The Consent of the Governed Studies — Bolivia

Bolivia Country Study 

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016. Status: Partly Free. Freedom Rating: 3; Political Rights 3; Civil Liberties: 3.



Bolivia is a constitutional democracy that has enjoyed 35 years of civilian rule, but its difficult political history since achieving independence 1825 has left a complex legacy.

Before 1982, when it established more democratic governance, Bolivia’s political history was marked mostly by periods of harsh dictatorship and unstable rule. Until 2005 the country's political leadership, whether democratic or dictatorial, was white or mestizo. The Amerindian community was left largely unrepresented. In 2003 and 2005, mass street protests over distribution of energy wealth and other economic issues — led by Evo Morales, an Amerindian peasant leader — caused the fall of two successive governments. In December 2005, Evo Morales won the presidential election by a clear majority, becoming the first indigenous president in the country’s history. Looking to previous radical and nationalist governments from the 1930s and 1950s, Morales carried out a radical platform of oil and gas nationalization, legalization of coca (a traditional Amerindian crop), regional autonomy, and diplomatic realignment away from the U.S. and towards Cuba and Venezuela. In 2014, he won a third term in office after a controversial court decision allowed him to run for an additional term despite a constitutional two-term limit.

Bolivia is the 28th largest country in the world and the fourth largest in South America at just under 1.1 million square kilometers. Land-locked, Bolivia is bordered by five countries (Peru to the northwest, Brazil to the north and northeast, and Paraguay, Argentina, and Chile to the south). The population is small at approximately 11 million in 2016 (ranked 81st in the world). Between 56 and 70 percent of the population is ethnically indigenous, or Amerindian, with the largest groups being the Aymara and Quechua. The remaining population is white or mestizo (mixed race). While Bolivia possesses rich soil and resources, including some of the largest natural gas reserves in the Western Hemisphere, it is South America's poorest economy in per capita Gross National Income (GNI), ranked by the World Bank at 124th in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) measurement at $5,740 in 2013. In all of Latin America and the Caribbean, only Haiti, Honduras, and Nicaragua are poorer.


Pre-Columbian Civilization and the Spanish Conquest

It is now believed that the Bolivian highlands have been inhabited for at least 12,000 years. The development of farming communities dates to around 3000 BC. One of the great ancient Andean civilizations, located near Bolivia's Lake Titicaca, flourished for several centuries before falling into decline after AD 1000. Later, the Aymara-speaking people who lived in the region were conquered in the 15th century by the Quechua-speaking Inca empire.

The Spanish conquest of the Inca civilization in the early to mid-1500s allowed Spain to extend its control from Central America to much of western and central Latin America, including the area of Bolivia (then called Upper Peru). Among the main discoveries was an Inca silver mine at Potosi. This area remains rich in silver and other natural resources, which have played a dominant role throughout Bolivia's history.

Spanish colonial rule was based on a system of large estates and other economic holdings (encomiendas) for exploiting silver and tin mines. These were largely worked by the indigenous population at minimal or no pay. As the representative of the Spanish monarch, the governor of the territory dispensed the mines' riches to privileged elites of Spanish descent, who came to preside over Bolivia's economic, social, and political life after the end of Spanish rule in 1825.

From Bolívar to Bolivia

Upper Peru was liberated from Spain in 1825 by the revolutionary forces of Simón Bolívar (who had already freed a swath of Spanish-controlled territory extending north to Venezuela). Bolívar oversaw the writing of the country's constitution and his top lieutenant, Antonio José de Sucre, became the first president. The new republic was named after Bolívar in part to convince him not to unite it with Peru. Although Sucre was forced from power in 1828, a new president, Andrés de Santa Cruz, stabilized the economy and organized the country's internal affairs. His ambitions to create a confederation with Peru, however, led to warfare with the two countries' neighbors. In 1839, Bolivia was defeated by Chilean forces and the confederation project ended.

From Generals to Radicals 125 years, the Aymara and Quechua Amerindians as well as much of the mestizo population were dispossessed, while Bolivia's politics and economy were governed mainly by a small population of wealthy whites.

