Bolivia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2013

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In 2012, President Evo Morales faced social unrest on issues including indigenous land rights and disputes over natural resources. In January, 56 newly elected high court justices were sworn in following elections held in 2011 that were marred by procedural problems and voter discontent. Meanwhile, attacks against journalists and media outlets critical of the government continued during the year.

After achieving independence from Spain in 1925 and enduring years of military rule and 180 coups in 157 years, Bolivia has enjoyed relative stability and a succession of civilian presidents since 1982. In 2002, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who had held the presidency in the 1990s, was returned to office on the basis of a narrow first-round victory and a subsequent vote in Congress. The 2002 election also saw the emergence of Evo Morales of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party as a national political leader. In 2003, widespread protests over the government’s plan to export natural gas to the United States via Chile resulted in dozens of deaths; Sánchez de Lozada was forced to resign and fled the country for the United States.

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 election with 54 percent of the popular vote—the first outright electoral majority since the return to democracy—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.

Morales won 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, opposing sides reached 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. In a January 2009 referendum, the new constitution was approved by over 61 percent of voters, with a turnout of over 90 percent.

In 2009 national elections, Morales was reelected with 64 percent of the vote amid a record 95 percent turnout. Monitors from the European Union characterized the elections as generally free and fair, but reported some misuse of state resources, a complaint echoed by opposition leaders. Some opposition members also claimed they were targeted with criminal investigations, causing them to flee the country.

The MAS also dominated the 2009 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 7 of the 10 principal cities. The MAS used its legislative majority to pass new laws during 2010, including anticorruption and antiracism laws.

While regional opposition from the political right dominated Morales’s first term as president, his second term has been marked by challenges from unions and social movements on the left. The December 2010 announcement of plans to remove state gasoline subsidies, which would lead to sharp price increases, triggered street protests. Bolivia’s largest trade union organization, the Bolivian Workers’ Center, scheduled a mass demonstration for January 2011, forcing Morales to rescind his proposal.

In 2011, indigenous groups from 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. Indigenous leaders argued that the Brazilian-financed highway would cause environmental damage and increase encroachment by coca growers, loggers, and migrants. The movement began by invoking the community’s right to a prior consultation (consulta previa) as stipulated in the 2010 constitution. In August 2011, TIPNIS residents and supporters staged a march to La Paz to demand that the government scrap the highway plan. After the protesters detained Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca and forced him to march with them, police beat and tear-gassed the marchers, leaving 70 people injured. Human rights groups called for an investigation; Morales condemned the violence and accepted the resignations of his defense and interior ministers. TIPNIS protesters resumed their march and were welcomed by La Paz residents. Indigenous leaders secured promises from Morales and other government officials to protect their territory. Legislation passed in October banned highway construction across the designated areas, prohibited illegal settlements, and authorized the use of force to remove squatters, until the consultation process was completed.

Progress ground to a halt in 2012, however, as the consultation process ran into administrative hurdles, opposition from indigenous communities, and the practical difficulties of navigating lowland rivers during the dry season. In late December, a commission representing the Catholic Church, the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights in Bolivia, and the Inter-American Federation of Human Rights reported that 30 of the 36 communities they visited rejected the proposed road; three communities favored road construction, and three indicated that they would accept the road if its route were changed. These findings contradicted the government’s earlier assertions that 80 percent of the communities included in the official consultation process supported the road. The commission also found that the government’s consultation process did not meet international or even national legal standards for prior and informed consent.

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 the legislature had decided elections when no candidate won an outright majority.

Citizens have the right to organize political parties. President Evo Morales’s MAS draws support from a diverse range of social movements, unions, and civil society actors. With the election of Morales, the traditional political parties have all but collapsed. Following the 2010 local and regional elections, the Movement Without Fear party—a group previously allied with the MAS, and led by former La Paz mayor Juan del Granado—emerged as a centrist alternative to the ruling party.

Corruption remains a problem in Bolivia, affecting a range of government entities and economic sectors, including extractive industries. Anticorruption legislation enacted in 2010 has been criticized for permitting retroactive enforcement. The government has established an Anti-Corruption Ministry, outlined policies to combat corruption, and opened investigations into official corruption cases. In 2011, legislators voted to prosecute former presidents Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Jorge Quiroga for approving hydrocarbon contracts that are alleged to have contravened national interests. Three former ministers were also included in the indictment. In September 2012, the U.S. government announced that it would not extradite Sánchez de Lozada. Separately, there have been concerns about the long-standing problem of corruption of law enforcement bodies in connection with the illegal drug trade. In 2012, Bolivia was ranked 105 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 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 a 2010 antiracism law is 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. In February 2011, the government created a Ministry of Communications, raising hopes that the “right to communication,” established in the new constitution would be enforced. Since the ministry’s establishment, however, two successive ministers have failed to promote the passage of such a law, leaving in question the constitution’s guarantee of freedom of expression.

Most media outlets are privately owned, and radio is the leading source of information. Print media has seen a wave of consolidation and the closing of some newspapers. Electronic media is growing in importance as a source of news. Many newspapers and television stations feature opposition rather than progovernment opinion pieces; the opposite holds true in state media. The 2011 telecommunications law would allocate 33 percent of all broadcast licenses to state-run media, another 33 percent to commercial broadcasters, and 17 percent each to local communities and indigenous groups.

