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Interim president Carlos Mesa spent 2004 trying to consolidate his presidency in Latin America's poorest country following the forced resignation of his predecessor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada, the year before. Mesa seemed to achieve a popular consensus by winning a vaguely worded referendum over the politically charged issue of the extraction and export of natural gas. However, other polarizing issues festered, including demands by the majority indigenous peoples for greater rights and representation.
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.
In 1993, Sanchez de Losada, a wealthy U.S.-educated businessman, was elected president. During his first term in office, he initiated a sweeping privatization program, and, under U.S. pressure, stepped up eradication of the country's illegal coca production. The measures provoked widespread public protests and, together with unhappiness over growing official corruption, caused a decline in his popularity, as well as that of his party, the center-right Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR). Former dictator Hugo Banzer Suarez succeeded Sanchez de Losada in presidential elections in 1997, but the terminally ill Banzer resigned for health reasons in 2001. He was succeeded by Vice President Jorge Quiroga, who finished the remaining year of Banzer's term in office.
The June 2002 presidential election was held in the midst of growing social unrest and a continuing economic downturn. With no candidate winning a majority of the popular vote, members of the Bolivian Congress were tasked with deciding the outcome of the election. They selected Sanchez de Losada over Evo Morales, a radical Indian leader of the country's coca growers. Parliamentary elections, which were held concurrently with the presidential vote, resulted in the MNR-led coalition winning 17 seats in the Senate and 71 in the Chamber of Deputies. The opposition, dominated by Morales' Movement Towards Socialism, won 10 seats in the upper house, as well as 59 deputy seats.
Although in 1997, as the world's largest exporter of coca, Bolivia produced 270 metric tons of the leaf used to make cocaine, by 2002, U.S.-sponsored antidrug efforts had resulted in that figure dropping to 20 metric tons. However, not only did the country lose an estimated $500 million in revenues from the sales of the leaf, more than 50,000 coca growers and their families were left without viable alternatives for their support. Morales's showing in the 2002 polls was evidence of how unpopular these policies were among the country's majority Indian population, who use the coca leaf for traditional medicine and have been shut out from the benefits of U.S.-backed economic reforms.
An anti-coca expeditionary task force paid for by the U.S. Embassy and made up of 1,500 former Bolivian soldiers was the subject of frequent charges of the use of excessive force and human rights violations ranging from torture to murder. Critics claimed that the creation of a military force paid for by foreign funds violated both the Bolivian constitution and military regulations. Defenders of the force pointed out that the coca growers, who demanded respect for their own property rights, worked closely with narcotics traffickers, and claimed that the traffickers include snipers and experts in booby traps. In 2004, security forces killed at least three persons and injured dozens of others during violent social unrest; several law enforcement officers were also killed.
In September and October 2003, Bolivian indigenous groups, workers, students, and coca growers engaged in a revolt over the planned construction of a $5 billion pipeline, once heralded as Latin America's largest infrastructure development project, and the sale of natural gas supplies through long-time rival Chile to the United States and Mexico. The mass protests against Sanchez de Losada were fueled by resentment over the failure of nearly two decades of democratic reform and economic restructuring to improve the lot of Bolivia's Indian majority, who speak Spanish as a second language. Sanchez de Losada's own cabinet had become irreparably fractured over the brutal repression practiced by the security forces, whose use of large-caliber combat ammunition appeared excessive. A crackdown during the protests left some 56 people dead; it followed a bloody shootout in February between soldiers and police that killed 30. In October, the violence culminated in the forced resignation of Sanchez de Losada, who fled to Miami. Vice President Mesa, a nonpartisan former media personality and historian, assumed office and immediately appointed a cabinet that had no representative from the country's traditional parties, but included two indigenous Indian members.
