Bolivia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World


Freedom in the World 2016
Freedom Status: 
Partly Free
Aggregate Score: 
Freedom Rating: 
Political Rights: 
Civil Liberties: 

Quick Facts

La Paz (administrative), Sucre (judicial)
Press Freedom Status: 
Partly Free
Net Freedom Status: 

In 2015, lawmakers from the governing Movement for Socialism (MAS) took steps to change Bolivia’s constitution so term limits would not prevent President Evo Morales from running for reelection in the presidential election set for 2019. The amendment passed the Plurinational Legislative Assembly in September, but it still needed to be ratified in a national referendum, which was expected to take place in early 2016.

Subnational elections held in March 2015 showed irregularities, including the last-minute disqualification of opposition candidates. While the MAS prevailed in most contests throughout the country, the opposition won some crucial races.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Political Rights: 29 / 40 [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 11 / 12

Bolivia’s president is directly elected, and presidential and legislative terms are both five years. The Plurinational Legislative Assembly consists of a 130-member Chamber of Deputies and a 36-member Senate. 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 introduced a presidential runoff provision.

Presidential term limits are the subject of controversy. In September 2015, the Plurinational Legislative Assembly voted to amend the constitution in order to allow presidents to run for three consecutive terms instead of two. The initiative must be ratified by a referendum, which was expected in February 2016. Its approval would enable Morales to run for a fourth term. A 2013 Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal ruling allowed Morales to run for a third term in 2014, stating that his first term in office did not count toward the constitutionally mandated two-term limit since it had begun before the current constitution was adopted.

In the 2014 general elections, Morales was reelected with 61.4 percent of the vote. Samuel Doria Medina of the Democratic Union Front (UD) obtained 24.2 percent of votes, and the three remaining candidates shared less than 15 percent of votes. In concurrent legislative elections, Morales’s MAS party maintained a two-thirds majority in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, the share necessary to pass constitutional reforms. The MAS took 89 seats in the lower house and 25 seats in the Senate, while the opposition UD won 31 deputies and 9 senators, followed by the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) with 10 deputies and 2 senators. The Organization of American States (OAS) electoral observation mission stated that the elections reflected the will of the people, but recommended that Bolivia strengthen its electoral institutions and campaign finance system. Bolivians living abroad were allowed to vote for the first time in 2014.

In March 2015 subnational elections, the MAS won control of more departments and municipalities across the country than any other party. However, the opposition won key mayoralties and governorships, including those of La Paz and Santa Cruz. The OAS electoral observation mission reported overwhelming citizen participation in the elections, but lamented the last-minute disqualification and substitution of candidates, which occurred after the ballots had been printed. As a result of these changes, voters had incorrect information on election day. Six out of seven Supreme Electoral Tribunal members resigned after the elections. In July, new members of the tribunal were elected with the support of the MAS majority in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 11 / 16

Citizens have the right to organize political parties. Since Morales’s 2005 election, the formerly dominant parties have all but collapsed, giving way to a series of new formations and short-lived opposition coalitions. The MAS draws support from a diverse range of social movements, unions, and civil society actors. Days ahead of the 2015 subnational elections, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal disqualified the UD in the department of Beni on the grounds that it disseminated an unauthorized poll, which resulted in the removal of its 228 candidates from the ballot.

Opposition politicians have claimed that the Morales administration persecutes them through the judiciary. In January, a legislative investigative committee recommended that 11 former government officials, including former president Jorge Quiroga, be prosecuted for treason over their roles in the privatization of state enterprises. In February, opposition leader Luis Ayllón of the Arriba Chuquisaca party was sentenced to almost two years in prison in a trial that stemmed from accusations of embezzlement over his alleged loss of a camera; Ayllón appealed the sentence in April. The same month, assemblywoman Hilda Saavedra was accused of incitement to crime and obstruction of the electoral process for organizing a vigil outside of the Chuquisaca Electoral Tribunal.

People are free to make their own political decisions without undue influence from the military, foreign powers, or other influential groups. The constitution recognizes 36 indigenous nationalities, declares Bolivia a plurinational state, and formalizes local political and judicial control within indigenous territories. However, although they are well represented in government, the interests of indigenous groups are often overlooked by politicians. The Indigenous Fund, a government-led organization dedicated to providing aid for indigenous Bolivians, was marred by corruption scandals in February 2015 when it was discovered that over 210 million bolivianos ($30.6 million) were diverted to fund political campaigns.