Attacks against journalists and independent media continued in 2012. In October, a radio journalist in the southern city of Yacuiba, near the Argentine border, was severely injured by attackers who broke into his studio and set him on fire. The journalist had reported on cross-border smuggling, and had spoken out against local authorities during his radio broadcasts. In June, attacks against radio stations—including at least three dynamite attacks—and individual journalists occurred in Oruro and elsewhere, during a strike of the national police force. In November, Ghilka Sanabria, the editor of the newspaper El Diario and a freedom of expression advocate, suffered serious injuries following a beating she received while on her way home.

In October 2012, the Plurinational Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional Article 162 of the penal code, which made it a crime to criticize a government official in the exercise of his or her office. This decision brings Bolivia into accordance with three international conventions ratified by the Bolivian government: the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, and the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights.

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. The right to form labor unions is guaranteed by the constitution. Labor and peasant unions are an active force in society and have significant political influence.

In 2012, the judicial system faced ongoing systemic challenges. Judicial elections were held in 2011 to remedy a crisis in the judicial branch, which had been rocked by resignations, charges of corruption, and a backlog of cases. The elections were 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. Nevertheless, 56 new high court judges were sworn in in January 2012, and Bolivia became the first country in Latin America to swear in elected judges to its highest courts, including the Constitutional Tribunal, the Supreme Court, and the newly created Agroenvironmental Tribunal.

The new justices face a daunting caseload. In 2011, the Bolivian Supreme Court ruled on 2,206 cases, leaving approximately 29,000 pending. Prosecutorial independence is viewed as weak, and enforcement at times focuses on opposition members and sympathizers, with former presidents and many opposition politicians facing charges ranging from graft to treason.

Bolivian prisons are overcrowded and conditions for prisoners are extremely poor. In June 2012 the National Prison Administrator reported that 84 percent of inmates were in pre-trial detention. Trial dates are frequently postponed. A 1988 law passed at the urging of the United States that substantially lengthened prison sentences for drug-related crimes has contributed to prison overcrowding, as has an increase in urban crime rates. In response to overcrowding, the government approved a pardon in 2012 that stands to benefit some 5,000 prisoners, granting some immediate release. Government officials in the United States have denounced the pretrial detention of Brooklyn businessman Jacob Ostreicher, who has been imprisoned in Bolivia for more than a year. A representative of the UN High Commission on Human Rights concluded in July that Ostreicher’s case is not unusual in Bolivia’s extremely slow and under-resourced judicial system.

While the 2009 constitution and jurisdictional law recognize indigenous customary law regarding conflict resolution jurisdictional reform efforts have not fully resolved questions pertaining to indigenous customary law. This lack of clarity has allowed some perpetrators of vigilante crimes, including lynching, to misrepresent their actions as a form of indigenous justice. A February 2012 report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that lynchings had substantially decreased during the previous two years, though violent extra-judicial punishment remains a problem in many parts of Bolivia.

 Bolivia is the world’s third largest producer of the coca leaf, after Colombia and Peru. By law, 12,000 hectares of land are designated for the legal cultivation of the crop. The United Nations estimates that another 27,200 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 increasing flow of Peruvian cocaine through Bolivian territory. In September 2012, the United States government sharply criticized Bolivian counter-narcotics efforts, asserting that cocaine production in Bolivia had exceeded that of Colombia. However, in a separate report also released in September, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) indicated that coca cultivation in Bolivia had decreased by 12 percent during the previous year; UNDOC attributed the decrease to the Morales government’s policies of control and eradication. Notably, UNDOC and the United States differed by only a single percentage point in their estimates of the area dedicated to coca cultivation, though they differed sharply in their interpretations of this figure. While UNDOC praised the reduction in coca cultivation, a representative of the U.S. Embassy in La Paz argued that, in spite of the reduction, Bolivia had failed to meet its obligations under international narcotics agreements.

The 2009 constitution recognizes 36 indigenous nationalities, declares Bolivia a “plurinational” state—changing the official name of the country from the Republic of Bolivia to the Plurinational State of Bolivia—and formalizes local political and judicial control within indigenous territories. In general, racism is rife in the country, especially against indigenous groups. Indigenous people from the country’s Andean west who move to Santa Cruz de la Sierra and some other areas in the eastern lowlands for economic reasons are subject to considerable racism and occasional violence, some of which involves organized armed gangs. The 2010 antiracism contains measures to combat discrimination and impose criminal penalties for discriminatory acts.

While the law protects freedom of movement, protesters often block highways and city streets.

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 enjoy the same formal rights to property ownership as men, but discrimination is pervasive, leading to disparities in property ownership and access to resources. 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, but only 28 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Gender parity election rules were also applied to the 2011 judicial elections, resulting in gender parity in elected judges. Violence against women is pervasive, and the justice system is ineffective at safeguarding women’s broader legal rights. The penal code does not recognize spousal rape and permits a rapist to escape punishment if he marries his victim. More than half of Bolivian women are believed to suffer domestic violence at some point during their lives.

Child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking are ongoing problems. Child labor in cooperatively-run mines and in agriculture is common, and a 2012 study by the United Nations reported instances of forced child labor in mining, agriculture, and the drug trade. Forced labor has also been reported on agricultural estates in the Chaco region. In 2012, authorities achieved their first forced-labor conviction. Human trafficking continues to be a problem in Bolivia, although the government is making progress in addressing the problem, including the establishment of an office to coordinate human trafficking prosecution efforts.