Bolivia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Bolivia

Bolivia

Partly Free
67/100
Overview: 

Bolivia is a democracy where credible elections are held regularly. However, child labor and violence against women are persistent problems, independent and investigative journalists face harassment, and demonstrations and political movements are at times marred by violence. A 2017 ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal cleared the way for President Evo Morales, head of the ruling Movement toward Socialism (MAS) to run for a fourth term in 2019. The decision overturned the result of a 2016 referendum in which a majority of voters had indicated a desire to retain presidential term limits.

Key Developments: 

Key Developments in 2018:

  • In December, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) confirmed the 2017 ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal, which struck down presidential limits, allowing President Morales to seek a fourth term in 2019. Demonstrations by both Morales supporters and opponents followed, including an anti-Morales protest in Santa Cruz at which the regional TSE building was burned down.
  • Earlier, in September, the MAS-dominated legislature passed a law on political organizations, which aims to promote internal party democracy and transparency, but which the opposition said disadvantaged them by effectively mandating that opposition coalitions be formalized long before presidential elections.
  • Confrontations between coca farmers and Bolivian authorities regarding regional limits on coca production continued during the year, resulting in the death of a police officer and two coca producers in separate incidents in August.
  • In February, the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that a section of a 2014 law that allowed children as young as 10 to work was unconstitutional. However, child labor remained a serious problem that drew international scrutiny during the year.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

POLITICAL RIGHTS: 28 / 40

A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 10 / 12

A1.      Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

Bolivia’s president is both chief of state and head of government, and is directly elected to a five-year term. In the 2014 general elections, Evo Morales of MAS was reelected president with 61 percent of the vote. An Organization of American States (OAS) electoral observation mission stated that the election reflected the will of the people. A 2017 Constitutional Tribunal ruling, confirmed by the TSE in December 2018, permits Morales to run for a fourth term; the controversial rulings followed the failure of a 2016 referendum on extending term limits.

In 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, El Alto, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz,

Bolivia’s four largest cities. An OAS electoral observation mission reported overwhelming citizen participation in the elections, but expressed concern about last-minute disqualifications and substitutions of candidates, which occurred after the ballots had been printed.

A2.      Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

The Plurinational Legislative Assembly (ALP) consists of a 130-member Chamber of Deputies and a 36-member Senate. Legislative terms are five years. All senators and 53 deputies are elected by proportional representation; 70 deputies are elected in individual districts through a majoritarian system. Seven seats in the Chamber of Deputies are reserved for indigenous representatives. In the 2014 legislative elections, Morales’s MAS maintained a two-thirds majority in the legislature, the share necessary to select the members of the TSE, preselect upper-level judiciary candidates, and pass constitutional reforms.

A3.      Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 2 / 4

For some years, Bolivian politics have been characterized by efforts by Morales and the MAS to abolish presidential term limits. In 2015, the ALP voted to amend the constitution in order to allow presidents to run for three consecutive terms instead of two, but voters rejected the change in a 2016 referendum. However, in 2017, MAS lawmakers filed a suit asking the Constitutional Tribunal to declare that certain legal provisions and articles in the constitution that ban reelection were unconstitutional and “inapplicable.” (While Constitutional Tribunal justices are elected by voters, judicial candidates are preselected by the MAS-dominated legislature, and the Tribunal tends to favor the MAS.) In 2017, the court assented, effectively overturning the results of the previous year’s referendum and clearing the way for Morales to run for a fourth term in 2019. In December 2018, the TSE confirmed the 2017 Constitutional Tribunal ruling when it approved President Morales’s candidacy for the 2019 election.

B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 11 / 16

B1.      Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 3 / 4

Citizens have the right to organize political parties. Since Morales’s election to the presidency 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.

In September 2018, the MAS-dominated ALP passed the Political Organizations Law, which aims to promote internal party democracy and transparency by increasing party financing regulations and establishing primary elections through which party groupings will decide their presidential and vice presidential candidates. However, opposition leaders claimed that the provision requiring intraparty primaries hampers the ability of opposition parties to form coalitions to challenge the MAS, by effectively mandating that coalitions be formalized long before presidential elections take place. Under the law, coalitions must be formally declared 75 days before the intraparty primaries are held.