After Santa Cruz's ouster, Bolivia experienced 40 years of erratic rule by a series of "caudillos," or strongmen. In 1879, Bolivia lost the mineral-rich Atacama region, its only point of access to the sea, to Chile in the War of the Pacific. At this time, two political parties formed: the Conservative Party, which advocated a quick peace with Chile to include mining concessions, and the Liberal Party, which rejected the peace deal and criticized Bolivia's dependence on foreign mining interests. A more liberal constitution was adopted in 1880 establishing an active bicameral legislature, but the basic law continued to restrict the vote to a small minority based on property and literacy qualifications. Several decades of relative political stability followed, although power still changed hands by force. Disastrous losses in the 1932–35 Chaco War with Paraguay led to a military seizure of power in 1935. A series of nationalist military governments proceeded to take control of Bolivia's natural resources and introduce land reform, but in 1947–52 conservatives reasserted themselves in government, stemming for a time the nationalist Left.

Consent of the Governed

The 1825 Bolívarian revolution was a revolution for the few. For 125 years afterwards, the Aymara and Quechua Amerindians as well as much of the mestizo population were dispossessed, while Bolivia's politics and economy were governed mainly by a small population of wealthy whites. It is only in Bolivia's modern history, beginning with the 1952 revolution, that consent of the governed can be considered more fully. From the mid-20th century until the early 2000s, popular and radical movements for change and military and conservative political forces have interchanged power and policies. In 2005, Amerindian leader Evo Morales, heading a popular peasant movement, was elected president to establish a more representative government, but many less representative and undemocratic features from Bolivia’s unstable political legacy remain and Morales’s rule has been marked by political conflict and some infringements on the rule of law and other freedoms.

The 1952 Revolution

In 1952, the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR), a leftist party first formed in 1941 and led by Víctor Paz Estenssoro and Hernán Siles Zuazo, seized power by force. The MNR had ruled from 1943 to 1946 and had won the 1951 elections, but it was prevented from assuming office by the military. In response, the MNR assembled armed civilians and portions of the security forces to seize control. Backed by peasants and workers, the new revolutionary government nationalized natural resources, enacted land reform, and abolished property and literacy requirements for voting. While influenced by nationalist and Marxist movements, the MNR government espoused democracy and did not adopt the repressive features of other leftist governments in the hemisphere.

Victor Paz Estenssoro

 Military Dictatorship Returns, But Democracy Is Restored

A military coup overthrew Paz Estenssoro after his 1964 re-election. Bolivians then lived through 18 years of intermittent military dictatorship, during which essential constitutional provisions were suspended. Democratic politics were restored in 1982 following a national strike and protest movement. Siles Zuazo, one of the original MNR leaders who had served as president from 1956 to 1960, was again elected president, and in 1985 Paz Estenssoro succeeded him in the presidency. Upon entering office, however, Paz Estenssoro faced an economy in grave crisis with 10–12 percent annual drops in GDP and hyperinflation at 24,000 percent. Contrary to the MNR’s radical platform, he carried out a program of harsh economic reforms, involving stringent budget and monetary policies, and privatization of state enterprises. While these actions are credited with helping the economy back to health, many MNR supporters felt betrayed by these actions.

Coca Eradication and Historical Exclusion

In 1997, General Hugo Banzer, a conservative former military dictator, was elected president, ending the MNR’s political success. Banzer’s government inflamed social tensions by working with the U.S. government to fight cocaine production through the eradication of coca cultivation. The eradication campaign by the military brought a number of issues to a head, most notably, the exclusion and poverty of the Aymara and Quechua peoples. Until 1952, some 85 percent of the land had been held in large estates, while these two main indigenous groups, representing 70 percent of the population, worked under a sharecropping system. Land reform provided Quechue and Aymare peasants with small plots, but only as subsistence farmers. Coca cultivation, which had traditional uses, was their most important cash crop. The eradication program under Banzer thus caused a significant decline in indigenous farmers' livelihoods, not just those involved in the cocaine trade.

