Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
In December 2005, coca growers’ association leader Evo Morales became the first Bolivian president to win an outright majority in the country’s 25 years of democracy, as well as its first indigenous president. Morales’s left-wing Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party also won the most seats in Congress. On May 1, 2006, Morales announced the nationalization of all hydrocarbon resources in Bolivia, decreasing international investor confidence in the government. On July 2, Bolivians participated in a dual vote, selecting delegates for a Constituent Assembly while also voting on the issue of regional autonomy. The Assembly began its work in August and quickly fell into procedural crisis, while strident rhetoric from all sides led to significantly increased political polarization throughout the country.
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 refrained from political intervention since 1982.
In 1993, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, a wealthy U.S.-educated businessman, was elected president. During his first term in office, he initiated a sweeping privatization program. Under U.S. pressure, he also stepped up eradication of the country’s illegal coca production. The measures provoked widespread public protests and, combined with unhappiness over official corruption, caused a decline in his popularity as well as that of his party, the center-right Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR). Hugo Banzer Suarez, a former dictator turned democrat, succeeded Sanchez de Lozada in the 1997 presidential election, but the terminally ill Banzer resigned in 2001. He was succeeded by reformist Vice President Jorge Quiroga, who finished the remaining year of Banzer’s term.
No candidate in the June 2002 presidential election won a majority of the popular vote; under Bolivia’s constitution, members of the National Congress were tasked with deciding the outcome of the election. They selected Sanchez de Lozada, who had received a small plurality of votes, over Evo Morales, a radical indigenous leader of the country’s coca growers. Concurrent congressional elections resulted in the MNR-led coalition winning 17 seats in the Senate and 71 in the Chamber of Deputies. The opposition, dominated by Morales’s Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party, won 10 seats in the upper house as well as 59 deputy seats.
The coca industry has played a substantial role in the Bolivian economy for several decades. In 1995, Bolivia harvested enough coca leaf to produce 240 metric tons of cocaine; by 2005, U.S.-sponsored antidrug efforts had resulted in that figure dropping to 90 metric tons—a substantial loss of income for the more than 50,000 Bolivian coca growers, whose families were left without viable alternatives. Additionally, anger at the severe human rights abuses perpetrated by Bolivian security forces resulted in numerous protests. In 2002, Morales gained prominence by capitalizing on the unpopularity of these policies among Bolivia’s majority Indian population, many of whom speak Spanish as a second language, use the coca leaf for traditional medicine, and have been excluded from the benefits of neoliberal economic reforms.
In 2003, Bolivian indigenous groups, workers, students, and coca growers revolted over the planned construction of a $5 billion pipeline for the export of Bolivian natural gas through longtime rival Chile; the sale of the gas to the United States and Mexico was also highly unpopular. The mass protests against Sanchez de Lozada were aggravated by resentment over the failure of nearly two decades of democratic reform and economic restructuring to improve the lot of the Indian majority in a country where 64 percent of the population lived in poverty. In October, the violence culminated in the forced resignation of Sanchez de Lozada, who fled to Miami in the United States after less than 15 months in office and at least 120 deaths stemming from protests.
Vice President Carlos Mesa, a nonpartisan former media personality and historian, assumed office and attempted to govern without the support of any of the traditional political parties. On July 18, 2004, Mesa prevailed overwhelmingly in a national referendum regarding the disposition of oil and gas reserves that had split the country between its Indian majority and European-descended elites. The vote permitted natural gas exports while imposing greater state control over the oil and gas industries and raising export taxes substantially.
The outcome of the referendum was hailed by some as a step toward greater political stability, but it led to a fall in foreign investment in the energy sector as Bolivia’s neighbors sought more stable energy sources. Furthermore, the dispute between the impoverished, marginalized, and largely indigenous residents of the resource-poor Altiplano (highlands) and the wealthier, fairer-skinned people living in the energy-rich eastern lowlands resulted in ever more protests and political polarization. Mesa was subsequently forced from power in June 2005.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Eduardo Rodriguez Veltze assumed the presidency with the narrowly defined mandate of presiding over new elections. After negotiations over the allocation of congressional seats were completed, elections were held on December 18, 2005. Evo Morales won the presidency with 53.7 percent of the ballots, and voter turnout was a strong 84.5 percent. The victory made Morales the first president to garner an outright majority since the transition to democracy. The United States and some other international observers expressed concern over his triumph because of his alignment with leftist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez as well as his campaign platform, which included the legalization of coca production, anticorruption efforts, and elections for a new Constituent Assembly. Morales’s MAS also emerged as the largest party in Congress and won three of nine races for departmental prefect (provincial governor); the posts were being filled through direct elections for the first time.
