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Referendum voters approved a new constitution in January. In December, President Evo Morales was reelected by a wide margin, while members of the ruling party garnered more than two-thirds of the seats in both houses of the legislature. Although the level of political violence declined compared with 2008, the breakup of an alleged plot to assassinate Morales helped to keep political polarization sharp throughout the year.
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, refrained from political intervention after 1982, allowing a regular succession of civilian presidents over the next two decades.
No candidate in the 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 Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, a wealthy businessman and former president (1993–97) associated with economic privatization and forced coca-eradication programs, who had received a small plurality of votes. The runner-up, confrontational indigenous leader Evo Morales, had gained prominence by capitalizing on the unpopularity of U.S.-sponsored antidrug efforts among Bolivia’s majority indigenous population, many of whom spoke Spanish as a second language and used the coca leaf for traditional cultural and medical purposes.
In 2003, indigenous groups, workers, students, and coca growers mounted mass protests against government plans for a $5 billion pipeline to export Bolivian natural gas via longtime rival Chile to the United States and Mexico. The movement was also fueled 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. The president ordered harsh repression of the protests, but after the crackdown led to at least 120 deaths, Sanchez de Lozada resigned in October and fled to the United States.
The nonpartisan vice president, Carlos Mesa, assumed the presidency. Despite successfully increasing state control over natural resources, he failed to quell mounting protests over gas revenues, regional autonomy, and other issues, and he ultimately resigned in June 2005. The chief justice of the Supreme Court temporarily assumed the presidency to oversee new elections, which were held in December. Morales won the presidential poll with 53.7 percent of the ballots. He pledged to implement anticorruption reforms and act on the long-standing call for a Constituent Assembly that would draft a new constitution. 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.
In May 2006, the Morales government announced additional state controls over oil and gas resources. It also introduced a land-reform plan that was opposed by the owners of large estates in the eastern lowlands. Voters handed the MAS a majority in the Constituent Assembly in July, and in a concurrent vote on the question of regional autonomy, four departments supported greater autonomy, while five rejected the idea.
Although the assembly reached compromise in February 2007 on a paralyzing disagreement over the size of the majority needed to adopt changes to individual constitutional articles, disputes continued over regional autonomy, indigenous rights, state structure, and the issue of whether La Paz or Sucre should be the capital. The resulting polarization increased regional and ethnic friction, and violent confrontations throughout the year left several people dead and scores wounded.
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.
Controversy over the tactics used to pass the draft charter continued for most of 2008. Two government attempts to call a national vote on the draft were blocked by the National Electoral Court (CNE). In May and June, opposition supporters easily won referendums confirming statutes detailing local control in four departments, but the CNE ruled all four votes illegal. In May, the opposition-led Senate approved a recall referendum on the president and all departmental prefects. However, Morales accepted the challenge, and 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. 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 shooting deaths of at least 11 of the government supporters. The central government declared a state of emergency in the department and arrested a number of suspects, including the prefect.
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 draft that retained most articles but made notable changes, including 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. After a brief but intense campaign, on January 25, 2009, over 61 percent of voters approved the new constitution, with a turnout of over 90 percent.
Polarization remained acute throughout 2009, but the overall level of violence decreased. In the year’s most serious incident, police in April killed three men and detained two others at a Santa Cruz hotel who had stockpiled weapons and were allegedly conspiring to assassinate Morales and other leaders. All elements of the episode, including the nature of the plot, the circumstances of the deaths, the government’s adherence to due process rights, and the extent of lowland elites’ involvement in the alleged conspiracy, remained in dispute for the rest of the year. Following incriminating testimony by supposed plot participants, several prominent Santa Cruz business and political leaders were among those placed under investigation or charged, fueling opposition complaints that the case was devolving into a witch hunt.
A transitional electoral law was passed in April, and the CNE was charged with producing a new, biometrically based electoral roll; the ensuing process vastly exceeded expectations in both efficiency and comprehensiveness. Despite scattered instances of violence, the run-up to the December balloting was largely calm. The main opposition party, the Progressive Plan for Bolivia (PPB), selected former Cochabamba city mayor and department prefect Manfred Reyes Villa as its presidential candidate. He ran on an anti-MAS platform, signified by his choice of Fernandez, the jailed former prefect of Pando, as his running mate. Reyes Villa was also hampered by a history of corruption allegations and the fallout from the alleged assassination plot, while Morales’s popularity was bolstered by continuing economic growth. Morales was reelected with 64 percent of the vote amid a record 95 percent turnout. The MAS also captured 26 of 36 Senate seats and 90 of 130 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Five departments overwhelmingly approved autonomy statutes, joining the four that had already done so.
Opposition electoral complaints centered on the abuse of state resources and a flurry of criminal charges brought against opposition politicians, including Reyes Villa, who was barred from leaving the country during the campaign as multiple corruption-related investigations proceeded. Monitors from the European Union characterized the elections as generally free and fair, but they also confirmed the misuse of state resources and noted that the judiciary’s paralysis left those facing criminal charges with inadequate legal recourse. After the elections, Reyes Villa fled to the United States.