B2.      Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 2 / 4

There are no formal institutional barriers impeding opposition parties from participating in elections. However, the overwhelming dominance of the MAS makes it difficult for opposition parties to gain power through elections.

B3.      Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4

People are generally free to make political decisions without undue influence from the military, foreign powers, or other influential groups. However, opposition members claimed that November 2017 rallies held in favor of Morales’s reelection were filled with public employees coerced by their employers to attend.

B4.      Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4

The constitution recognizes 36 indigenous nationalities, declares Bolivia a plurinational state, and formalizes political autonomy within indigenous territories. Adult citizens enjoy universal and equal suffrage. Although they are well represented in government, the interests of indigenous groups are often overlooked by politicians.

Formally, Bolivia has progressive legislation that guarantees equal political representation for women and seeks to protect women from political violence. Moreover, the 2018 Political Organizations Law requires the equal participation of women and men in political party organization and decision-making. However, despite being well-represented in politics, sexism and patriarchal attitudes undermine the work of women politicians, and cases of violence and harassment against them continue, particularly at local levels.

Judicial elections originally scheduled for 2017 were postponed for several weeks due to concerns that not enough women and indigenous candidates were registered in some regions of the country.

C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 7 / 12

C1.      Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3 / 4

Elected officials are free to set and implement government policy without undue interference from nonstate actors. However, opposition members charge that the MAS majority in the legislature, in conjunction with the country’s powerful presidency, allows for strong executive influence on legislative processes.

C2.      Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4

Anticorruption laws are poorly enforced, and corruption affects a range of government entities and economic sectors, including law enforcement bodies and extractive industries. Public procurement processes are frequently compromised by bribery.

Reports that surfaced in April 2018 implicated three Bolivian officials in a corruption scheme involving bribes paid by a Brazilian company, Camargo Corrêa, that had been contracted for road construction projects. Morales announced a special commission to investigate the claims, but opposition lawmakers refused to participate in it, objecting to its limited scope: the probe looked only at a limited number of contracts awarded before Morales took office.

C3.      Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2 / 4

Bolivia has no law guaranteeing access to public information. Elected officials by law must make asset declarations, but these are unavailable to the public.

CIVIL LIBERTIES: 39 / 60

D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 14 / 16

D1.      Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4

While the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, in practice, journalists frequently encounter harassment in connection with critical or investigative reporting. Such harassment at times comes from government officials, who have characterized journalists as liars and participants in an international conspiracy against Morales. In October 2018, security guards blocked a number of journalists from attending an event marking the opening of the country’s new presidential residence, and beat two women journalists who protested. In a separate incident, a journalist was detained in a courtroom and intimidated by a judge and courtroom staff, who attempted to coerce her to delete photographs from her mobile phone.

In January, Bolivian journalists condemned sections of the new penal code they said could allow criminal defamation proceedings. In August, President Morales floated the idea of passing a law against lies, applicable to media outlets (as well as public authorities). Separately, in November, the National Press Association of Bolivia (ANP) expressed concern about reports of police surveillance of journalists’ online activity.

Media outlets with editorial positions perceived as hostile by the Morales administration are denied access to public advertising contracts.

D2.      Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution and generally upheld in practice. The 2009 constitution ended the Roman Catholic Church’s official status, and created a secular state.

D3.      Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4

Academic freedom is legally guaranteed and upheld in practice.

D4.      Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4

Private discussion is robust and generally free from interference or surveillance. However, since the 2016 referendum on term limits, some MAS legislators have discussed introducing regulations for social media outlets that would prohibit anonymous users, and allow for sanctions against those who insult public officials. In September 2018, two legislators praised Morales’s call for a law against lies, and proposed that the legislation include speech on social media.

E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 9 / 12

E1.      Is there freedom of assembly? 3 / 4

Bolivian law protects the right to peaceful assembly. However, protests are sometimes marred by clashes between demonstrators and police, or other violence. In December 2018, the TSE building in Santa Cruz was burned down during an antigovernment demonstration that erupted after the TSE confirmed Morales’s candidacy in the upcoming presidential election. Instances of violence have accompanied an ongoing protest movement led by coca producers who say regional ceilings on coca cultivation have harmed their livelihoods.

