Bolivia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Bolivia's political rights rating declined from 1 to 2 due to the increased influence of drug money in politics and burgeoning political corruption.


In the midst of growing social unrest and a continuing economic downturn, in 2002 the Bolivian congress elected former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada, a 72-year-old U.S.-educated millionaire, after he had barely beat Evo Morales, a radical Indian leader of the country's coca growers, in the popular vote. Sanchez de Losada's selection after his two-point popular vote victory over Morales dissipated, for now, fears that the poor Andean nation would be converted into a narco-socialist state.

The new president, who ruled a corruption-plagued though somewhat reformist administration from 1993 to 1997, promised that Bolivians would "work with austerity," while he pushed ahead with five major public works projects. Since 1998, Bolivia has eradicated more than 90,000 acres of coca cultivation and taken more than 230 tons of cocaine out of the illegal global market. However, Morales's showing in the polls was evidence of how unpopular these policies are among the country's majority Indian population, who have been shut out from the benefits of U.S.-backed economic reforms.

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 traditional parties are the conservative National Democratic Action (ADN); its governing coalition partner, the social-democratic Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR); and Sanchez de Losada's center-right Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR). In 2002, the Socialist Movement (MAS) and the Pachacutti Indian Movement (MIP) gained significant electoral support as well.

In 1985, former dictator Gen. Hugo Banzer Suarez came in first in the popular vote, 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 Banzer, who came in second to the MNR's 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.

Throughout 1996, the government privatization program brought regular street protests. As Sanchez de Losada's term ended, initiatives such as improved access to the courts, efforts to reform a corrupt, inefficient judiciary, and broad decentralization were overshadowed by increasingly bitter labor disputes. In nationwide municipal elections held in December 1999, conducted using the electoral code and political party legislation recently approved by congress, the ruling coalition made a strong showing, although the opposition MNR won the largest number of council seats and votes as a single party.

Banzer succeeded Sanchez de Losada for the presidency in 1998 and embarked on an ambitious program to eradicate the country's illegal coca production, taking 85 percent of the acreage out of cultivation. In doing so, Bolivia became America's most successful state crusader against the production of narcotics. Banzer also promoted efforts to reform the constitution in order to decentralize and broaden political participation, overcome social exclusion, and establish a social pact to strengthen the country's democratic institutions. In the months before the terminally ill Banzer's August 6, 2001, resignation, the dictator-turned-democrat tried to convene a "national dialogue" on Bolivia's mounting problems as a means of creating a policy consensus among the government, the opposition, and nongovernmental organizations.

Vice President Jorge Quiroga, known for his firm anticorruption stance, succeeded Banzer. By law, he could fill out the one year remaining of Banzer's term, but could not seek election in 2002. 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. At the end of 2001, a serious police corruption scandal added significantly to challenges Quiroga faced.

An anti-coca expeditionary task force paid for by the U.S. Embassy and made up of 1,500 former Bolivian soldiers in 2002 was the subject of frequent charges of the use of excessive force and human rights violations ranging from torture to murder. Critics say that the creation of a military force paid for by foreign funds violates both the Bolivian constitution and military regulations. Defenders of the force point out that the coca growers work closely with narcotics traffickers and claim that the traffickers include snipers and experts in booby traps.

According to the UN Development Fund, Bolivia remains a hemisphere leader in unequal 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. In September 2002, a breakdown in talks between the government and Indian farmers demanding land reform resulted in a partial paralysis of the country and left at least ten peasants and four soldiers dead.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens can change their government through elections. The 2002 elections were generally free and fair, although U.S. government officials say they had evidence that Colombian drug lords financed some of Morales's political organization.

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 Banzer government made serious efforts to improve the administration of justice, including making it more accessible. In his previous administration, the current president, Sanchez de Losada, did the same. 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 on 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.

Evidence abounds that drug money has been used to finance political campaigns and buy the favor of government officials, including that of 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.

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. In the 2002 campaign, Indian advocates demanded that the Bolivian constitution be amended to explicitly grant them greater participation in government and clearer land rights.

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.