The Weakness of the Presidential System

Since the 1952 revolution, no Bolivian presidential candidate had garnered more than 50 percent of the popular vote. According to the constitution, Congress decided the contest in such cases, choosing among the three top candidates. While in theory this might lead to the development of coalition politics (see, e.g,  Multiparty System), in practice this constitutional delegation of authority frequently meant that the president had no clear mandate to govern. This weakness in the system became evident with the 2002 re-election of Sánchez Lozado, who received just 22 percent of the popular vote. He was forced to resign in October 2003 after a proposed income tax increase and a plan to export natural gas through Chile drew a series of protests that were organized by a new radical party, MAS (Movement Toward Socialism), led by Quechua peasant leader Evo Morales. Sánchez de Lozada's constitutional successor, Vice President Carlos Mesa, was unable to muster political support for his administration. He resigned in June 2005 amid further demonstrations led by Morales demanding full state control over energy and mineral resources.

The December 2005 "Revolution"

MAS and Evo Morales harkened back to the original platform of the 1952 revolution and that era's MNR government. In leading massive street campaigns, Morales wove together the themes of defending coca crop cultivation against U.S. pressure, redressing the historical exclusion of the indigenous population, and asserting national and popular sovereignty over natural resources, an issued that had dominated politics for much of Bolivia's history and was reignited by a boom in silver and tin mining along with recent discoveries of hydrocarbon reserves (Bolivia has the continent's second-largest deposits of natural gas).

In the December 2005 presidential elections, Morales won a landmark victory by securing 55 percent of the vote, largely on the basis of support from previously excluded peasants and workers. It was the first time in decades that the presidential election was decided by an outright majority and thus did not have to be decided by Congress. (A new 2009 Constitution creates a run-off system in case no majority is obtained, thus removing the choice form the legislature.) Morales also became the first indigenous president in Bolivian history.

Since the 2005 election, Morales has kept true to the MAS platform to nationalize the country’s natural resources, renegotiate extraction contracts with foreign firms, adopt land reform and progressive taxation, and defend the coca crop against eradication demands by the U.S. and some Latin American countries. An October 2006 contract with foreign companies quadrupled the government's energy revenues over a four-year period, following which the government nationalized the oil industry, zinc and tin mining companies, as well as electricity generation. In 2013, the government nationalized the Spanish-owned electricity distribution company, Iberdrola.

 In 2006, Morales called for elections to a constituent assembly that would rewrite Bolivia's constitution. The assembly was dominated by MAS, but it was stymied by procedural and other disputes until Morales called a referendum on his presidency. Sixty-six percent of the electorate supported Morales in a vote of confidence, prompting a resolution over the new constitution. The agreement allowed for a dual legal system for indigenous peoples, established limited regional autonomy, and enshrined the rights of indigenous peoples to vote and be politically represented (reserving a minimum number of seats in elected bodies for Amerindians). But it also included opposition demands for a two-term limit on the presidency and broad media and other freedoms. Bolivians adopted the constitution in a separate referendum in January 2009 with 61 percent of the vote in favor. According to the new constitution, the name of the country was changed to the Plurinational State of Bolivia (Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia).

In an election held later in 2009 under the new constitution, voters re-elected Morales to his second term with a 65 percent majority (out of a record 95 percent of eligible voters who turned out). MAS also dominated the legislative elections, winning majorities in both houses. By 2010, all nine territorial departments had passed regional autonomy statutes and MAS won six of the governorships in regional elections. In 2011, however, opposition candidates won mayoralties in most of the major cities.

Current Issues

Bolivia’s new constitution has established a more broad-based consent of Bolivia’s citizens. To achieve his aims, however, President Evo Morales, Bolivia’s dominant political figure for the last decade, has often participated in what scholars have called a "politics of conflicts" with constituencies and regional leaders who oppose him. Prosecutions against political opponents for corruption are frequent.

