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The controversy over a proposed new constitution dominated Bolivian politics for a second straight year in 2008, with violence between highly polarized progovernment and opposition groups peaking in September. In October, the two sides agreed to submit a draft constitution to a referendum in January 2009. Relations with the U.S. deteriorated significantly and entered a cycle of mutual accusations and retaliatory measures.
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.
Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, a wealthy U.S.-educated businessman, was elected president in 1993. 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 and further militarized drug eradication, but the terminally ill Banzer resigned in 2001, and 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. They selected Sanchez de Lozada, who had received a small plurality of votes, over Evo Morales, a confrontational indigenous leader of the country’s coca growers. Morales had gained prominence by capitalizing on the unpopularity of U.S.-sponsored antidrug efforts among Bolivia’s majority indigenous population, many of whom speak Spanish as a second language and use the coca leaf for traditional cultural and medical purposes.
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 over 60 percent of the population lived in poverty. Sanchez de Lozada ordered harsh repression of the protests, leading to demands for his resignation. In October, after 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. However, protests over gas revenues, regional autonomy, and other issues continued to mount, and Mesa resigned in June 2005.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Eduardo Rodriguez Veltze temporarily assumed the presidency to oversee 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 platform included anticorruption efforts and fulfillment of the longstanding call for a Constituent Assembly that would draft a new constitution. 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 Movement toward Socialism (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 land-reform plan that was opposed by the owners of large estates in the eastern lowlands. In July 2006, voters handed the MAS a majority in the Constituent Assembly, but it lacked the two-thirds supermajority required to approve a new constitution on its own. In a concurrent vote on the question of regional autonomy, four departments supported greater autonomy, while five rejected the idea; the Constituent Assembly was tasked with resolving the issue.
In February 2007, the assembly reached compromise on a paralyzing disagreement over the size of the majority needed to adopt changes to individual articles, as opposed to granting final approval, but other disputes quickly arose, including questions about regional autonomy, indigenous rights, state structure, and the issue of whether La Paz or Sucre would be the capital. The resulting polarization increased regional and ethnic friction. Violence in Cochabamba in January 2007 caused three deaths and scores of injuries, and other confrontations throughout the year left dozens wounded.
The wrangling over the capital proved an insurmountable obstacle for the assembly, and after pro-Sucre protesters repeatedly blocked the body’s attempts to meet, a rump composed largely of MAS delegates met on November 24 outside the city and approved a draft constitution without the support (or presence) of the opposition. Protesters in Sucre responded with two days of riots that left three people dead and several hundred injured. On December 9, a similar MAS-dominated group of delegates met in Oruro to approve the final draft, which called for autonomy at the departmental, regional, municipal, and indigenous levels. It also authorized the selection of high court judges by popular vote rather than by Congress. Since delegates could not agree on one article, regarding the maximum size of individual landholdings, the question was set to be submitted to a national referendum along with the draft charter.
The opposition characterized the entire process as illegal due to the progovernment group’s decision to change the assembly voting rules, allowing final approval by two-thirds of those present rather than two-thirds of the total. The controversy continued for most of 2008. In February and August, the government tried to call a national vote on the draft, but on each occasion it was blocked by the National Electoral Court (CNE). The opposition-led departments conducted a series of referendums on separately drafted autonomy statutes in May and June. Autonomy supporters won easily in Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija, but the CNE ruled all four votes illegal.
In May, the opposition-led Senate tried to catch the government off-guard by approving a recall referendum on the president and all departmental prefects. However, Morales quickly accepted the challenge and mobilized his supporters. On August 10, over 67 percent of voters affirmed his mandate, while two prefects, from La Paz and Cochabamba, were forced from office.
After the recall referendum, conflict increased significantly, with roadblocks, marches, and strikes throughout the country, and the occupation of government facilities by opposition members in several departments. The violence peaked on September 11, when a confrontation between peasant supporters of Morales and followers of prefect Leopoldo Fernandez in Pando resulted in the deaths of at least 13 of the government supporters, gunned down, many of them as them as they fled. The central government declared a state of emergency in the department and arrested a number of suspects, including the prefect. The Union of South American Nations was brought in to investigate and eventually declared the events a “massacre.”
Following the Pando incident, the government and opposition resumed dialogue on the constitution. On October 20, with government supporters surrounding the Congress, the two sides announced a compromise; a constitutional referendum was scheduled for January 25, 2009. The compromise draft maintained the majority of the original articles, but over 140 were altered. Notable changes included an easing of potentially restrictive media language, a higher bar for future constitutional amendments, expansion of the electoral commission, and the limitation of consecutive presidential terms to two.
Also during 2008, Bolivia’s relations with the United States sharply deteriorated. In June, USAID’s presence was reduced from working in the coca-growing Chapare region after Morales accused the agency of conspiring against him. In September, the U.S. ambassador was forced to leave the country after Morales complained that he had met inappropriately with opposition leaders. The United States decertified Bolivia as a cooperating partner in the “war on drugs” and halted the country’s preferred commercial access to U.S. markets. Finally, in November, Bolivia officially suspended all U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration activities.
