Political Rights: 3
Civil Liberties: 3
Status: Partly Free
Population: 8,900,000
GNI/Capita: $900
Life Expectancy: 64
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (95 percent), other (including Protestant [Evangelical Methodist]) (5 percent), Quechua (30 percent), Mestizo (30 percent), Aymara (25 percent), European (15 percent).
Ethnic Groups:
Capital: La Paz (administrative), Sucre (judicial)


Following demonstrations for the government to nationalize the country's oil and gas industries, Bolivia's historically marginalized indigenous groups – subsistence farmers and miners living mostly in poverty – forced President Carlos Mesa from power in June 2005. Interim president Eduardo Rodriguez Veltze, a former Supreme Court chief justice, called for presidential elections to be held on December 4, saying that he would resign if the country's constitutional tribunal postponed the elections. The hard-fought campaign was conducted amid growing regional tensions within the country and worries that, as a near-failed and poverty-stricken state, its international standing might be further eroded by the election as president of an Indian leader who pledged to launch an international campaign to legalize the coca leaf.

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 1993, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, a wealthy U.S.-educated businessman, was elected president. During his first term in office, he initiated a sweeping privatization program, and, under U.S. pressure, stepped up eradication of the country's illegal coca production. The measures provoked widespread public protests and, together with unhappiness over official corruption, caused a decline in his popularity, as well as that of his party, the center-right Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR). Former-dictator-turned-democrat Hugo Banzer Suarez succeeded Sanchez de Lozada in presidential elections in 1997, but the terminally ill Banzer resigned in 2001. He was succeeded by reformist vice president Jorge Quiroga, who finished the remaining year of Banzer's term.

No candidate in the June 2002 presidential election won a majority of the popular vote; members of the National Congress were tasked with deciding the outcome of the election. They selected Sanchez de Lozada over Evo Morales, a radical Indian leader of the country's coca growers, hailed by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez as "the greatest leader in the new history of Bolivia." Concurrent congressional elections resulted in the MNR-led coalition winning 17 seats in the Senate and 71 in the Chamber of Deputies. The opposition, dominated by Morales's Movement Toward Socialism, won 10 seats in the upper house, as well as 59 deputy seats.

The world's largest exporter of coca, in 1997 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 left without viable alternatives for their support. In 2002, Morales capitalized on the unpopularity of these policies among Bolivia's majority Indian population, who speak Spanish as a second language, use the coca leaf for traditional medicine, and have been shut out from the benefits of U.S.-backed economic reforms.

Critics claimed that an anti-coca expeditionary task force paid for by the U.S. Embassy and made up of 1,500 former Bolivian soldiers frequently accused of severe human rights abuses was itself a violation of both the Bolivian constitution and military regulations. Defenders of the force pointed out that the coca growers, who demanded respect for their own property rights, worked closely with narcotics traffickers; they claimed that the traffickers include snipers and experts in booby traps.

In 2003, Bolivian indigenous groups, workers, students, and coca growers revolted over the planned construction of a $5 billion pipeline, once heralded as Latin America's largest infrastructure development project. They protested both the transporting of Bolivian natural gas through long-time rival Chile and the sale of the gas to the United States and Mexico. The mass protests against Sanchez de Lozada were aggravated by resentment over the failure of nearly two decades of democratic reform and economic restructuring to improve the lot of the Indian majority, in a country where just 3 percent of urban homes have household gas.

Sanchez de Lozada's own cabinet had become irreparably fractured over the brutal repression practiced by the security forces, whose crackdown during the protests left some 56 people dead and followed a shootout in February between soldiers and police that killed 30. In October, the violence culminated in the forced resignation of Sanchez de Lozada, who fled to Miami. Vice President Carlos Mesa, a nonpartisan former media personality and historian, assumed office and immediately appointed a cabinet that had no representative from the country's traditional parties, but included two indigenous Indian members.

On July 18, 2004, Mesa, in need of shoring up his fragile political base, prevailed overwhelmingly in a national referendum that had split the country between its Indian majority and European-descended elites. The vote, which posed five questions about the disposition of the country's oil and gas reserves – Bolivia's most important legal economic asset – permitted natural gas exports while exerting greater control over the oil and gas industries. It revived the state-owned oil and gas company, raised taxes on exports from as low as 18 percent to 50 percent, and revised previous hydrocarbons legislation.