Freedom of association, including for political parties and trade unions, is generally respected. Regional leaders, citizens’ groups, trade unions, and even leaders of indigenous groups, Morales’s main base of support, have strongly pressed the government to uphold their rights and interests. In December 2010, for example, the Bolivian Workers’ Center announced plans for a national strike the next month to protest an announced end to energy subsidies. The threatened strike caused the government to rescind its decision. In 2011, the residents of the Indigenous Territory and National Park of Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS) organized a mass protest against government plans to seize land for a $415 million national roadway financed by Brazil that would link the key regional cities of Trinidad and Cochabamba. Police and army forces beat an estimated 1,500 marchers who were trying to walk from TIPNIS to La Paz. In response, President Morales condemned the police violence, forced the resignations of the Ministry of Interior and Defense chiefs, and ordered a national inquiry. A national consultation demanded by the protestors — and required by the 2009 constitution — was initiated by the government. An investigation by an independent commission (comprised of representatives of the Catholic Church and human rights groups) found that 30 of the 36 affected communities opposed the highway and the government postponed construction.

Freedom of the media and expression is respected but faces a significant threat. While most of the broadcast and print media is independent and features both opposition and government views, the 2011 Telecommunications Law calls for the redistribution of broadcasting licenses to provide the government with control of 33 percent of media. The Bolivian Broadcasting Association complained the law would “restrict the liberty of expression” and stated it could lose 400 broadcasters to the government when their licenses expire in 2017. The Association also complains that imprecise provisions in an anti-racism law adopted in 2010 — aimed at reducing Bolivia’s prevalent discrimination against the indigenous population — has forced independent media to “self-censor” due to fears of government fines and shutdowns for violations of the statute. The government remains antagonistic to independent media, but generally respects the right to publish and broadcast. At the same time, it has done little to prevent continuing incidents of citizens attacking journalists. Also, in recent judicial elections, the government placed restrictions on reporting on candidates.

The  rule of law, however, has been compromised. In 2011, Bolivia became the first Latin American country to elect judges to national and regional positions, but the law allowed only candidates that were nominated by the legislature. As a result, only MAS-backed candidates were on the ballot and since the judicial elections several investigations against MAS-backed politicians have been dropped. More significantly, in 2013, the Constitutional Tribunal granted Morales the right to run in 2014 elections for a third term as president, ruling that his first election in 2005 occurred under a previous constitution. The ruling went against a specific stipulation in the 2009 Constitution, insisted upon by the opposition, that the prior 2005 election be considered part of the two-term limit. This exertion of power prompted the nation’s trade union federation and farmers’ unions to launch their own parties to challenge MAS in the 2014 general elections.

The 2014 elections, however, re-established the dominance of both Evo Morales, who won a third term as president with more than 60 percent of the vote, as well as his political party. MAS retained a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament. The presidential candidate of the Democratic Union Front (UD) captured just 25 percent of the vote. The UD and Christian Democratic parties, the only two to pass the 3 percent threshold, together won just 41 seats in the 130-member Assembly, the lower house, and 11 of 36 seats in the Senate. With a sufficient majority to pass constitutional amendments, MAS legislators proposed in September 2015 to remove the two-term limit for the presidency to allow Evo Morales to run for a fourth term overall in 2019. The measure was presented to the electorate in a referendum held in early 2016, but in a surprise the proposed fourth term was defeated by a 51-49 percent majority. The result indicated that despite previous support for MAS and Morales, the citizenry was not willing to extend the president’s proposed extension of power.

In foreign policy, Evo Morales adopted an antagonistic policy towards the U.S., expelling both the Drug Enforcement Agency as well as the ambassador in 2009 on grounds they took part in a conspiracy against him. In turn, Morales redirected Bolivian foreign policy toward a new alliance with Cuba and Venezuela, the most vociferous opponents of the U.S. in the hemisphere. Although Morales signed a new diplomatic agreement with the U.S. in 2011 and accepted a new ambassador’s credentials in 2012, in July 2013 he ordered the expulsion of the U.S. Agency for International Development from Bolivia and stopped all U.S. assistance programs, also claiming these were being used to undermine his government.