Developments in Bolivia

Updated: 29 May 2017

A large part of Bolivia’s inhabitants belongs to the indigenous peoples, Quechua and Aymara, who reside on the barren Andean plateau (altiplano), surrounded by mountain peaks of over 6,500 metres above sea level. The country's first modern-time president who represents indigenous peoples and the socialist movement (MAS) – Evo Morales — took office in 2006.

Bolivia is a country rich with silver, tin and other metals, and mining has for centuries been the central industry. In recent years, large natural gas and oil resources have been discovered, which led to a high growth. The gap between the rich and the poor is still great, even though important progress has been made. Particularly vulnerable are indigenous peoples, who have poorer health, shorter life expectancy, higher unemployment, lower income and have a lower level of education than the average. Women and children are also particularly vulnerable. Seven out of ten women have been victims of some form of gender-based violence, which is the highest level in Latin America. Child labour occurs especially in rural areas. The Government has lowered the minimum age for work.

At the same time, it can be noted that many people have been lifted out of poverty since 2006, when Evo Morales became president. Bolivia has seen strong economic growth over the past decade and has today become a lower-middle-income country. The country has managed to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty. In particular, the rights of women and indigenous peoples have been improved. However, of the country's inhabitants, 39 per cent are living in poverty, and in rural areas, 60 per cent are estimated to be poor. Access to water and sanitation has increased markedly, and there have been major advances as regards access to and completion of primary education.

The Government's Agenda Patriótica, a plan to be fulfilled in 2025, prioritises combating poverty, providing basic services to the population such as water, electricity and communications, education, health services as well as sustainable use of natural resources. A national five-year development plan was adopted in 2016 based on Agenda Patriótica.

The country's dependence on natural resources and the population's vulnerability to climate change have made environmentally sustainable growth a decisive issue for the future of Bolivia. The strong economic development of recent years has often come at the expense of a long-term management of natural resources, and this has caused major environmental problems. Emissions from cities, industries and mining have polluted rivers and groundwater reservoirs. Deforestation and soil erosion, caused by substandard agricultural methods, threaten long-term economic growth and contribute to global warming. Large parts of the population lack access to basic public services such as water, sanitation and waste disposal, which in turn leads to a vulnerability to climate variability and natural disasters, both in terms of the environment, health and economic survival.

Democratic challenges

Bolivia is a relatively new democracy. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1952. The constitution of 2009 and also many of the laws adopted since then are assessed to be of a good standard. The constitution stresses the rights of women and indigenous peoples. Previously marginalised groups, such as indigenous people of the highlands and women, have gained a greater political influence. But there are deficiencies in the country's systems for follow-up, institutional frameworks, the division of responsibilities between central, regional and local government institutions, and in systems for accountability and transparency. Implementation of the legislation is a major challenge.

After a long period during which governments and military coups continuously succeeded one another, Bolivia saw re-establishment of democracy in 1982. However, the country’s political situation remained unstable. Economic crisis imposed austerity measures that contributed to social unrest. After the turn of the millennium, the country was shaken by strikes and demonstrations, and two presidents were forced to resign under tumultuous circumstances.

Evo Morales came to power with the support of the poor indigenous population, and has since been re-elected with a good margin. A new constitution that gave indigenous peoples greater rights was adopted and the state took control over key natural resources such as water, gas and oil. The right-wing opposition that is mostly based in the rich lowlands protested, but was at the same time given greater regional autonomy. There is an ongoing decentralisation to give autonomy to regions, municipalities and indigenous communities. But even though the process is emphasised in the constitution, it is going slowly.

The election of Evo Morales as president and a good economic climate have resulted in a number of policy changes that, among other things, have led to greater state involvement in the economy and the creation of new, more generous contributions to citizens. At the same, weak institutions and political tensions risk impeding efforts to fight against poverty. The ongoing power struggle between different parts and levels of government has come to dominate the political agenda.

Bolivia has for decades been a democracy with great popular participation. Voter turnout has increased considerably in recent years, particularly among the indigenous population.

Social movements, the media and non-governmental organisations contribute to a pluralistic civil society, but it is also clear that many of the social movements are affiliated with the governing party MAS. The role of non-governmental organisations as monitors of the state has become more difficult, and this weakens democracy in Bolivia and prevents people from exercising their human rights. The scope for independent media is also decreasing. Several media outlets are state-owned or controlled by powerful economic interests.

Page owner: Department for Europe and Latin America

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