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Tension within the base of the ruling Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party increased during the year, with several local episodes of social conflict and a national mobilization in December against a decree that would have sharply increased gasoline prices. However, local and regional elections were effectively carried out in April 2010. The post-constitutional reform process continued with the passage of dozens of new laws, including major new anticorruption and antiracism bills.
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 Sánchez de Lozada, a wealthy businessman and former president 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 the Bolivian population, including the majority indigenous population, many of whom use 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 aimed at improving the lot of the indigenous majority in a country with a poverty rate of 60 percent. The president ordered harsh repression of the protests, resulting in at least 120 deaths over a period of several months and the resignation in October of Sánchez de Lozada.
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. Morales won the December presidential poll, while his Movement toward Socialism (MAS) emerged as the largest party in Congress.
In July 2006, voters handed the MAS a majority in the Constituent Assembly, and in a concurrent vote on the question of regional autonomy, four departments supported greater autonomy, while five rejected the idea. By early 2007, serious disputes had emerged regarding the procedural rules governing the assembly, regional autonomy, indigenous rights, and state structure. The resulting polarization increased regional and ethnic friction, and violent confrontations throughout the year left several people dead and scores wounded.
Finally, in November, a group of delegates composed largely of MAS members met outside Sucre and approved a draft constitution. Protesters in Sucre responded with two days of demonstrations that were violently suppressed, leaving three people dead and several hundred injured. In December, a similar MAS-dominated group of delegates met in Oruro to approve the final draft.
Controversy over the constitution and general polarization raged throughout 2008. The National Electoral Court (CNE) blocked two government attempts to call a national vote on the draft during the year. Referendums proposed by the oppositionconfirming local control in four departments were also ruled illegal by the CNE. A recall referendum in August proved a significant victory for the government; over 67 percent of voters affirmed Morales’s mandate, while two opposition prefects were bounced from office.
After the recall referendum, conflict increased significantly, peaking with a September confrontation between peasant supporters of Morales and followers of opposition prefect Leopoldo Fernández in Pando that resulted in at least 14 deaths. The central government declared a state of emergency in the department and arrested a number of suspects, including Fernández. Judicial processes related to the Pando massacre advanced, albeit slowly, causing concern among the opposition and some human rights observers. In October 2009, more than 25 people, including ex-prefect Fernández, were charged with serious crimes in the case.
Following the Pando incident, the government and congressional opposition resumed dialogue on the constitution. In October 2008, the two sides announced a compromise draft that retained most articles, though 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. After a brief but intense campaign, over 61 percent of voters approved the new constitution in January 2009, 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 were highly disputed, 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. Following incriminating testimony by supposed plot participants, several prominent Santa Cruz business and political leaders, among others, were placed under investigation or charged. During the rest of 2009 and throughout 2010, judicial investigations and preliminary hearings failed to provide much additional clarity, while calls from European governments for an independent investigation were rejected by the Bolivian government.
A transitional electoral law was passed in April 2009, and the CNE was tasked with producing a new, biometrically based electoral roll in time for the December election; the ensuing process vastly exceeded expectations in both efficiency and comprehensiveness. 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 Fernández, the jailed former prefect of Pando, as his running mate. Reyes Villa was also hampered by a history of serious corruption allegations, 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. Opposition leaders complained about the abuse of state resources and the number of criminal charges brought against opposition politicians, including Reyes Villa. Monitors from the European Union characterized the elections as generally free and fair, but confirmed the misuse of state resources.
Reyes Villa fled to the United States after the elections, and additional opposition members followed in 2010. Tarija governor (the title changed from prefect under the new constitution), Mario Cossío, sought asylum in Paraguay following indictment on charges related to misuse of state funds, while several former government ministers departed for Peru. Former president Jorge Quiroga was convicted and sentenced to jail for defamation in July, though he remained free pending appeal.
The MAS also dominated the 2009 congressional elections, capturing 26 of 36 Senate seats and 90 of 130 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Five departments approved autonomy statutes, joining the four that had already done so in 2006. Regional elections in April 2010 marked a coda to the five-year electoral wave that reconfigured Bolivia’s political landscape. MAS candidates won the governorship in 6 of the 9 departments, but opposition candidates from the left and right took hold of the mayoralties in 7 of the 10 principal cities. MAS used its significant majority within Congress to pass new laws in 2010, including a long-debated anticorruption law and an ambitious—though controversial—antiracism law, as well as legislation to implement the new constitution’s articles regarding electoral processes, the judiciary, and decentralization.
With the frenzy of electoral mobilization winding down, the form of Bolivian tensions changed somewhat in 2010. The social bases united in support of MAS became more vocal in asserting their demands, as local and sectoral interest groups established blockades to pressure the government on a series of issues. Police efforts to clear a blockade near Caranavi in May left two dead, while a series of protests shut down Potosí city in July and August. In late December, Vice President Álvaro Garcia Linera unexpectedly announced that gasoline subsidies would end. The administration highlighted the drain on state coffers created by the smuggling of subsidized fuel to neighboring countries, and paired the move with a rise in the minimum wage and salary increases. However, the government had failed to consult with outside groups—including some of its key constituencies—who often work in the informal sector and would face financial strain from the increase without benefitting from the offsetting wage jump. The move sparked immediate protests throughout the country, some of them violent. President Morales announced on New Year’s Eve that that the decree would be rescinded.
