Bolivia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


The Constituent Assembly, which had begun its task of drafting a new constitution in August 2006, continued to face procedural and substantive crises in 2007. Meanwhile, intensifying polarization between progovernment groups and opposition supporters throughout the country hampered attempts to achieve necessary 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 refrained from political intervention since 1982, making 2007 the 25th anniversary of Bolivia’s return to democracy.

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 and stepped up eradication of the country’s illegal coca production, measures that provoked widespread public protests and a decline in his popularity. Former dictator turned democrat Hugo Banzer Suarez succeeded Sanchez de Lozada following the 1997 presidential election, but the terminally ill Banzer resigned in 2001, and reformist vice president Jorge Quiroga finished the remaining year of Banzer’s term.

No candidate in the June 2002 presidential election won a majority of the popular vote, and 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. Morales’s Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party nonetheless won 10 seats in the upper house and 59 in the lower chamber in the concurrent congressional elections.

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 2006, U.S.-sponsored antidrug efforts had helped reduce that figure to 115 metric tons. The drop represented a substantial loss of income for the more than 50,000 Bolivian coca growers, whose families were left without viable alternatives. Morales gained prominence by capitalizing on the unpopularity of these policies among Bolivia’s majority indigenous 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 free-market economic reforms.

In 2003, Bolivian indigenous groups, workers, students, and coca growers rebelled against the planned construction of a $5 billion pipeline for the export of Bolivian natural gas via longtime rival Chile to the United States and Mexico. 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 indigenous majority in a country where 64 percent of the population lived in poverty. Sanchez de Lozada responded by ordering harsh repression of the protests, leading to demands for his resignation. In October, after less than 15 months in office and at least 120 deaths stemming from the crackdown, Sanchez de Lozada resigned and fled to the United States.

Vice President Carlos Mesa, a nonpartisan former media personality and historian, assumed the presidency. In July 2004, he prevailed overwhelmingly in a national referendum regarding the disposition of oil and gas reserves, permitting natural gas exports while imposing greater state control over the energy industry and raising export taxes substantially. It was hoped that the outcome of the referendum would encourage greater political stability, but protests regarding gas revenues, coca, regional autonomy, and other issues continued to mount, and Mesa resigned in June 2005.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Eduardo Rodriguez Veltze assumed the presidency with the narrowly defined mandate of overseeing new elections, which were held in December 2005. Evo Morales won the presidential poll with 53.7 percent of the ballots amid high voter turnout. His campaign platform included anticorruption efforts, elections for a new Constituent Assembly, and a shift from coercion to cooperation in coca eradication. The United States and some other international observers expressed concern over his triumph because of his alignment with leftist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Morales’s MAS also emerged as the largest party in Congress and won three of nine races for departmental prefect (provincial governor); the latter posts were being filled through direct elections for the first time.

The Morales government moved to fulfill a campaign pledge in May 2006 by announcing the “nationalization” (in reality, merely increased state control) of Bolivia’s oil and gas resources. The government also introduced a substantial land-reform plan that was viewed as a threat by the owners of large estates in the eastern lowlands. In July 2006, voters handed the MAS a majority in the Constituent Assembly, but even in coalition with smaller groups, it lacked the two-thirds margin required to overhaul the constitution on its own. In addition, four departments voted in favor of regional autonomy, while five rejected the idea; the Constituent Assembly was tasked with resolving the autonomy issue.

The assembly was locked in a stalemate nearly from the moment it began its work, with MAS delegates insisting on a simple majority vote for changes to individual articles, in contrast to the two-thirds supermajority demanded by the opposition. The two sides finally reached compromise on that issue in February 2007, but other disputes quickly arose, including substantive questions about the limits of regional autonomy, indigenous rights, and state structure, as well as seeming sideshows, such as the issue of whether La Paz or Sucre would be the national capital. The government was slow to address opposition demands, while the opposition at times appeared to be using procedural measures to delay or even block the process.

Regional and ethnic friction remained high in 2007. Violence in Cochabamba in January caused three deaths and scores of injuries, while confrontations in other areas throughout the year left dozens wounded. Radicals on both sides even spoke of civil war—though this was at no point imminent—and large demonstrations were held in both progovernment and opposition-dominated cities.

Although the Constituent Assembly was originally supposed to complete its work by August, an agreement was reached in July to extend its mandate until December. However, the dispute over the capital resulted in the suspension of full meetings in August. While a “Special Council for Dialogue” was able to reach some consensus outside the official assembly framework, the wrangling over the capital continued to prove an insurmountable obstacle for the assembly and darkened the national mood. After numerous assembly attempts to meet were blocked by pro-Sucre protesters, a group comprised overwhelmingly of MAS delegates met on November 24 in a military installation outside the city and approved a draft constitution without the support (or presence) of the necessary two-thirds majority of the Constituent Assembly. Protesters in Sucre responded with two days of riots that left three people dead and several hundred injured.

On November 27, Congress approved a law allowing the final, article-by-article approval of the draft charter in a city other than Sucre if conditions there remained untenable. Opposition leaders countered with a general strike in several lowland provinces on November 28. On December 5, Morales attempted to placate the opposition by announcing that recall referendums would be held on him and the opposition prefects in 2008. Then, on December 9, the MAS and a few delegates from other parties met in Oruro to approve the final draft constitution. Among its 411 articles, the new charter called for autonomy at the departmental, regional, municipal, and indigenous levels. It would also end legal immunity for sitting legislators, authorize the popular election of Supreme Court judges, and add a fourth branch of government, the electoral branch. One article, regarding the maximum number of hectares of land one landowner can possess, was to be submitted to a national referendum along with the charter as a whole.

