Bolivia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2012

2012 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


President Evo Morales faced a growing wave of social protest in 2011 on issues ranging from economic policy to land rights. In September, police repression of a march by an indigenous group drew domestic and international criticism. The protesters eventually secured an agreement with the government to protect their territory from unwanted road construction and migrants. In October, the country held its first elections to fill judicial posts at the highest levels, including the Supreme Court and Constitutional Tribunal. Voters sent an unclear message by casting a high percentage of null ballots.

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.

In 2002, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada won the presidency on the basis of a narrow first-round election victory and a subsequent vote in Congress. He had previously served as president in the 1990s, when he oversaw market-oriented economic reforms. The 2002 election also marked the emergence of Evo Morales as a national political leader. Known as a founder of the coca growers’ federation and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, Morales received the second-largest number of votes in the first round. In 2003, Sánchez de Lozada’s government confronted massive protests over economic policy and its unpopular decision to build a $5 billion natural gas pipeline to the Pacific via Chile, which was reviled for having annexed Bolivia’s only coastal territory in a 19th-century war. Government repression of protests, resulting in at least 120 deaths over several months, provoked even greater opposition in the streets of La Paz. In October 2003, Sánchez de Lozada resigned and fled the country.

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 served as president to oversee new elections. Morales won the December presidential poll, and the MAS became the largest party in Congress.

In 2006, the MAS and allied parties won a majority of delegates for a constituent assembly charged with writing a new constitution. From 2006 to 2009, recurring conflicts erupted over voting procedures in the constituent assembly and the substance of the draft constitution, pitting the government and its supporters against congressional and regionally based political opponents, especially from Bolivia’s eastern departments.

As polarization increased, Morales survived a recall referendum in August 2008 with 67 percent of the vote. Political confrontations during this period sometimes turned violent; a September 2008 clash between pro-Morales peasants and followers of opposition prefect Leopoldo Fernández in Pando left at least 14 people dead and triggered a criminal indictment for Fernández.

By October 2008, the opposing sides had reached a compromise on the draft constitution that retained most of the administration’s proposals, 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.

In 2009 national elections, Morales’s main challenger was former Cochabamba mayor Manfred Reyes Villa, who ran as the candidate of the Progressive Plan for Bolivia (PPB) party. 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 being targeted in criminal investigations. Monitors from the European Union characterized the elections as generally free and fair, but reported some cases of the misuse of state resources. With corruption charges pending, Reyes Villa fled abroad, as did other opposition figures and former public officials.

The MAS also dominated the concurrent legislative elections, winning majorities in the lower chamber and the Senate. Meanwhile, the remainder of Bolivia’s nine departments approved regional autonomy statutes, joining four that had already done so in 2006. In April 2010 regional elections, MAS candidates won governorships in six of the nine departments, but opposition candidates from the left and right became mayors in seven of the 10 principal cities. The MAS used its legislative majority to pass new laws during 2010, including a long-debated anticorruption law, an ambitious antiracism law, as well as legislation to implement the new constitution’s articles regarding electoral processes, the judiciary, and decentralization.

While regional backlash and opposition from the right dominated Morales’s first term as president, his second term has been marked by challenges from unions and social movements allied with the left. The December 2010 announcement of plans to remove state gasoline subsidies, which would lead to sharp price increases, triggered street protests, and Bolivia’s largest trade union organization, the Bolivian Workers’ Center (COB), scheduled another mass demonstration for January 3, 2011. This threat forced the government to rescind its proposal on December 31. In April, the government ended two weeks of protests over wages by striking a deal with the COB on wage hikes.

Also in 2011, a group of indigenous residents of the Indigenous Territory and National Park of Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS) joined with other social organizations and opposition groups to block a planned $415 million highway through the territory that would link the cities of Trinidad and Cochabamba and facilitate exports to Brazil. Indigenous leaders argued that the Brazilian-financed highway would cause environmental damage and encourage further encroachment on their land by coca growers, Brazil’s timber industry, and other migrants. The movement began by invoking the community’s right to a consultation (consulta previa) as stipulated in the 2010 constitution. In mid-August, TIPNIS residents began a march to La Paz to demand that the government scrap the highway plan. After a failed attempt to negotiate en route, Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca was briefly detained by the protesters and forced to march with them. On the following day, the police clubbed and teargased the 1,500 marchers, leaving 70 people injured. Domestic and international human rights groups called for an investigation. Morales condemned the violence and accepted the resignations of his defense and interior ministers.

The TIPNIS protesters resumed their march and received a warm welcome from La Paz residents. In meetings with Morales and other high-ranking officials, indigenous leaders reached an agreement to protect their territory. Enacted as Law 180 in October, the legislation banned highway construction across the designated areas, prohibited illegal settlements, and authorized the use of force to remove squatters.

Also in October, Bolivia became the first country in Latin America to elect judges to its highest courts, including the Constitutional Tribunal, the Supreme Court, and the newly created Agroenvironmental Tribunal. The change was intended to remedy an appointments crisis in the judicial branch. Since 2007, the judiciary had been rocked by resignations, charges of malfeasance, and a backlog of cases. In 2010, a short-term law gave the president the power to select judges until elections could be held. However, the October voting was marred by the fact that the number of null ballots cast surpassed the number of valid votes.

A November 2011 agreement reestablished full diplomatic relations between Bolivia and the United States. Bolivia had expelled the U.S. ambassador in 2008 on the charge that he had conspired against the Morales government. Subsequently, the U.S. government had announced the suspension of trade benefits provided under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, and Bolivia then banned the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency from the country.