Bolivia’s relations with the United States remained poor in 2009 after a sharp deterioration in 2008. That year, the two countries had expelled each other’s ambassadors and markedly reduced cooperation on aid, trade, and counternarcotics due to disagreements over issues including coca eradication and alleged U.S. meddling. The two sides held talks on a new bilateral accord during 2009, but no agreement was finalized by year’s end.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Bolivia is an electoral democracy. Elections and referendums since 2005 have been deemed free and fair by international observers. Bolivians residing abroad were granted voting rights for the first time in the December 2009 elections. Under the new constitution, presidential and congressional terms are both five years, with up to two consecutive terms permitted. The Plurinational Legislative Assembly consists of a 130-member Chamber of Deputies and a 36-member Senate in which all senators and 53 deputies are elected by proportional representation and 70 deputies are elected in individual districts. Seven Chamber of Deputies seatsare reserved for indigenous representatives. The new constitution includes a presidential runoff provision to replace the previous system in which Congress had decided elections when no candidate won an outright majority.
Bolivians have the right to organize political parties. 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, and most prominent opposition members ran under the PPB banner in 2009.
Graft and nepotism remain common, and the administration has yet to build successful institutional anticorruption mechanisms. A major scandal broke in February 2009, when the murder of a businessman carrying $450,000 led to the arrest on corruption charges of Santos Ramirez, the head of the national oil and gas company and one of Morales’s closest allies. Bolivia was ranked 120 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009Corruption 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 the leading source of information. Many newspapers and television stations tend to feature opposition rather than progovernment opinion pieces; the opposite holds true in state media. A general climate of hostility toward journalists has increased along with political tensions. A local watchdog group registered 64 incidents of physical aggression between January and October 2009. As in previous years, Morales sparred bitterly with the press, and in March he brought a desacato (disrespect) lawsuit against the La Paz newspaper La Prensa. The government does not restrict access to the internet.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution. Tensions between the Roman Catholic Church and the government have risen considerably in recent years. The new constitution ended the Church’s official status and created 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. While politicians on all sides continued to use protests to obtain political leverage in 2009, the demonstrations’ size and ferocity declined. Nongovernmental organizations, including independent human rights groups, operate freely. The right to form labor unions is guaranteed by the constitution, and unions are an active force in society.
The judiciary remains corrupt, inefficient, and inaccessible to many Bolivians, especially non-Spanish speakers. Although the government has pushed reforms designed to make the courts more responsive to the needs of poor and rural citizens, a lack of resources and political difficulties have limited progress. The system for selecting Supreme Court and Constitutional Tribunal (TC) justices broke down starting in 2007, leading to a crisis that included a wave of resignations and legal charges against several justices for dereliction of duty. In May 2009 the last TC justice resigned, and by year’s end a backlog of over 5,000 cases had accumulated at the tribunal. Following the suspension of chief justice Eddy Fernandez in May 2009, the Supreme Court was also largely paralyzed.
Prison conditions are harsh, and over 70 percent of detainees are in pretrial detention. 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 led perpetrators of vigilante crimes including lynching to portray, with no basis, their acts as a form of indigenous justice. The local office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted at least 15 lynching deaths in 2009. Communal justice also served as the justification for the eviction of former vice president Victor Hugo Cardenas from his home in March; the government condemned the act.
Detentions related to the September 2008 Pando massacre appeared to violate legal norms on warrant approval, habeas corpus, and other elements of due process. The government argued that given the volatile climate, speedy detentions were necessary, but continuing arrests, a change of jurisdiction from Pando to La Paz, and the slow pace of investigations caused concern among the opposition and some human rights observers. More than 25 people were charged with serious crimes in the case in October 2009, but trials had not begun at year’s end.
Both the human rights ombudsman and independent human rights organizations are able to report on brutality by the security forces, although impunity remains the norm. Attempts to seek justice for human rights abuses under past dictatorships gained momentum in 2009 despite investigators’ meager resources and an ongoing lack of cooperation from the military. In some cases, such as the Pando killings, security forces were accused of passivity in the face of violence.
Coca cultivation, much of which is authorized, has increased in recent years, as have drug seizures and arrests. Morales’s policy of distinguishing between authorized and unauthorized production zones, and his government’s greater cooperation with coca growers, have resulted in a significant decline in rights violations. However, cocaine production appears to be on the rise, as does the transit of Peruvian narcotics through Bolivia to Brazil and Argentina. Crime rates in La Paz and other major cities are increasing, though crime in Bolivia remains at a lower level than in many other South American countries.
The new constitution recognizes 36 indigenous nationalities, declares Bolivia a “plurinational” state, and formalizes local political and judicial control within indigenous territories. However, some groups were dissatisfied with receiving just seven reserved legislative seats. In general, racism is rife in the country, especially by mestizos and whites against indigenous groups from the highlands. Several people were charged in 2009 for a May 2008 incident in which a small group of indigenous government supporters were subjected to violence and humiliation by a crowd of antigovernment activists in Sucre. Some rural employers keep indigenous workers in debt peonage, particularly in the Chaco region.
While the law protects and the government generally respects freedom of movement, protesters often block highways and city streets, causing serious economic losses. There have been clashes between landowners in the lowlands and migrants from the highlands, and sporadic land invasions by landless peasants continue to occur. A 2006 law allowed for the redistribution of land deemed idle or with unclear ownership, and the government has since reallocated millions of hectares. Meanwhile, foreign investors have been discouraged by the government’s aggressive renegotiation of contract terms in the energy, mining, and telecommunications industries.
Women’s political representation has increased notably in recent years, and ballot-alternation requirements resulted in women winning 44 percent of the seats in the new Senate, though only 28 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Violence against women is pervasive, and the justice system is ineffective at safeguarding women’s broader legal rights. Child prostitution and child labor are problems, particularly in urban areas and in the Chaco and Chapare regions.