On July 18, 2004, Mesa, in need of shoring up his fragile political base, prevailed overwhelmingly in a national referendum that had split the country between its Indian majority and European descended elites. The vote, which posed five questions about the disposition of the country's oil and gas reserves - the country most important legal economic asset - permitted natural gas exports while exerting greater control over the oil-and-gas industry. It revived the state-owned oil and gas company, raised taxes on exports from as low as 18 percent to 50 percent, and revised previous hydrocarbons law. The outcome was hailed by some as a step towards greater political stability, but questioned by others, who wondered whether the move to squeeze foreign capital out of the energy sector through strong state controls and higher taxes would not, in fact, cripple it. Meanwhile, a dispute between Mesa and the Congress over how to implement the referendum brought opposition charges that he was exercising dictatorial powers.
In October, the Bolivian Congress brought criminal charges against Sanchez de Losada, in self-exile in a Washington, D.C., suburb, and his cabinet, for their alleged responsibility in the deaths during protests the previous year. Sanchez de Losada said that he would fight extradition.
Bolivia remains a hemisphere leader in unequal distribution of wealth, with about 80 percent of its people living in poverty. Official statistics put unemployment at 12 percent. Crime in La Paz and other major cities is increasing steadily, and the national police are considered to be both inefficient and corrupt.
Citizens can change their government through elections. The 2002 presidential elections were generally free and fair, although U.S. government officials say they had evidence that Colombian drug lords financed some of Evo Morales's political organization. Evidence abounds that drug money has been used to buy the favor of government officials, including that of police and military personnel.
As a result of reforms that were enacted in 1993-1994 and began in 1997, presidential terms in office were extended from four to five years. Congress consists of a 130-member House of Representatives and a 27-member Senate. Bolivians have the right to organize political parties. The principal traditional parties are the conservative National Democratic Action (ADN), the social-democratic Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), and Gonzalo 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.
The broad immunity from prosecution enjoyed by legislators is a serious stumbling block in the fight against official corruption. Bolivia was ranked 122 out of 146 countries surveyed in the 2004 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
Although the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, it is subject to some limitations in practice. Journalists covering corruption stories are occasionally subjected to verbal intimidation by government officials, arbitrary detention by police, and violent attacks. During mass public protests in 2003, reporters suffered physical assaults both from demonstrators and from law enforcement officers. The press, radio, and television are mostly private, and the government does not restrict access to the Internet.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution. The government does not restrict academic freedom, and the law grants public universities autonomous status.
The right to organize civic groups and labor unions is guaranteed by the constitution. 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.
Bolivian law provides for the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association. While the authorities generally respected this practice, security forces killed several people during violent social protests in 2004. The government requires non-governmental organizations to register with the appropriate departmental government, although the rule was only episodically enforced.
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. In recent years, the government has made serious efforts to improve the administration of justice, including making it more accessible. However, the selection of Supreme Court judges and members of the Judicial Council by a two-thirds vote of the national Congress - a measure adopted to prevent the majority party from filling all vacancies - has instead resulted in a political quota system that also violates the principles of independence and impartiality. In a positive development, in 2004, the process of judicial appointment included allowing citizens to have access to the professional and academic backgrounds of the nominees, with the objective of strengthening the judicial branch and avoiding "party quota" distortions.
Efforts to reform the judiciary have not included meaningful efforts to codify and incorporate customary law - a system still practiced semi-clandestinely - into national legislation, at least for minor crimes, as a means of reaching out to the indigenous majority. In 2004, the lack of a codified system resulted in at least one act of "communal justice" - the lynching of a highland mayor accused of corruption - that violated international human rights norms and brought the total number of lynchings in Bolivia to 27 since 2001. 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.
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. The languages of the indigenous population are officially recognized. However, 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 presidential campaign, Indian advocates demanded that the constitution be amended to explicitly grant them greater participation in government and clearer land rights.
Violence against women is pervasive. However, no system exists to record the incidence of cases, and rape is a serious but underreported problem. Women generally do not enjoy a social status equal to that of men. Many women do not know their legal rights.