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 legislative 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 seats in the Chamber of Deputies are reserved for indigenous representatives. The 2009 constitution includes a presidential runoff provision to replace the previous system, in which Congress had decided elections when no candidate won an outright majority.

Citizens have the right to organize political parties. President Evo Morales’s MAS, the most important political organization, draws support from a diverse range of social movements, unions, and civil society actors. 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. Most prominent opposition members ran under the PPB banner in 2009 and participate in the legislative opposition alliance known as PPB–National Convergence. Following the 2010 local and regional elections, the Movement Without Fear (MSM) party, a moderate group previously allied with the MAS, emerged as a left-leaning alternative to the ruling party. It is led by former La Paz mayor Juan del Granado.

Corruption remains a major problem in Bolivia, affecting a range of government entities and economic sectors, including extractive industries. New anticorruption legislation enacted in 2010 has been criticized for permitting retroactive enforcement, which contradicts international legal standards. In September 2011, legislators voted to authorize the trial of former presidents Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Jorge Quiroga for approving petroleum contracts that are alleged to have contravened national interests. Three former ministers were also included in the indictment. Separately, there have been concerns about the corruption of law enforcement bodies in connection with the illegal drug trade. In February 2011, General René Sanabria, the former chief of Bolivia’s counternarcotics office, was arrested in Panama and extradited to the United States to stand trial on drug-trafficking charges. The Bolivian government responded with arrests that included five former police chiefs and the firing of the national police chief. Bolivia was ranked 118 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Although the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, the media are subject to some limitations in practice. Press associations have complained that the language of the 2010 antiracism law is excessively vague and contributes to a climate of self-censorship. In particularly serious cases, the law allows publication of racist or discriminatory ideas to be punished with fines, the loss of broadcast licenses, and prison sentences of up to five years. In many cases a public apology can result in the waiver of such sanctions. The 2011 Electoral Regime Law restricted press coverage of the candidates running in the October judicial elections, making it difficult for the press to provide independent information to voters.

Most media 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. In July 2011, Morales signed a new telecommunications law requiring that state-run media control 33 percent of all broadcast licenses. Commercial broadcasters will be limited to another 33 percent, while local communities and indigenous groups will each be entitled to 17 percent of licenses. Press freedom advocates welcomed the idea of expanding media access to new groups, but expressed fears that local and indigenous outlets would lack the financial resources to operate independently and could fall under government control. The law also allows the government to access any private communication, including e-mail and telephone calls, for reasons of “national security” or any other emergency.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution. The new constitution ended the Roman Catholic 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, though protests sometimes turn violent. The Morales government has been highly critical of nongovernmental organizations, especially those that supported the TIPNIS protest in 2011. The number of protests, strikes, and demonstrations increased markedly in the first half of 2011, with many actions focused on wages and price hikes. The right to form labor unions is guaranteed by the constitution. Unions are an active force in society and have significant political influence.

The judicial system remained in flux in 2011, operating with temporary appointees selected by the president. The attempt to revamp the judiciary and strengthen its legitimacy through elections was marred by procedural problems and voter discontent. Candidates for the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Tribunal, and other entities were nominated through a two-thirds vote in the legislature, which allowed the MAS to dominate the selection process. Election officials ruled that candidates were not permitted to campaign openly, and that information about the candidates would be disseminated through official channels. In results that were interpreted as a defeat for the government, voters cast null ballots in numbers that exceeded the overall valid vote. Despite opposition criticism questioning the legitimacy of the elections, the government said it would seat the new judges.

Prosecutorial independence is viewed as weak, and enforcement in 2011 at times appeared to focus on opposition members and sympathizers, with multiple former presidents and many of the country’s most prominent opposition politicians facing charges ranging from graft to treason. Court cases are proceeding against 21 of the 39 defendants accused of terrorism and armed uprising for their involvement in the regional movement led by Eduardo Rózsa, who died in a shootout with police in 2009. The defendants maintain that they were seeking the autonomy of Bolivia’s eastern departments and that they are not separatists.

Prison conditions are harsh. Over 70 percent of those behind bars are in pretrial detention. While the criminal procedure code recognizes indigenous conflict-resolution traditions, jurisdictional reform efforts to date have not fully resolved questions pertaining to indigenous customary law. This lack of clarity has led some perpetrators of vigilante crimes, including lynching, to misrepresent their actions as a form of indigenous justice. In May 2011, four policemen were killed in a community lynching in Potosí department.

Both the human rights ombudsman and independent human rights organizations are able to report on violations committed by the security forces. While impunity remains a problem, human rights organizations hailed the Supreme Court’s landmark August 30, 2011 ruling in the “Black October” case, in which military and public officials were charged with the use of lethal force against demonstrators in 2003. Five army officers and two former ministers were found guilty and sentenced to jail terms. The Bolivian government continues to seek the extradition of former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada from the United States to stand trial in the same case.

Bolivia is the world’s third largest producer of the coca leaf. By law, 12,000 hectares of land are designated for the legal cultivation of the crop. The United Nations estimates that another 19,000 hectares are used for unregulated coca production destined for the illegal cocaine trade. The Bolivian government has expressed concern about increased cocaine production in the country as well as the rising flow of Peruvian cocaine through Bolivian territory.

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 remain dissatisfied with receiving just seven reserved legislative seats. In general, racism is rife in the country, especially by mestizos and whites against indigenous groups. Despite its potential effects on press freedom, the new antiracism law includes a series of positive measures to combat discrimination and impose criminal penalties for discriminatory acts. 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.

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, but it reserves marriage only for opposite-sex couples, and there is no provision for same-sex civil unions. Women’s political representation has increased 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. Gender-parity election rules were also applied to the 2011 judicial elections. 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.