U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Bolivia

  Bolivia is a multiparty democracy with an elected president and bicameral legislature. National and municipal elections held in 1993 were considered among the most honest and open in Bolivia's history. Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and Victor Hugo Cardenas were sworn in as President and Vice President in a peaceful transition August 6. The executive, legislative, and judicial powers are separate. The police and the armed forces are responsible to and controlled by the civilian Government, but there were incidents of human rights abuses by security forces in 1993. Bolivia, although rich in minerals and hydrocarbons (petroleum and natural gas), has a per capita gross domestic product of only $920. About 55 per cent of its inhabitants live below the poverty line. The Government emphasized debt reduction, export development, foreign investment, privatization, and a freer banking system to strengthen the economic base and accelerate development. The informal economy, including the smuggling of contraband across the country's extensive and porous borders, has been tolerated by the Government because it provides primary or secondary employment to many Bolivians and reduces the need to deal with the social and political ramifications of large numbers of unemployed. The economy was expected to grow about 4 percent in 1993. Human rights abuses in 1993 included instances of mistreatment of detainees and prisoners (generally with impunity or leniency for the perpetrators), substandard prison conditions, an overburdened and often corrupt judicial system, prolonged incarceration of pretrial detainees, discrimination against women and indigenous people, and poor working conditions in many mines. Bolivia is waging an extensive counternarcotics effort against well-entrenched and violent foreign and domestic drug traffickers. Government efforts to stem the flow of narcotics resulted in some police abuses, including robberies and narcotics-related corruption.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no known political killings in 1993, but the police were responsible for at least one extrajudicial killing. In this instance, police beat to death a minor in Oruro; the officers involved were convicted of misconduct. Former dictator General Luis Garcia Meza's 7-year trial in absentia for human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and other crimes, ended when the Supreme Court sentenced him in April to 30 years in prison, the maximum sentence under Bolivian law. Also sentenced were approximately 50 codefendants, including former Interior Secretary Luis Arce Gomez and members of paramilitary groups active in 1980-81. Garcia Meza remains a fugitive; the new Government promised to make his apprehension a priority.