C. Functioning of Government: 7 / 12

Corruption affects a range of government entities and economic sectors, including law-enforcement bodies and 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 Quiroga for approving hydrocarbon contracts alleged to have contravened national interests. The U.S. government has refused to extradite Sánchez de Lozada, who is also facing genocide charges for his role in the killing of dozens of indigenous protesters in 2003. In 2013, the Bolivian prosecutor filed corruption charges against Quiroga and requested that he be placed on house arrest, but a court granted substitute measures while the trial continues. Bolivia was ranked 99 out of 168 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index.

A bill on Transparency and Access to Public Information was under consideration as of August 2015. It has been criticized for allowing government agencies to establish exceptions on what information would be publicly available.


Civil Liberties: 39 / 60

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 14 / 16

Although the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, in practice, the media are subject to some limitations. A Ministry of Communications exists, but no implementing regulation for the constitution’s “right to communication” has been passed. Most media outlets are privately owned, and ownership in the print sector has become consolidated. Radio is the leading source of information, but online media are growing in importance as a source of news. Many private newspapers and television stations feature opposition rather than progovernment opinion pieces; the opposite holds true in state media. A 2011 telecommunications law allocated 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.

Journalists and independent media operate in a somewhat hostile environment, and attacks continued to be reported in 2015. In June, reporter Roger Romero Cossio was beaten on the street by assailants who made references to his journalistic work. After covering a July protest in La Paz, radio journalist Juan Carlos Paco Veramendi was imprisoned for seven days without charge. Death threats against two journalists investigating police corruption in Cochabamba were reported in March.

In August, Vice President Álvaro García Linera announced the withdrawal of government financial help to media outlets that “lie” or “do party politics.” In January 2015, the National Press Association issued a statement that the Law of Life Insurance for Press Workers hurts the financial viability of media outlets and limits freedom of expression.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution. The 2009 constitution ended the Roman Catholic Church’s official status and created a secular state. The government does not restrict academic freedom. Private discussion is free from surveillance or other interference by authorities.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 9 / 12

Bolivian law provides for the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association. However, protests sometimes become violent. A criminal investigation into police abuses related to the violent dispersal of a 2011 indigenous protest against a planned highway through the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) territory was ongoing at the end of 2015. In April, charges against several suspects, including former internal affairs vice minister Marcos Farfan, were dropped. In June, President Morales affirmed that the highway would be built. Two statutes have been criticized for allowing the government to dissolve nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In June 2015, President Morales threatened to expel any NGO from the country that obstructs the exploration of natural resources.

Labor and peasant unions are an active force in society and wield significant political influence. A 2013 law establishes regulations for workers’ cooperatives, which, among other provisions, prevent members of cooperatives dedicated to production, services, and public services from joining a union in that cooperative. Critics have pointed out that this rule violates the right to association.


F. Rule of Law: 6 / 16

The judicial system has faced ongoing systemic challenges in recent years. Judicial elections were held in 2011 to remedy a crisis in the judicial branch, which had been plagued by resignations, corruption charges, 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. In 2012, a total of 56 new high-court judges took office, making Bolivia the first country in Latin America to swear in elected judges to its highest tribunals.

In January 2015, the Senate dismissed Constitutional Tribunal judge Soraida Chánez Chiré from her post for malfeasance and breach of duties in her 2014 ruling to prevent a law on public notaries from coming into force. The decision was under appeal as of year’s end.

Bolivian courts face a daunting caseload, though there have been some improvements in recent years. Official statistics reveal that more than 50 percent of judicial cases remained pending as of the end of each year from 2006 and 2013. Prosecutorial independence is viewed as weak. An investigation that began in March 2015 resulted in the June dismissal of 20 prosecutors in La Paz over allegations that they engaged in irregular practices.

In February 2015, Ignacio Villa Vargas, known as “El Viejo,” was sentenced to eight years in prison in an abbreviated trial. He pleaded guilty to terrorism charges connected to an alleged 2008 plot to murder president Morales. Some observers claimed that such fast-track trials push innocent people to plead guilty in exchange for shorter court time and lesser sentences.