Bolivia is an electoral democracy. The 2005 presidential and congressional elections and the 2006 Constituent Assembly elections were generally free and fair, as was the 2008 presidential recall referendum; however, the opposition complained of a rapid increase in the voter rolls prior to the recall balloting. Presidential and congressional terms are both five years. The National Congress consists of a 130-member Chamber of Deputies and a 27-member Senate, which would increase to 36 seats under the new charter. Under the existing system, senators and 60 deputies were elected by proportional representation, and 70 deputies were elected in individual districts. A similar system is called for in the draft constitution, and a certain number of seats will be reserved for indigenous representatives. During negotiations on the draft, Morales agreed to run for only one additional term as president, and a presidential runoff provision was included to replace Congress’s role in deciding elections in which no candidate wins an outright majority.
Bolivians have the right to organize political parties. Many of the traditional parties saw their power effectively eliminated in the wake of the 2005 elections. The current dominant electoral vehicle is President Evo Morales’s MAS, an alliance of social movements whose disputes Morales must mediate. The opposition had been led by the center-right Social Democratic Power (PODEMOS) party, but in 2008, it split over the negotiations on the draft constitution. After the 2005 elections, the base of opposition to the president shifted from Congress to the departmental prefects.
The European-descended elite controlled the government for most of Bolivia’s postindependence history, but the indigenous majority has played an increasingly prominent role over the last decade. The Aymara and Quechua ethnic groups form the political base of the MAS, and the process of drafting the constitution reflected their influence.
Despite the government’s anticorruption platform, graft and nepotism remain common, and the administration has yet to build successful institutional anticorruption mechanisms. A new anticorruption law was approved by the Chamber of Deputies in 2007 but subsequently stalled in the opposition-controlled Senate. Bolivia was ranked 102 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Although the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, the media are subject to some limitations in practice. Most outlets are privately owned, and radio is by far the leading source of information. Many newspapers and television stations tend to feature opposition rather than progovernment opinion pieces. A general climate of hostility toward journalists has increased along with political tensions. Dozens of journalists were assaulted in 2008 while covering protests, and one journalist was killed during a local civic dispute. Morales refused to engage with certain press outlets, on occasion naming specific reporters as enemies. In general, government efforts to counteract aggression toward the media were insufficient. The government does not restrict access to the internet.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution. Tensions between the Catholic Church and the government have risen considerably in recent years. The draft constitution ends the Church’s official status and creates a secular state. The government does not restrict academic freedom, and the law grants public universities an autonomous status, which students defend vigorously.
Bolivian law provides for the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, although social protests sometimes turn violent. In 2008, politicians on all sides continued to use the threat of protests to obtain political leverage. MAS supporters adopted the strategy of encircling Congress to put pressure on opposition members, who considered the tactic highly coercive. Both the human rights ombudsman and independent human rights organizations are able to report on brutality by the security forces. In some cases, such as that of the 2008 deaths in Pando, security forces were accused of passivity in the face of violence; they responded by claiming that the rules of engagement were unclear. The right to form labor unions is guaranteed by the constitution, and unions are an active force in society.
The judiciary remains the weakest branch of government. It is corrupt, inefficient, and inaccessible to many Bolivians, especially non-Spanish speakers. Although the government has made 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. The system of selecting Supreme Court and Constitutional Tribunal (TC) justices broke down in 2007 and 2008, leading to a crisis at the judiciary’s highest levels. In 2007, a fight between the administration and the TC over Supreme Court appointments led to the Chamber of Deputies filing charges against four TC members for dereliction of duty; by year’s end, all but one of the tribunal’s members had resigned, citing constant harassment by the executive branch. The TC remained inquorate throughout 2008, leading to a backlog of over 3,000 cases and creating a judicial vacuum during a period in which delicate legal issues frequently arose.
Prison conditions are harsh, and rehabilitation is essentially nonexistent. Although the criminal procedure code recognizes indigenous conflict-resolution traditions, 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. Several cases of multiple lynchings occurred in 2008, spurring debate over the government’s response and the way indigenous justice would coexist with ordinary law under the new constitution. Another controversy in 2008 was related to detentions following the Pando massacre, which appeared to violate basic rules on warrant approval, judicial access, jurisdiction, and other procedures. The government argued that given the volatile climate, speedy detentions were necessary.
Crime in La Paz and other major cities is increasing, though it remains at a lower level than in many South American countries. Coca cultivation, most of which is authorized, has risen in recent years, as have drug seizures and arrests. Morales’ policy of greater cooperation with coca growers has resulted in a significant decline in rights violations. However, cocaine production appears to be on the increase, as does the transit of Peruvian narcotics through Bolivia to Brazil and Argentina, a development that contributed to a rise in violence along some routes in 2008.
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 opposition supporters against the highlands indigenous. In May 2008, a small group of indigenous government supporters was subjected to violence and humiliation by a larger crowd of antigovernment civic activists in Sucre. Indigenous territories remain vulnerable to illegal exploitation by coca growers and timber thieves.Some rural employers keep indigenous workers in debt peonage. Indigenous rights were a major theme of the Constituent Assembly process. The draft constitution officially recognizes the 36 indigenous nationalities, declares Bolivia a “plurinational” state, requires that all public servants speak an indigenous language, and formalizes local political and judicial control within indigenous territories. However, some indigenous groups felt that their goals were weakened in the final compromise agreement.
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 or with unclear ownership, and the government began to allocate land titles in 2007. Eastern landowners fear that the law will be used to confiscate their holdings, while the law’s supporters believe that many of those lands were acquired illegally. A standoff between government surveyors and powerful landowners lasted through much of 2008 in the Alto Parapeti region and turned violent on several occasions.
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.