b. Disappearance

There were no known politically motivated disappearances during 1993.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits torture. Still, there were occasional reports that police officers and prison personnel treated in a cruel and degrading manner detainees and prisoners, including minors. In more serious cases, including those involving minors, security personnel were rarely tried and punished for such acts. The previously mentioned beating death is a case in point. The La Paz police mistreatment of another minor resulted in severe injuries to his hands. The police involved were tried and punished for misconduct. A former president of the Congressional Human Rights Committee alleged that one detainee, who denounced mistreatment, faced retribution; the detainee was subsequently sentenced to over 10 years in prison on false charges. In Yacuiba, a policeman raped a minor while she was illegally detained. Charges were brought against the policeman; an internal police investigation found him guilty. He was dismissed and can be tried in a civilian court. However, police Colonel Luis Mealla Echazu, who attempted to cover up the crime, received only a reduction of his seniority by 1 year, a measure insufficient to convince most Bolivian observers that justice had been done. Conditions in Bolivian jails are substandard, except for some drug traffickers and terrorists, who pay for and receive special treatment. Poorer Bolivians endure overcrowding, malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, and drug and alcohol abuse in their cell blocks. Most prisoners must pay for their cells. A prisoner who cannot pay the minimal amount necessary to secure the smallest cell must become, as a practical matter, indentured to a prisoner who owns a cell. In the poorest parts of the San Pedro prison in La Paz, prisoners are housed in cells (3 by 4 by 6 feet) with no ventilation, lighting, or beds (gunny sacks are used as substitutes). The food budget amounts to $0.25 a day per prisoner. Malnutrition is commonplace, and prisoners must supplement their diet any way they can: if their families do not regularly bring food, they may work in the prison factory or sell drugs, alcohol, or other contraband. By law, children up to 6 years old may live in prison if the incarcerated parent so desires. Government authorities have sought to get children out of the prisons, but many are still there because they have nowhere else to go. There are several prison deaths every year related to malnutrition and poor medical care. In May all 1,400 inmates at San Pedro prison in La Paz staged a hunger strike to protest prison conditions, the lack of day passes, and the delay in bringing cases to trial.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution requires a court order for an arrest except in cases where the suspect is apprehended in the commission of a crime; detainees are supposed to be charged or released within 24 hours. Many detainees remain incarcerated for months, or even years, before coming to trial because of the inefficient and corrupt judicial system. The Constitution also provides for a judicial determination of the legality of detention, and prisoners are usually released if a judge rules that they have been detained illegally. After the initial detention, prisoners may consult a lawyer of their choice. Provisions for bail exist, except in certain narcotics cases, and bail is generally granted. Exile is not used as a punishment.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitutional right to a fair public trial is adhered to in most respects. Delays commonly result in protracted judicial procedures lasting 3 to 4 years without sentencing; 78 percent of the prison population was unsentenced in 1993. Investigation, trial, and appeal procedures are so protracted that many prisoners eventually serve more time than the maximum sentence for the crime for which they were charged. At no level of the judicial system do judges abide by timetables prescribed by the omnibus counternarcotics Law 1008, which does not allow bail or provisional liberty for those held on narcotics charges and which requires a three-stage appeal process for all cases, even where a defendant is found not guilty in the first instance. Consequently, many narcotics defendants, like other criminal defendants in Bolivia, are detained for long periods, sometimes years, before their cases are finally resolved. Illiterate defendants may, at times, be made to sign or apply their thumb print to declarations incriminating themselves without completely understanding what they are doing. Defendants have the right to an attorney, to confront witnesses, to present evidence, and to appeal a judicial decision, and these rights generally are respected in practice. The law provides for a court-appointed defense attorney at public expense when necessary, but because of shortages of funds and qualified personnel, many prisoners do not receive this benefit. Further, even when a lawyer donates his or her services, every step of the Bolivian legal procedure carries a fee. Thus, many indigent prisoners are tried and sentenced with no counsel present. Corruption and intimidation in the judicial system remain serious problems. Judges and prosecutors are poorly paid, making them susceptible to bribery. Bribing judges, including those on the Supreme Court, is common practice. Business leaders, politicians, and lawyers admit privately that special payments to Supreme Court justices and other judges are regularly required and solicited to resolve cases. In October Supreme Court president Edgar Oblitas and Justice Ernesto Poppe were accused of seeking to extort a bribe to decide the extradition case of an American citizen. At year's end, their impeachment case was before the Congress. Many of those forced to pay bribes were reluctant to testify about judicial corruption for fear of retribution by the judiciary. Corruption is also common in the national police. In April a major scandal broke over "ghost" officers on the payroll. Six police officials were suspended for their involvement in the scandal, and the chief of personnel was fired and arrested. Narcotics traffickers often bribe judicial and other officials to release suspected traffickers and their property and to purge incriminating files. In August two narcotics traffickers facing extradition to the United States apparently successfully bribed prosecutors to release them from jail.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The sanctity of the home and the privacy of citizens' lives are protected by the Constitution. However, there were credible allegations that the rural counternarcotics police (UMOPAR) engaged in robberies of peasants, rough treatment of suspects, and a showed a general lack of professionalism in the Chapare region where most of Bolivia's illegal coca is grown. In response, UMOPAR has increased the human rights component of its training.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

No legal or institutional barriers to freedom of speech and press exist in Bolivia. State-owned and private radio and television stations operate. All newspapers are privately owned and are free to express political positions without government interference. During 1993 there were three attacks on major media figures. In one incident, the home of a prominent television commentator and news director was firebombed, with limited damage and no injuries. In the second, a bomb was discovered at the gate of the home of a television station owner. In the third incident, an investigative journalist who had reported on government corruption received threatening phone calls, and a small explosive device was discovered at the gate of his home. As of the end of the year, no one had been arrested in these cases. The Government respects academic freedom. Public universities enjoy autonomous status by law; that status is respected.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The rights of peaceful assembly and association are provided for by the Constitution and are respected in practice. La Paz and other cities witnessed great numbers of demonstrations and rallies carried out by a wide variety of labor, political, and student organizations.

