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Bolivia is a democracy where credible elections are held regularly. However, respect for freedom of expression and the rights of indigenous peoples and women remain issues, as does corruption, particularly within the judicial system.
- In February, voters rejected a referendum that would have permitted President Evo Morales to run for a fourth term.
- Despite the referendum’s defeat, Morales’s Movement for Socialism (MAS) voted in December to approve him as its candidate for the 2019 presidential election.
- In August, Vice Minister of Interior Rodolfo Illanes was kidnapped and murdered by protesting miners.
In February 2016, voters rejected a referendum that would have permitted Morales to run for a fourth term, in what was seen as a major defeat for the president. Nevertheless, in December, the MAS voted to approve Morales as its candidate for the presidential election set for 2019, and signaled that it might undertake legal reforms order to permit him to do so.
Bolivia has a vibrant civil society, but occasional outbursts of violence at demonstrations remain a concern. In August 2016, Vice Minister of the Interior Rodolfo Illanes was abducted while traveling to speak with a group of miners who were protesting environmental and labor regulations. The government announced later that he had been killed.
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.
In the 2014 general elections, Morales was reelected president with 61 percent of the vote. Samuel Doria Medina of the Democratic Union Front (UD) obtained 24 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.
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 2015, new members of the tribunal were elected with the support of the MAS majority in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly.
Presidential term limits are the subject of controversy. 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 2015, the Plurinational Legislative Assembly voted to amend the constitution in order to allow presidents to run for three consecutive terms instead of two. In February 2016, a referendum to ratify the decision took place. Official results, released after an unusually slow vote-count process, revealed that 51.3 percent of voters had rejected the amendment, with about 88 percent of eligible voters participating in the poll. The OAS electoral observation mission applauded the high turnout, but noted unequal access to the media and acts of vandalism in Santa Cruz that prompted officials to reschedule voting at 24 polling stations.
Citizens have the right to organize political parties. Since Morales’s election in 2005, the formerly dominant parties have all but collapsed, giving way to a series of new political groupings and short-lived opposition coalitions. The MAS draws support from a diverse range of social movements, unions, and civil society actors.
Opposition politicians have claimed that the Morales administration persecutes them through the judiciary, and have recently claimed that only opposition leaders were prosecuted in connection with a scandal involving irregularities in the country’s Indigenous Fund. According to a report by New Democracy, a Bolivian rights organization, there were 75 cases of politically motivated judicial cases in the first six months of 2016.
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. Although they are well represented in government, the interests of indigenous groups are often overlooked by politicians.
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 Jorge Quiroga for approving hydrocarbon contracts alleged to have contravened national interests. In February 2016, the U.S. government accepted an extradition request for Sánchez de Lozada, who is also facing genocide charges in Bolivia for his role in the killing of dozens of indigenous protesters in 2003. In February, Gabriela Zapata—a former manager of the Chinese company CAMC who at one point had been in a romantic relationship with Morales—was imprisoned on corruption charges linking CAMC with contracts with state institutions.
Bolivia has no law guaranteeing access to public information, but a Transparency and Access to Public Information bill was under consideration at the end of 2016. The bill has drawn criticism from transparency advocates for allowing government agencies to establish exceptions on what information would be publicly available.
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 opinion pieces that favor the opposition; 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 frequently encounter harassment in connection with critical or investigative reporting, including from public officials. In March 2016, Minister of the Presidency Juan Ramon Quintana threatened that media outlets that that disseminated false information would be closed. In June, the Bolivian National Press Association denounced before the United Nations threats against Bolivian journalists by government officials, noting among other incidents a threat by vice president Alvaro García Linera to imprison reporters for purportedly conspiring against Morales.
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. The government is not known to restrict or monitor the internet.
Bolivian law provides for the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association. However, protests sometimes become violent. In May 2016, several people involved with a sustained protest aimed at increasing government disability stipends were attacked while traveling to La Paz to meet with officials. Police reportedly employed an irritant spray against similar protests in April and again in June. At least two protesters were killed in August amid unclear circumstances as demonstrating miners clashed with police.
In July 2016, the Constitutional Court dismissed a petition arguing that two statues in the country’s law on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) gave the government license to improperly dissolve such groups. In October, a coalition of NGOs filed a petition against the law with the Inter American Commission for Human Rights, though Bolivia’s minister of autonomies, Hugo Siles, noted that any decision by the body would not be binding.
Labor and peasant unions are an active force in society and wield significant political influence.
The judiciary is politicized and overburdened, and the justice system is beset by corruption. Police are poorly paid and receive inadequate training, and corruption within the police force too remains a problem. Police officers who attempted to expose corruption often face repercussions.
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, as has the frequent use of pretrial detention. Several pardon programs enacted in recent years, as well as fast-track trial procedures, have decreased the number of people in detention, though some critics contend that fast-track trials push innocent people to plead guilty in exchange for reduced sentences and less time spent in court. A 2016 report by the Ombudsman stated that 69 percent of inmates had not received a final sentence, and that prisons were filled to 302 percent of capacity. 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 late August 2016, amid a protest of mining sector workers in Panduro, a mob abducted and murdered Rodolfo Illanes, the vice minister of interior, as he was traveling to speak with the demonstrators. Five people were arrested in connection with his killing, including Carlos Mamani, president of the National Federation of Mining Cooperatives.
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 LGBT people experience 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. Additionally, no laws condemn hate crimes against LGBT people. The Bolivian Coalition of LGBT Organizations (COALIBOL) reported that six LGBT people were murdered in 2016. Transgender people often resort to sex work in dangerous conditions due to employment discrimination and groundless rejection of their credentials.
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 2015, 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 that 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, saying authorities failed to adequately consult with indigenous groups before issuing them. The Bolivian Center for Documentation and Information reported in March 2016 that related consultations with 59 communities in Amazonia were not free and informed. Observers also expressed concern after the president of the National Electricity Company in October announced that prior consultation did not apply to hydrocarbon exploitations, such as the El Bala dam project.
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 experience domestic violence at some point during their lives. A 2012 law is intended to protect women from harassment and political violence; however only 20 out of the 316 cases reported since the law’s approval have been resolved, according to an October 2016 editorial published by La Razón. The lack of enforcement and allocation of resources for the implementation of legislation protecting women continue to be a concern.