In June 2015, after Police General Rosario Chávez denounced cases of corruption regarding promotions for officers, she was demoted to a lower rank. In response to a 2014 incident in which low-ranking military officers demanded the banning of discrimination in the armed forces, the government dismissed 702 officers, three of whom were arrested and remained in military prison for more than a year. By June 2015, all three had been granted house arrest while they await their trials.

Bolivian prisons are overcrowded, and conditions for prisoners are extremely poor. An increase in urban crime rates and a 1988 law that substantially lengthened prison sentences for drug-related crimes have contributed to prison overcrowding. In April 2015, Pastoral Penitenciaria Caritas reported that 85 percent of inmates in prison had not received a final sentence and that overcrowding had escalated to 350 percent of capacity. A pardon system issued in 2013 to address overcrowding authorized applications for release by various categories of prisoners, including women with children. In July 2015, another new pardon program was approved to allow releases on humanitarian grounds. Assaults in prisons continue to pose a significant problem.

While the constitution and jurisdictional law recognize indigenous customary law on conflict resolution, reform efforts have not fully resolved questions regarding its jurisdiction and proper application. This lack of clarity has allowed some perpetrators of vigilante crimes, including lynching, to misrepresent their actions as a form of indigenous justice.

In general, racism is rife in the country, especially against indigenous groups. The 2010 antiracism law contains measures to combat discrimination and impose criminal penalties for discriminatory acts. Bolivia has laws in place that prohibit discrimination against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people. However, these laws are rarely enforced, and members of the LGBT community suffer widespread societal discrimination. Transgender individuals by law can change their name and gender identity on government forms, but judicial discrimination makes the process very difficult. Various LGBT organizations reported that only seven people have been able to successfully change their name or gender identity since 2007. Additionally, no laws condemn hate crimes against LGBT people. A study conducted by the Bolivian Coalition of LGBT Organizations (COALIBOL) in 2014 found that 93 percent of LGBT people have faced some form of discrimination from public officials, particularly police officers and civil service workers. Transgender people often resort to sex work due to employment discrimination and rejection of their credentials.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 10 / 16

While the law protects freedom of movement, protesters often disrupt internal travel by blocking highways and city streets. 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.

Two controversial Supreme Decrees in 2015 threaten the right to prior consultation in cases of natural resource extraction, which is established in international legal provisions recognized by Bolivian law. In March, the government enacted Supreme Decree 2298, which establishes a 45-day limit on prior consultations regarding hydrocarbon activities and allows for the subsequent approval of land exploitation, even if the indigenous peoples involved did not participate. Supreme Decree 2366, issued in May, allows for oil and gas extraction in national parks provided that companies contribute 1 percent of their investments to poverty reduction and helping to prevent negative environmental consequences. Opposition leaders and human rights organizations have criticized the decrees. In August, the Ombudsman filed a request to review their constitutionality.

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, but it reserves marriage as a bond between a man and a woman, and makes no provision for same-sex civil unions.

The 2014 general elections were the first in which half of the candidates were women. As a result, 47 percent of senators and 53 percent of deputies are women. Nevertheless, the justice system does not effectively safeguard women’s broader legal rights. A 2014 law increased the penalties for rape and abuse, and included the recognition of spousal rape; created a specialized police force for crimes against women; and categorized violence against women as a public health issue. More than half of Bolivian women are believed to suffer from domestic violence at some point during their lives. A 2012 law is intended to protect women from harassment and political violence; however, according to the Asociación de Concejalas de Bolivia, only 13 out of the 272 cases reported between 2010 and 2014 were resolved. The lack of enforcement and allocation of resources for the implementation of legislation protecting women was a concern raised during Bolivia’s UN Universal Periodic Review.

Child labor and forced labor are ongoing problems. A law approved in 2014 allows children aged 12 to 14 to enter work contracts as long as they do not work for longer than six hours a day. Children as young as 10 are permitted to work in independent jobs such as shoe shining as long as they are under parental supervision. Human rights organizations and the International Labor Organization have condemned the law.

Trafficking in Bolivia is mainly for forced labor. A 2012 antitrafficking law is poorly enforced. 


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

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