c. Freedom of Religion

Roman Catholicism predominates, and the Constitution recognizes it as the official religion. Catholic bishops and other Church officials receive salaries from the State, and the Government has designated the Catholic Church as the coordinator of all official public religious ceremonies. Citizens are free to practice the religion of their choice, and an estimated 400 religious groups, mostly Protestant, are active. However, there were some efforts to impede the activities of non-Catholics. Two public hospitals in La Paz posted signs prohibiting the entrance of representatives of evangelical groups, religious propaganda, or proselytizing, or any activity by a "nontraditional" (i.e., non-Catholic) religious group, including donating food to patients. The director of one hospital claimed he was under pressure from a Catholic priest to post the prohibitions. In the Santa Cruz town of Cotoca, municipal authorities passed an ordinance prohibiting the establishment of any non-Catholic church and "regulating" the activities of the non-Catholic groups that already exist in the town. In June the Education Ministry passed a resolution doubling the time students in both private and public schools must spend in Catholic education classes. Missionary groups – usually evangelical Christians – are required to register with the Foreign Ministry as nongovernmental organizations (NGO's). There is no indication that missionary groups have been treated differently from other NGO's, and no registrations have been disapproved.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

There are no restrictions on travel within Bolivia or abroad. The Government does not impede emigration and guarantees departing citizens the right to return. Citizenship is not revoked for political reasons.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Bolivia is a multiparty democracy with an elected president and an independent, bicameral legislature. Opposition groups ranging from the far left to the right function freely. National elections are held every 4 years. The June national election was free and fair, resulting in a peaceful, constitutional change of government. There were allegations of electoral fraud, particularly the misuse by the former governing party of the registration process to register its supporters disproportionately. Most electoral problems were related, however, to administrative error. Municipal elections, held in December, were open and orderly. There were no reported electoral irregularities. Suffrage is universal and obligatory. There are no legal impediments to women or members of indigenous groups voting, holding public office, or rising to leadership in the Government. Because of societal traditions, the number of women who have attained prominent positions in politics remains small. For the first time in Bolivia's history, an indigenous vice president was elected in 1993. Though indigenous groups still have little representation in the Government, the election of Aymara Victor Hugo Cardenas symbolizes the growing political power of indigenous groups and their determination that their needs not be ignored.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The Government is sensitive to the opinions of domestic and international human rights organizations and is willing to discuss human rights concerns with them. Both chambers of Congress have committees responsible for monitoring the observance of human rights. The Catholic Church, the Bolivian Permanent Human Rights Assembly (APDHB), labor organizations, and the press aggressively monitor respect for human rights. International groups also observe human rights in Bolivia and visit the country without hindrance.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status


The Constitution guarantees equal protection to all citizens regardless of gender. However, Bolivian women generally do not enjoy a social status equal to that of men. Many rural and urban poor women are unaware of their legal rights. Traditional prejudices, social conditions, and limited political influence remain major obstacles to advancement for women. Women in most cases earn less than men for similar work. It is not uncommon for young girls to be forced by their families to leave school in order to work at home or in the economy. Though there are no legal impediments to attaining jobs, women are generally accepted only in traditional jobs in the marketplace and as domestic workers. Few professional positions are filled by women. Many women and women's rights groups made credible charges that violence against women is a serious problem. Preliminary results of the National Statistical Institute (INE) study on violence against women registered formal complaints by 8,500 women in Bolivia's four largest cities from July 1992 to June 1993. Of these complaints, 74 percent were reports of domestic violence (physical, emotional, and sexual) and 26 percent described violence suffered in work, public, and social situations (psychological abuse, exploitation, kidnaping, physical violence, and sexual abuse). The study concentrated only on those crimes specifically related to gender. The researchers concluded that violence against women is seriously underreported. Women victims of violence report that police are generally unsympathetic and do not have the training to deal with crimes such as rape and domestic violence. Women are often reluctant to bring charges and thus abuses are underreported. Some legal counseling is available for female victims of violence through private organizations. The San Gabriel Foundation dealt with 337 cases of domestic abuse in the first half of 1993. The predecessor to the newly created National Organization for Women, Children, and the Family gave legal advice in over 800 cases of domestic violence in 1992.


In 1993 the Government created an agency under the Presidency, the National Organization for Women, Children and the Family, to help improve the welfare of children. However, the lack of adequate resources and pervasive poverty limit its ability to carry out its program. Although the Government is implementing a new law for the protection of minors, children work in the underground economy. Children also help in family stores and work as domestic servants. Statistics published by the Ministry of Planning's education reform team note that in rural areas, only 0.7 percent of girls and 1.4 percent of boys finish high school. In urban areas, 26 percent of girls and 31 percent of boys graduate from high school.