E2.      Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 3 / 4

Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate, but they are subject to some legal restrictions. In 2016, the Constitutional Court dismissed a petition arguing that two statutes in the country’s NGO law gave the government license to improperly dissolve such groups. Government officials have at times smeared rights groups as antigovernment conspirators.

In August 2018, a delegation from the International Rights of Nature Tribunal was denied permission to enter the Indigenous Territory and National Park of Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS), where they were to have met local leaders to discuss a controversial, government-backed highway construction project.

E3.      Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4

Labor and peasant unions are an active force in society and wield significant political influence.

The country’s official labor code is inconsistent with Bolivian law; for example, it prohibits public sector unions, yet many public workers are able to legally unionize. A National Labor Court hears cases of antiunion discrimination, but tends to hand down verdicts slowly, and penalties for antiunion discrimination are not consistently applied.

F. RULE OF LAW: 6 / 16

F1.       Is there an independent judiciary? 1 / 4

Bolivia stands as the sole country that appoints justices via popular elections. Judges on the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Tribunal, and other entities are nominated through a two-thirds vote in the legislature, which allows the MAS to dominate the candidate selection process and has produced a judiciary that favors the party. In addition to its politicization, the judiciary remains overburdened and beset by corruption.

In 2017, shortly after the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that Morales could run for another term in 2019, elections were held to fill positions for 26 judges on four high courts. A majority of participating voters heeded the opposition’s calls to spoil their ballots. Prior to the polls, opposition figures argued that MAS legislators had coordinated their votes on judicial candidates improperly, and that the candidates were selected through opaque processes. There were also complaints brought to electoral authorities that some candidates had violated the prohibition on campaigning.

F2.       Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4

Many people have difficulty accessing the justice system due to a lack of the relevant offices in the areas where they live, and also because services, where provided, are often insufficient. Police are poorly paid and receive inadequate training, and corruption within the police force remains a problem. Police officers who attempted to expose corruption often face repercussions.

While the constitution and jurisdictional law recognize indigenous customary law on conflict resolution, reform efforts have not fully resolved questions regarding the territorial, personal, and material reach of its jurisdiction and proper application.

F3.       Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4

Several pardon programs enacted in recent years, as well as fast-track trial procedures, have eased severe prison overcrowding, 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. Assaults in prisons continue to pose a significant problem.

Impunity for crimes has prompted some to engage in vigilante justice against alleged criminals, including lynchings.

Confrontations between coca farmers and Bolivian authorities regarding regional limits on coca production continued during the year, resulting in the death of a police officer and two coca producers in separate incidents in August.

F4.       Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4

The 2010 antiracism law contains measures to combat discrimination and impose criminal penalties for discriminatory acts. However, racism and associated discrimination is rife in the country, especially against indigenous groups.

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. Many transgender people have resorted to sex work in dangerous conditions due to employment discrimination and groundless rejection of their credentials.

G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 10 / 16

G1.      Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4

There are no formal limits on people’s ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education, but choices can be limited by socioeconomic difficulties. Roads are occasionally blockaded as part of protest actions, impeding free movement.

G2.      Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4

Women enjoy the same formal rights to property ownership as men but discrimination is common, leading to disparities in property ownership and access to resources.

The rights of indigenous people to prior consultation in cases of natural resource extraction and land development are not fully upheld by law or in practice. Some groups argue that a highway development project in TIPNIS Morales formally revived in 2017 is moving forward in violation of this right.

G3.      Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4

The constitution reserves marriage as a bond between a man and a woman, and makes no provision for same-sex civil unions. In 2017, the TSE determined that transgender people who have legally changed their gender on their identification documents may marry.

Domestic violence, which mainly affects women, is a serious problem, and laws criminalizing violence against women are not well enforced. Many women lack access to birth control and reproductive health care.

G4.      Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4

Bolivia is a source country for the trafficking of men, women, and children for forced labor and prostitution, and the country faced increased international criticism over child labor in 2018. In February 2018, the Constitutional Tribunal voided a section of a 2014 law that allowed children as young as 10 to work certain jobs. However, hundreds of thousands of children are still working in Bolivia’s mines, and ranches, and in other sectors. In July, the United States downgraded Bolivia to its lowest “Tier 3” category in its annual Trafficking in Persons report, and announced cuts in aid over the issue in December.