Political Rights: 3
Civil Liberties: 3
Status: Free
Population: 8,600,000
GNI/Capita: $950
Life Expectancy: 63
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (95 percent), other [including Protestant (Evangelical Methodist)] (5 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Quechua (30 percent), Mestizo (30 percent), Aymara (25 percent), European (15 percent)
Capital: La Paz (administrative), Sucre (judicial)

Ratings Change
Bolivia's political rights rating declined from 2 to 3, and its status from Free to Partly Free, due to the removal of an elected president through street protests, continued increases in influence of drug money in politics and political corruption, and security force violence.


In office for little more than a year, President Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada tendered his resignation in October 2003 following a month of protests and road blockages by Bolivia's indigenous groups. The mass demonstrations over a planned energy project and natural gas sales stemmed from the failure of the country's economic and democratic reforms to improve the lives of the country's majority Indian population. Sanchez de Losada, who fled to Miami, was succeeded in office by Vice President Carlos Mesa.

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, have stayed in their barracks since 1982.

In the midst of growing social unrest and a continuing economic downturn, in 2002 the Bolivian congress elected Sanchez de Losada, a 72-year-old U.S.-educated millionaire, after he had barely defeated Evo Morales, a radical Indian leader of the country's coca growers and a frequent traveler to Libya, in the popular vote. Sanchez de Losada's selection temporarily eased fears that the country would be converted into a narco-socialist state.

In 1997, as the world's largest exporter of coca, Bolivia produced 270 metric tons of the leaf used to make cocaine. By 2002, U.S.-sponsored antidrug efforts had resulted in that figure dropping to 20 metric tons. However, not only did the country lose an estimated $500 million in revenues from the sales of the leaf, more than 50,000 coca growers and their families were also left without viable alternatives. Morales's showing in the 2002 polls was evidence of how unpopular these policies are among the country's majority Indian population, who use the coca leaf for traditional medicine and who have been shut out from the benefits of U.S.-backed economic reforms.

An anti-coca expeditionary task force paid for by the U.S. Embassy and made up of 1,500 former Bolivian soldiers has been the subject of frequent charges of the use of excessive force and human rights violations ranging from torture to murder. Critics say that the creation of a military force paid for by foreign funds violates both the Bolivian constitution and military regulations. Defenders of the force point out that the coca growers, who demand respect for their own property rights, work closely with narcotics traffickers and claim that the traffickers include snipers and experts in booby traps.

In October 2003, President Sanchez de Losada was forced to resign following a revolt by Bolivian indigenous groups, workers, and students over the planned construction of a $5 billion pipeline, once heralded as Latin America's largest infrastructure development project, and the sale of natural gas supplies through long-time rival Chile to the United States and Mexico. The mass protests against Sanchez de Losada, who privatized state-run businesses and carried out other free-market reforms during his first, corruption-plagued term in office (1993-1997), were fueled by resentment over the failure of nearly two decades of democratic reform and economic restructuring to improve the lot of Bolivia's Indian majority, who speak Spanish as a second language. Per capita income of $930 is the lowest in the Spanish-speaking Americas, and rural poverty and infant mortality compare to sub-Saharan Africa's.

The straw that broke the back of the ruling coalition was dissent in Sanchez de Losada's own cabinet over the brutal repression practiced by the security forces, whose use of large-caliber combat ammunition appeared excessive. The crackdown left some 80 people dead in the days running up to Sanchez de Losada's ouster, and came after a bloody shoot-out in February between soldiers and police that killed 30. As Sanchez de Losada fled to Miami, Vice President Carlos Mesa, a nonpartisan former media personality, assumed office. He immediately appointed a cabinet that has no representative from the country's traditional parties, but includes two indigenous Indian members.

Bolivia remains a hemisphere leader in unequal distribution of wealth, with about 80 percent of its people living in poverty. Official statistics put unemployment at 12 percent. Crime in La Paz and other major cities is increasing steadily, and the national police are considered to be both inefficient and corrupt. Riots protesting tax reforms were joined by striking police in February, pitting the police against their long-time rivals, the military, which was called in to restore order. Despite taking extraordinary measures designed to bring about reconciliation, Mesa appeared in a race against time, all the more so after peasant leader Felipe Quispe announced he was willing to see a civil war take place in order to gain power.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens can change their government through elections, and Bolivians have the right to organize political parties. The 2002 elections were generally free and fair, although U.S. government officials say they had evidence that Colombian drug lords financed some of Evo Morales's political organization. Evidence abounds that drug money has been used to buy the favor of government officials, including that of police and military personnel.

As a result of recent reforms, presidential terms run five years and congress consists of a 130-member House of Representatives and a 27-member Senate. The principal traditional parties are the conservative National Democratic Action (ADN), the social-democratic Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), and Sanchez de Losada's center-right Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR). In 2002, the Socialist Movement (MAS) and the Pachacutti Indian Movement (MIP) gained significant electoral support as well.

The broad immunity from prosecution enjoyed by legislators is a serious stumbling block in the fight against official corruption. The military justice system generally is susceptible to senior-level influence and corruption and has avoided rulings that would embarrass the military.

Although the constitution guarantees free expression, freedom of speech is subject to some limitations. Journalists covering corruption stories are occasionally subject to verbal intimidation by government officials, arbitrary detention by police, and violent attacks. During 2003, reporters suffered physical assaults both from protestors and from law enforcement officers. The press, radio, and television are mostly private.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution. The government does not restrict academic freedom, and the law grants public universities autonomous status.

The right to organize civic groups and labor unions is guaranteed by the constitution. Government-sponsored as well as independent human rights organizations exist, and they frequently report on security force brutality. The congressional Human Rights Commission is active and frequently criticizes the government. However, rights activists and their families are subject to intimidation.

The judiciary, headed by the Supreme Court, remains the weakest branch of government and is corrupt, inefficient, and the object of intimidation by drug traffickers, as are Bolivia's mayoral, customs, and revenue offices. In recent years, the government made serious efforts to improve the administration of justice, including making it more accessible. However, it has not included meaningful efforts to codify and incorporate customary law into national legislation, at least for nonmajor crimes, as a means of reaching out to the indigenous majority. Prison conditions are harsh, with some 5,500 prisoners held in facilities designed to hold half that number, and nearly three-quarters of prisoners are held without formal sentences.

More than 520 indigenous communities have been granted legal recognition under the 1994 Popular Participation Law, which guarantees respect for the integrity of native peoples. The languages of the indigenous population are officially recognized. However, Indian territories are often neither legally defined nor protected, and coca growers and timber thieves exploit Indian lands illegally. Some Indians are kept as virtual slaves by rural employers through the use of debt peonage, with employers charging workers more for room and board than they earn. The observance of customary law by indigenous peoples is common in rural areas. In the remotest areas, the death penalty, forbidden by the constitution, is reportedly sometimes used against those who violate traditional laws or rules. In the 2002 presidential campaign, Indian advocates demanded that the constitution be amended to explicitly grant them greater participation in government and clearer land rights.

Violence against women is pervasive; however, no system exists to record the incidence of cases, and rape is a serious but underreported problem. Women generally do not enjoy a social status equal to that of men. Many women do not know their legal rights.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.