The Morales government moved cautiously at first, but signaled a dramatic shift with the May 1, 2006, nationalization of Bolivia’s hydrocarbon resources. To emphasize the change, Morales dispatched the army to take physical control of oil and gas fields. The government also announced a substantial land-reform plan that was viewed as a threat by large, wealthy landowners in the eastern lowlands. In October, following violence between rival groups of tin miners, the government announced the nationalization of that industry as well, though implementation of the announced nationalization plan did not occur by year’s end.
On July 2, in an increasingly tense atmosphere, Bolivians returned to the polls to elect members of a Constituent Assembly and cast votes on the issue of regional autonomy. Turnout was once again around 84 percent. The MAS and its allies won a majority of the Constituent Assembly, but not the two-thirds required to overhaul the constitution on their own. In addition, four departments voted in favor of regional autonomy while five rejected the idea; throughout the rest of the year the implications of this vote remained disputed, and the Constituent Assembly was tasked with resolving the autonomy issue. The Constituent Assembly was locked in a stalemate nearly from the moment it began its work, with MAS delegates insisting on an absolute majority vote for changes to individual articles, in contrast to the two-thirds supermajority approval insisted on by the opposition. Regional and ethnic friction increased steadily throughout the year, reaching a crescendo in December with mass rallies in Santa Cruz and other urban centers. Radicals on both sides even spoke of civil war. Meanwhile, social protests and strikes returned, challenging the ability of the Morales government to mollify its lower-class, western base without enraging eastern elites. The government’s alliance with Venezuela also led to tension with the United States and some of Bolivia’s neighbors, who were uneasy about a plan to build military bases on Bolivia’s borders with Venezuelan assistance.
Bolivia is an electoral democracy. Both the 2005 presidential elections and the 2006 Constituent Assembly elections were generally free and fair. The principal complaint regarding the 2005 election was related to the hundreds of thousands of citizens who were unable to vote after being stricken from the electoral rolls. Though the purge was carried out in accordance with the law, many voters complained that poor bureaucratic communication and other extenuating circumstances hindered their ability to reregister in time. As a result of reforms that were enacted in 1993 and 1994 and took effect in 1997, presidential terms in office were extended from four to five years. The National Congress consists of a 130-member Chamber of Deputies and a 27-member Senate, and all members serve five-year terms. Senators are elected by party-list proportional representation. In the lower house, 68 members are elected in district races and 62 are elected through proportional representation.
Bolivians have the right to organize political parties. Many of the traditional political parties, notably the MNR, which had been the dominant party since the 1952 revolution, saw their power effectively eliminated in the wake of the 2005 elections. Throughout 2005, a raft of political party desertions led political figures to form new political groupings in order to run for regional offices. The new dominant party is President Evo Morales’s MAS, while the opposition in both the 2005 and Constituent Assembly elections was led by the center-right PODEMOS party. The national electoral council regulates the transmission of advertising by political candidates and parties in the mass media, placing limits on their frequency and duration.
The European-descended elite controlled the machinery of government for most of Bolivia’s postindependence history, but over the last decade the indigenous majority has played an increasingly prominent role. Indeed, the Aymara and Quechua ethnic groups form the political base of the MAS and intend to alter the constitution significantly in order to incorporate traditional Andean institutions and decision-making structures.