The outcome of the referendum, which was hailed by some as a step towards greater political stability, appeared to weaken the energy sector, dampening foreign capital investment through strong state controls and higher taxes and sending Bolivia's neighbors scrambling for more stable energy sources. A dispute between Mesa and the Congress over how to implement the referendum brought opposition charges that he was exercising dictatorial powers. An Indian-led coalition vociferously pressed for full nationalization of the oil and gas sectors, as well as for full participation in rewriting the constitution, in which the country's multicultural character would be recognized. Meanwhile, the fairer-skinned people living in the energy-rich eastern lowlands pressed their own campaign for regional autonomy, including greater local control over natural gas fields concentrated in their region. Mesa's short-term victory turned into a rout, as social and political protests – some tinged with racist incidents – again spiked upward, with no relief in sight; Mesa was subsequently forced from power in June 2005.

Eduardo Rodriguez Veltze assumed the presidency after fierce negotiations with opposition groups and the likelihood of mass resistance leading to bloodshed caused those next in line for the presidency – the leaders of both houses of Congress – to decline the office in favor of the less controversial Supreme Court leader. Veltze, who called for presidential elections to be held on December 4, announced that he would resign if the country's constitutional tribunal postponed the vote. In the 2005 contest, Morales appeared to momentarily back away from demands that the energy sector be fully nationalized, only to scramble back to a maximalist position under pressure from his political allies. Meanwhile, the armed forces pledged to resist coup mongering and to "cooperate with the persistence of the democratic system."

Bolivia remains a hemisphere leader in unequal distribution of wealth, with estimates about the number of people living in poverty ranging from 70 to 80 percent. Crime in La Paz and other major cities is increasing steadily, and the national police, a decade earlier the object of an ambitious but truncated U.S. Justice Department reform effort, are considered to be both inefficient and corrupt.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Bolivia can change their government democratically. The 2002 presidential 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 reforms that were enacted in 1993-1994 and took effect in 1997, presidential terms in office were extended from four to five years. The National Congress consists of a 130-member House of Representatives and a 27-member Senate.

In 2005, a raft of political party desertions led political figures to new political groupings in order to run for regional offices. As a consequence, the lowest number of parties for a presidential election in recent decades has entered the December 4 presidential contest. The national electoral council regulates the transmission of advertising by political candidates and parties in the mass media, placing limits on their frequency and duration. Three of the seven presidential candidates are also relative newcomers to national politics. Because there appeared to be little possibility that a clear winner would emerge in the presidential contest, and because Bolivia's electoral law does not provide for runoff elections, it seemed likely that the final choice would be made as in times past by the Congress.

Bolivians have the right to organize political parties. The principal traditional parties are the conservative Nationalist Democratic Action (ADN), the social-democratic Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), and Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada's center-right MNR. In 2002, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) and the Pachakuti Indigenous 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. Bolivia was ranked 117 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Although the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, the media are subject to some limitations in practice. In the recent past, journalists covering corruption stories have occasionally been subjected to verbal intimidation by government officials, arbitrary detention by police, and violent attacks. However, in its 2005 country report, the Inter American Press Association noted that reporters and the media could freely report on events notwithstanding the seriousness of the conflict, and that there were no reported complaints by press associations. The press, radio, and television are mostly private, and the government does not restrict access to the internet.

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

Bolivian law provides for the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, although the security forces have killed several people during recent violent social protests. 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 government requires nongovernmental organizations to register with the appropriate departmental government, although the rule is only episodically enforced. The right to organize labor unions is guaranteed by the constitution.

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 has made serious efforts to improve the administration of justice, including making it more accessible. However, the selection of Supreme Court judges and members of the Judicial Council by a two-thirds vote of the National Congress – a measure adopted to prevent the majority party from filling all vacancies – has instead resulted in a political quota system that also violates the principles of independence and impartiality. In 2004, the process of judicial appointment was broadened to include allowing citizens to have access to the professional and academic backgrounds of the nominees, with the objective of strengthening the judicial branch and avoiding "party quota" distortions.

Although a new Code of Criminal Procedure recognized the conflict resolution traditions of indigenous communities, efforts to reform the judiciary have not included meaningful efforts to codify and incorporate customary law into national legislation, at least for minor crimes, as a means of reaching out to the indigenous majority. The lack of a codified system resulted in recent years in more than two dozen acts of "communal justice" – lynching – in violation of international human rights norms. 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.

In the 2001 census, approximately 62 percent of the population over 15 years of age identified themselves as indigenous, primarily from the Quechua and Aymara groups. 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 in wages. 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.

The law provides for freedom of movement within the country, and the government generally respected this right in practice. However, protesters blocked major highways at various times at different locations throughout the country, causing an estimated $100 million in economic losses in 2005.

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. Child prostitution is a problem, particularly in urban areas and in the Chapare region, as is child labor. Homosexuals are viewed as undesirables that are outside society's normal moral code. The Bolivian penal code is silent on the issue of homosexuality, but homosexuals are not free from illicit actions, including beatings and extortion, by police officers operating largely outside of the law.

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