Indigenous People

Discrimination against and abuses of people of indigenous background continues. The Aymara- and Quechua-speaking Indian majority of the population generally remain at the lower end of the country's socioeconomic scale and are disadvantaged in terms of health, life expectancy, education, income, literacy, and employment. Lack of education, negligible advances in farming and mining methods, the inability to speak Spanish, and societal biases combine to keep indigenous groups in poverty. The civil and political rights of indigenous peoples are protected by the Government. Most demonstrations consist almost entirely of members of indigenous groups, and several "indigenous" political parties have sprung up in the past few years. National indigenous organizations, including the Single Labor Confederation of Bolivian Campesino Workers, the Indigenous Confederation of the East, Chaco, and the Amazon, and others, have proposed legislation on indigenous rights and negotiated with the Government on many issues. The 1953 agrarian reform satisfied the demands for land of most Aymara and Quechua people in the highlands and valleys. By presidential decree, Bolivia created 10 autonomous indigenous territories (all in tropical areas) with special provisions for land use. The law prohibits discrimination against indigenous people in employment. However, they are frequently paid less than the minimum wage for work performed. Indigenous construction workers, for example, are often fired before they complete 3 months' service, thus relieving the employer from the legal obligation to give severance pay and other benefits. The workers will then be rehired by the same employer, with the same process being repeated every 3 months. They are also frequently abused on the job. For example, a 12-year-old indigenous domestic servant was beaten to death by her employer in the Tarija department. A criminal case was opened against the employer. The new Government, with the involvement of its indigenous Vice President, has promised to undertake measures to remedy the social problems of poorer sectors of society.

People with Disabilities

There is no legislation specifically directed at problems of people with disabilities, though legislation on other topics includes provisions for the disabled. For example, the 1992 electoral law required special voting arrangements for blind people. The law prohibits economic discrimination against the disabled. However, the Government has not provided services and infrastructure to accommodate their needs. Societal attitudes keep most disabled Bolivians at home from an early age with the result that they are rarely integrated into society through education and employment.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Bolivian workers may establish and join organizations of their own choosing. The Labor Code requires previous authorization for the establishment of a trade union, restricts more than one union from establishing itself at a given enterprise, and allows the Government to dissolve trade unions by administrative act. However, the Government does not enforce these provisions of the law and has used none of these powers in recent history. Stemming from its key role during the 1952 revolution, the Bolivian Labor Federation (COB) has purported to represent the entire work force, and successive governments have treated it as such, although a number of workers are members of non-COB affiliated unions. Approximately one-half of workers in the formal economy belong to labor unions. In addition, some members of the informal economy, such as unlicensed street vendors, participate in labor organizations. Workers in the private sector possess and frequently exercise the right to strike. By statute, solidarity strikes are illegal, but the Government does not prosecute those responsible for such strikes nor impose other penalties. In 1992 as a result of pressure from the COB, the Labor Ministry rescinded the "trade union leave" of two union leaders because of their ties to the American Institute for Free Labor Development. The case was resolved in February when the labor court ordered the employer to reinstate the employees, and the employer complied with the order. In June government representatives informed the International Labor Organization's (ILO) conference committee that workers could declare general strikes and sympathy strikes, that many of Bolivia's legal restrictions criticized by the ILO's Committee of Experts were obsolete and not applied in practice, and that these defects would be resolved in a new general labor law. However, the new draft labor law, addressing ILO concerns, remains under review by the new Government. The only significant strikes in 1993 centered on the Government's annual negotiations (in March) with the COB regarding salaries and benefits for government employees. When the COB failed to accept the Government's "final" proposal, the Government decreed the offer would take effect immediately. The COB responded with a series of work stoppages and marches, culminating in sometimes violent confrontations with police, especially in some of the secondary cities. After a show of force, the Government returned to the bargaining table and made concessions to miners and teachers that were sufficient to obtain the COB's acceptance of the overall package. After the new Government took office in August, a general strike (political in nature) called by the COB was declared illegal, and the Government stated its intent to withhold pay from government employees who participated in the strike. In the past, the Government had not withheld pay, even when it declared strikes illegal. Subsequent negotiations apparently resulted in pay being restored to at least some of the striking government employees. Bolivian unions are not fully independent of the Government and political parties. Union officials are members of political parties which provide them a subsidy. They are also paid by their employers (in most cases a government agency or a state- owned company) while working for the union. All unions are underfinanced and depend on outside support from political parties and foreign nongovernmental organizations. The political parties all have labor committees that attempt, with some success, to influence union activity, leading to barely concealed political party battles within the ranks of labor unions. Labor laws place no restrictions on a union's right to join international labor organizations. In 1988 the COB became an affiliate of the then Soviet-dominated World Federation of Trade Unions.