The broad immunity from prosecution enjoyed by legislators is a serious stumbling block in the fight against official corruption. Fighting corruption was a major theme of the Morales campaign. A new anticorruption law was submitted in April to Congress (though it was still not approved at year’s end), and investigations were opened throughout the year into possible corruption charges against dozens of former government officials, including nearly every living former president. Bolivia was ranked 105 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Although the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, the media are subject to some limitations in practice. In the recent past, journalists covering corruption stories have occasionally been subjected to verbal intimidation by government officials, arbitrary detention by police, and violent attacks. Additionally, Morales has taken an aggressive verbal approach to press criticism, going so far as to characterize opposition journalists as “terrorists.” The climate of hostility toward journalists increased along with general political tensions toward the end of the year; over a dozen journalists were assaulted during the political protests of November and December. 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.
Bolivian law provides for the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, although the security forces have killed several people during recent violent social protests. Government-sponsored as well as independent human rights organizations exist, and they frequently report on brutality by the security forces. The congressional Human Rights Commission is active and frequently criticizes the government. However, rights activists and their families are subject to intimidation. Nongovernmental organizations are required to register with the appropriate departmental government, although the rule is only episodically enforced. The right to form labor unions is guaranteed by the constitution, and unions are an active force in Bolivian society.
The judiciary, headed by the Supreme Court, remains the weakest branch of government. It 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 justice more accessible to poor and rural citizens. However, the selection of Supreme Court judges and members of the Judicial Council, the highest disciplinary and administrative organ, by a two-thirds vote of the National Congress—a threshold adopted to prevent the majority party from filling all vacancies—has instead resulted in a political quota system that also violates the principles of judicial independence and impartiality. In 2006, friction between the executive and the judiciary increased as salaries of public officials were cut in half and the judiciary was accused of bias and corruption by members of the executive branch. Four out of ten Supreme Court justices resigned; at year’s end, Morales named temporary replacements by decree amid continued mutual recriminations between the president and opposition members.
Although Bolivia’s code of criminal procedure recognizes the conflict-resolution traditions of indigenous communities, efforts to reform the judiciary have not included meaningful efforts to codify and incorporate customary law, at least for minor crimes, as a means of reaching out to the indigenous majority. The lack of a codified system has in recent years resulted in dozens of acts of “communal justice”—including lynching—in violation of international human rights norms. Prison conditions are harsh, and there were several violent incidents involving inmates in 2006, including a prison battle in Santa Cruz that left five people dead. Crime in La Paz and other major cities is increasing steadily, and the national police, which a decade earlier had been the object of an ambitious but truncated U.S. Justice Department reform effort, are considered both inefficient and corrupt.
Bolivia remains a hemispheric leader in the unequal distribution of wealth and is the poorest country in South America. In the 2001 census, approximately 62 percent of the population over 15 years of age identified themselves as indigenous, primarily from the Quechua and Aymara groups. More than 520 indigenous communities have been granted legal recognition under the 1994 Popular Participation Law, which guarantees respect for the integrity of native groups. 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 rural employers keep Indians in debt peonage, charging workers more for room and board than they earn in wages. The observance of customary law by indigenous peoples is common in rural areas. In the most remote areas, the death penalty, forbidden by the constitution, is reportedly sometimes used against those who violate traditional laws or rules. Indigenous rights were a major theme of the 2005 elections and the 2006 debate over the Constituent Assembly.
The law provides for freedom of movement within the country, and the government generally respects this right in practice. However, protesters often block highways as well as city streets, causing serious economic losses. Property rights are increasingly uncertain in Bolivia. Foreign investors have grown wary in the wake of hydrocarbon nationalization and the possible state takeover of “unproductive” mines, while sporadic land invasions by landless peasants continue to occur in the eastern lowlands. In December, the government, despite an opposition boycott of the Senate intended to deny quorum, succeeded in passing a new land law that would allow for the redistribution of land deemed unproductive. Eastern landowners fear it will used to confiscate their holdings. Critics also decried the heavy-handed manner in which the law was passed, which included the use of “alternate” senators to replace those boycotting the chamber.
Homosexuals are viewed as undesirables who live outside society’s normal moral code. The Bolivian penal code is silent on the issue of homosexuality, but homosexuals are not free from abuses, including beatings and extortion, by police officers operating largely outside of the law.
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 social status equal to that of men, and many women do not know their legal rights. Child prostitution is a problem, particularly in urban areas and in the Chapare region, as is child labor.