Bolivia remains a hemisphere leader regarding inequality in the distribution of wealth, with the richest 20 percent of the population accounting for 61 percent of the nation's income, and 38 times the income of the poorest 20 percent. Crime in La Paz and other major cities is increasing steadily and, in late December, two car bombs in the eastern Bolivian city of Santa Cruz--believed to be the work of the remnants of a recently dismantled criminal gang--exploded outside a local police headquarters, killing three people.
Citizens can change their government through elections. In 1997, congressional elections were held under new legislation, in which half of the 130 lower house contests were elected individually and directly, rather than from party lists, with the top vote getter representing a single constituency. The national elections held that year were free and fair. In 2001, President Hugo Banzer Suarez urged that the national electoral court be given greater powers, enabling it to solve all election-linked disputes.
The judiciary, headed by the supreme court, remains the weakest branch of government and is corrupt, inefficient, and the object of intimidation by drug traffickers, as are Bolivia's mayoral, customs, and revenue offices. The governments of Banzer and his predecessor, Sanchez de Losada, made serious efforts to improve the administration of justice, including making it more accessible. Banzer implemented previously agreed-upon innovations such as the creation of an independent council in charge of judicial appointments, a public ombudsman, and a constitutional tribunal chosen by congress. The judicial council has suspended dozens of judges and fined or placed on probation hundreds more because of incompetence or unlawful delays of the legal process. The broad immunity from prosecution enjoyed by legislators is a serious stumbling block in the fight against official corruption.
Government-sponsored as well as independent human rights organizations exist, and they frequently report of security force brutality. The congressional Human Rights Commission is active and frequently criticizes the government. However, rights activists and their families are subject to intimidation. Prison conditions are harsh, with some 5,500 prisoners held in facilities designed to hold half that number, and nearly three-quarters of prisoners are held without formal sentences. In mid-1999, the government announced that the Bolivian military will backstop law-enforcement efforts in violent, crime-plagued sections of major urban areas.
Evidence abounds that drug money has been used to finance political campaigns and buy the favor of government officials, including police and military personnel. Critics say that Law 1008, the Law to Regulate Coca and Controlled Substances, passed in 1988, is excessively harsh, restricts suspects' constitutional rights, and violates international norms and standards of due process. Government forces, particularly the troops of the Mobile Rural Patrol Unit (UMOPAR), have in past years committed serious human rights abuses, including murder, arbitrary detention, and the suppression of peaceful demonstrations, during coca-eradication efforts in the tropical lowland region of Chapare. Police officers have also been killed in the line of duty fighting the peasant coca producers. Military troops, as well as police, have been used to suppress internal disturbances, adding to the propensity for violence.
The constitution guarantees free expression, freedom of religion, and the right to organize political parties, civic groups, and labor unions. However, freedom of speech is subject to some limitations. Unions have the right to strike.
The languages of the indigenous population are officially recognized, but the 40 percent Spanish-speaking minority still dominates the political process. More than 520 indigenous communities have been granted legal recognition under the 1994 Popular Participation law, which guarantees respect for the integrity of native peoples. Indian territories are often neither legally defined nor protected, and coca growers and timber thieves exploit Indian lands illegally. Some Indians are kept as virtual slaves by rural employers through the use of debt peonage, with employers charging workers more for room and board than they earn. The observance of customary law by indigenous peoples is common in rural areas; in the remotest areas, the death penalty, forbidden by the constitution, is reportedly sometimes used against those who violate traditional laws or rules.
The press, radio, and television are mostly private. Journalists covering corruption stories are occasionally subject to verbal intimidation by government officials, arbitrary detention by police, and violent attacks.
Violence against women is pervasive. In 1999, there was increasing cooperation between Bolivian and Argentine authorities to clamp down on the illegal exploitation of Bolivian children who are lured to work in sweatshops in Argentina.