The opposition characterized the entire process as illegal due to the progovernment group’s decision to change the rules so that the charter’s approval required the vote of only two-thirds of those present. Five departments published autonomy statutes on December 15. By year’s end, both sides were calling for dialogue on the entire range of proposals, including revisions to the draft constitution, the proposed recall referendums, and departmental autonomy.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Bolivia is an electoral democracy. The 2005 presidential and congressional elections and the 2006 Constituent Assembly elections were generally free and fair. Presidential and congressional terms are both five years. The National Congress consists of a 130-member Chamber of Deputies and a 27-member Senate. 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. One of the draft constitution’s controversial provisions included the possibility of two consecutive terms for presidents and legislators; Morales and the current Congress would be eligible for two full terms if elected under the new charter.

Bolivians have the right to organize political parties. Many of the traditional political parties—notably the center-right Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR), which had been the dominant party since the 1952 revolution—saw their power effectively eliminated in the wake of the 2005 elections. The new dominant party is President Evo Morales’s MAS, which is itself divided into multiple factions whose disputes Morales must mediate. The opposition in both the 2005 elections and the Constituent Assembly was led by the center-right Social Democratic Power (PODEMOS) party. After the 2005 elections, the base of opposition to the president shifted from Congress to the departmental prefects.

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 indigenous institutions and decision-making structures.

Although cases of corruption and nepotism remain common, the government has taken a strong zero tolerance line against corruption. A new anticorruption law was submitted to Congress in April 2006, but was not approved by the Chamber of Deputies until September 2007 and subsequently stalled in the Senate. Investigations continued throughout 2007 into possible corruption charges against former government officials, while several MAS appointees were fired after a job-selling scandal surfaced in March. Bolivia was ranked 105 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Although the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, the media are subject to some limitations in practice. Outlets are mostly private, and radio is by far the most important source of information in the country. Many media outlets are far more likely to feature opposition than progovernment opinion pieces. As a result, President Morales has taken an aggressive verbal approach to press criticism. The climate of hostility toward journalists has increased along with general political tensions. Over a dozen journalists were assaulted during the January 2007 unrest in Cochabamba, a scenario that was repeated on several other occasions throughout the year. Much of the violence was perpetrated by opposition supporters, but the police were blamed for aggression against at least five journalists during the December unrest in Sucre. 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, which students defend vigorously.

Bolivian law provides for the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, although social protests often turn violent. In 2007, politicians on both sides increasingly used the threat of protests as a tool of political negotiation. Both the human rights ombudsman and independent human rights organizations are able to report on brutality by the security forces. However, rights activists and their families have at times been subject to intimidation in recent years. 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 inaccessible to many Bolivians, especially non-Spanish speakers. Although the government has made serious efforts to improve the administration of justice, including making the courts more responsive to the needs of poor and rural citizens, lack of resources and political difficulties have limited progress. In addition, the system of selecting Supreme Court and Constitutional Tribunal (TC) justices, formerly conducted through an informal political quota system, broke down in 2007, leading to a crisis at the judiciary’s highest levels. In May, the TC controversially ruled that four Supreme Court justices who had been granted temporary appointments by Morales at the end of 2006 must vacate their posts. The Chamber of Deputies responded by filing charges against four TC members for dereliction of duty. Given the opposition majority in the Senate, that process was halted, and new Supreme Court members were appointed following constitutional procedures. However, the TC remained in conflict; by year’s end, most of its members had resigned, citing constant harassment by the executive branch, and the court was inquorate.

Although Bolivia’s code of criminal procedure recognizes the conflict-resolution traditions of indigenous communities, judicial reform efforts to date have not effectively codified and incorporated indigenous customary law. This lack of clarity 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 rehabilitation is essentially nonexistent. Crime in La Paz and other major cities is increasing, though it remains at a lower level than in many South American countries.

Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, is also a hemispheric leader in the unequal distribution of wealth. 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, although no mestizo option was included in the survey. The 1994 Popular Participation Law guarantees respect for the integrity of Bolivia’s 36 native groups, and the languages of the indigenous population are officially recognized. However, racism is rife in the country, especially by light-skinned Bolivians against the indigenous, but also occasionally on the part of certain indigenous militants. In addition, indigenous territories remain vulnerable to illegal exploitation by coca growers and timber thieves. Some rural employers keep indigenous workers in debt peonage, charging more for room and board than they pay in wages. Indigenous rights are a major theme of the Constituent Assembly process; the question of how to put into practice the recognition of native groups as “nations” has been a vexing topic in the assembly.

The law provides for freedom of movement within the country, and the government generally respects this right in practice, although there have been clashes between landowners in the lowlands and migrants from the highlands. In addition, protesters often block highways and city streets, causing serious economic losses. Property rights are another subject of controversy in Bolivia. Foreign investors have grown wary in the wake of the government’s aggressive renegotiation of contract terms in the energy, mining, and telecommunications industries. Sporadic land invasions by landless peasants continue to occur in the eastern lowlands. In December 2006, the government passed a law that allows for the redistribution of land deemed idle, and the government began to allocate land titles in 2007. Eastern landowners fear the law will be used to confiscate their holdings, while the law’s supporters believe that many of those lands were acquired illegally.

Although women’s political representation has increased notably in recent years, the observance of women’s rights remains problematic. Violence against women is pervasive, women generally do not enjoy social status equal to that of men, and the justice system is ineffective at safeguarding women’s legal rights. Child prostitution and child labor are problems, particularly in urban areas and in the Chaco and Chapare regions.