Bolivia’s relations with the United States have remained poor since 2008. That year, the two countries 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. Talks over a new bilateral accord were held throughout 2009 and 2010, but no agreement was finalized. Playing to their political supporters, President Morales and other MAS members occasionally lobbed charges of US-backed conspiracies targeting the government and spoke of expelling the United States Agency for International Development, whose assistance on governance-related programs has declined in recent years.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Bolivia is an electoral democracy. Elections and referendums since 2005 have been deemed free and fair by international observers. Under the new constitution, presidential and congressional terms are both five years, permitting up to two consecutive terms. 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 the MAS, an alliance of social movements and other civil society actors whose disputes President Evo Morales must mediate. The right-wing 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. Following the 2010 local and regional elections, the Movement Without Fear (MSM) party, a moderate left-wing group previously allied with the MAS, emerged as the most important alternative to the MAS in several regions and cities, including La Paz.
Corruption and nepotism remain common vices in Bolivia. In March 2010, major new anticorruption legislation passed into law, promising a more rigorous institutional framework to combat graft. However, observers noted that the bill’s provision permitting retroactive enforcement contradicts international legal standards. The new law also allows for former heads of state to be tried in absentia, contravening international due process norms. Some MAS figures have been prosecuted for corruption, including Santos Ramírez, the former head of the national oil and gas company. Many opposition figures have also been charged, including several mayors and governors elected in 2010. Bolivia was ranked 110 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010Corruption 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 pro-government opinion pieces; the opposite holds true in state media. Incidents of physical aggression against journalists decreased in 2010, but as in previous years, Morales sparred bitterly with the press. Watchdog groups criticized some provisions of the generally lauded antiracism law passed in October, specifically the vagueness of language regarding fines and the possible closure of outlets deemed to have violated the law. The government promised consultation with civil society, and details on implementation remained under debate at year’s end. 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 continued in 2010, as the new constitution ended the Church’s official status and created a secular state. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Bolivian law provides for the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, although social protests sometimes turn violent. Unlike previous years, in which both government and opposition politicians harnessed protests for political purposes, the most aggressive protests in 2010 came from local and sectoral groups making specific demands on the government. Nongovernmental organizations, including independent human rights groups, operate freely. However, human rights groups criticized the ongoing harassment of lawyers Jorge Quiroz and Claudia Lecona, who had represented the families of the dead protesters in Caranavi. The right to form labor unions is guaranteed by the constitution. Unions are an active force in society and have significant political influence.
Despite some governmental efforts to hasten reform, the judiciary remains corrupt, inefficient, and inaccessible to many Bolivians. The informal political quota system for selecting Supreme Court and Constitutional Tribunal (TC) justices broke down under the weight of polarizationstarting in 2007, leading to a crisis that included a wave of resignations, legal charges against several justices for dereliction of duty, paralysis of the courts, and an increase in the backlog of cases. In February 2010, the government passed the “Short-Term Law,” permitting the temporary appointment of judicial authorities by the president until elections could be held. Although the 18 full and provisional appointees selected by Morales comprised well-regarded jurists, their limited authority continued to constrain checks on executive power. Elections to the high courts originally planned for fall 2010 were pushed into 2011. Prosecutorial independence is viewed as weak, and enforcement at times appeared to focus more on opposition members and sympathizers, with multiple ex-presidents and many of the country’s most prominent opposition politicians facing charges ranging from graft to treason.
Prison conditions are harsh, and over 70 percent of detainees are in pretrial detention. Increased overcrowding in 2010 led to protests in several facilities. While the criminal procedure code recognizes indigenous conflict-resolution traditions, jurisdictional reform efforts to date have yet to fully resolve questions pertaining to indigenous customary law. This lack of clarity has led some perpetrators of vigilante crimes, including lynching, to indefensibly excuse their actions as a form of indigenous justice.In the most prominent incident in 2010, four police officers were killed in rural Potosí in May following extortion allegations by locals. Two weeks of negotiations with the government were required before local leaders agreed to hand over the bodies for burial.
Both the human rights ombudsman and independent human rights organizations are able to report on violations committed by the security forces, although impunity remains the norm. The new human rights ombudsman named in May 2010 has shown more independence and effectiveness than his predecessor in speaking out about and investigating human rights violations. One example was the demand for a full investigation into the highly publicized death in custody of robbery suspect David Olorio in July, who was allegedly tortured to death by police seeking information on the location of a cache of stolen funds; the investigation remained ongoing at year’s end. Attempts to seek justice for human rights abuses under past dictatorships stalled in 2010, as the military refused to comply with an April Supreme Court order to declassify and grant access to files related to forced disappearances in the early 1980s.
Coca cultivation remains a sensitive issue. The Morales government’s cooperation with growers has resulted in a significant decline in rights violations. However, cocaine production appears to be on the rise, as does the transit of Peruvian cocaine through Bolivia to Brazil and Argentina. While crime rates in La Paz and other major cities appear to be increasing, 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 remained dissatisfied with receiving just seven reserved legislative seats. In general, racism is rife in the country, especially by mestizos and whites against indigenous groups. The new antiracism law codifies a series of positive steps to combat discrimination and impose criminal penalties for acts of discrimination. 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. Ballot-alternation requirements resulted in women winning 44 percent of the seats in the current 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.