b. The Right To Organize and Bargain Collectively

Bolivian workers have the legal right to organize and bargain collectively. The Labor Code, however, denies civil servants the right to organize and prohibits strikes in all public services, including banks and public markets. Nevertheless, these provisions are ignored by both the Government and employees; virtually all government workers are unionized and conduct strikes on occasion. In practice, collective bargaining, defined as voluntary direct negotiations between unions and employers without the participation of the Government, is extremely limited. Consultations between government representatives and labor leaders are common but do not result in collective bargaining agreements. In state industries, the union issues a list of demands, and the Government concedes some points. Private sector employers normally use public sector settlements as guidelines for their own adjustments, and some private sector employers offer workers more generous settlments than what the Government grants. The Government generally does not intervene in private sector labor-management relations. The law prohibits discrimination by employers against union members and organizers. Complaints are referred to the National Labor Court, which often takes a year or more to rule on a question. Labor activists say that the problem is often moot by the time the court rules. There are seven special commercial or industrial duty-free zones in Bolivia. Labor law and practice are the same in these zones as in the rest of the country.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, and the Government complied with and enforced the law. No cases of forced or compulsory labor were reported in 1993.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The law prohibits the employment of persons under 18 years of age in dangerous, unhealthy, or immoral work. Bolivia's Labor Code is ambiguous on the conditions of employment for minors aged 14 through 17, and it permits apprenticeship for children aged 12 through 14. This practice has been repeatedly criticized by ILO committees; the Government has responded that it would present legislation reforming this and other provisions of the Labor Code. The responsibility for enforcing child labor provisions resides in the Labor Ministry. Existing legal provisions concerning employment of children are enforced only in larger state and private enterprises; young children can be found on urban streets hawking goods, shining shoes, and helping transport operators, and in rural settings, including mining cooperatives, working alongside their parents from an early age. Children are not usually employed in factories or businesses. Where employed, such as assisting transport operators, minors usually work the same hours as adults. Bolivia has compulsory education through the elementary level. In practice, most urban children complete elementary education, while very few rural children do. Less than 30 percent of Bolivian children advance beyond elementary school.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Government, both by statute and presidential decree, has established a minimum wage (approximately $38 per month) and a system of bonuses and fringe benefits. A worker earning only the minimum wage would not be able to sustain a decent standard of living, let alone support a family. Workers in most occupations earn more than the minimum wage. Although the minimum wage is well below the prevailing wage in most occupations, it is significant because certain fringe benefits are pegged to it. Approximately 20 percent of the urban work force – street vendors, shoe polishers, and lottery ticket sellers, for example – are not covered by the minimum wage. In addition, the minimum wage does not apply to rural subsistence farmers, who comprise 30 percent of the working population. In urban areas, only half the labor force enjoys an 8-hour workday and a workweek of 5 or 5 1/2 days. As with many other labor laws, the maximum workweek of 44 hours is not enforced. Responsibility for the protection of workers' health and safety lies with the Labor Ministry's Bureau of Occupational Safety. Labor laws that provide for the protection of workers' health and safety are not adequately enforced. Although the state-owned mining corporation COMIBOL has a special office charged with mine safety, the mines, often old and operated with antiquated equipment, are dangerous and unhealthy. In a tradition dating back to the Spanish conquest, many employers, particularly in the mining sector, promote the chewing of coca leaf as a substitute for food, water, and appropriate rest periods for laborers. The active promotion of coca chewing by some employers and politicians, by the Bolivian Labor Federation, and by persons having a personal financial interest in the manufacture and sale of cocaine contributes to conditions of work in many mines that fall far below generally accepted international labor and human rights standards.

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.