Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Political System: Bolivia is a unitary democratic republic, empowered by the revised constitution of 1994. Similar to the United States, Bolivia has executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The directly elected president serves a five-year term and appoints an executive cabinet. Traditionally, the president has been a strong executive, responsible for foreign diplomacy, setting economic policy, and commanding the armed forces, among other duties. The president cannot be reelected to successive terms.

The bicameral Congress consists of a 27-member Senate and a 130-member Chamber of Deputies and is limited to debating and approving legislation initiated by the executive. Congress meets annually for a session of 90 working days. At the request of the executive or a majority of its members, Congress may expand its annual session to 120 days or convene extraordinary sessions to debate specific legislation. Each of the nine departments elects three senators. About one-half of the members serving in the Chamber of Deputies are directly elected, while the other representatives gain their seats through indirect party nominations. All members of Congress serve five-year terms.

Bolivia’s judicial system consists of a Supreme Court, district (or superior) courts in each of the nine departments, and provincial and local courts to try minor cases. The 12 Supreme Court justices, nominated by the president and confirmed by the Congress, serve non-renewable 10-year terms. The Supreme Court is divided into four chambers of three justices each, with two chambers dealing with civil cases, another dealing with criminal cases, and the fourth with administrative, social, and mining cases. The superior courts hear appeals of lower-court decisions and review the application of Bolivian law. The Supreme Court hears only cases involving exceptional circumstances. A Constitutional Tribunal handles appeals on constitutional issues. Both the superior courts and the Supreme Court have the right to alter the sentences or negate the decisions of lower courts. Although the judiciary is meant to be independent of outside influence, political pressure and judicial corruption have long been present in Bolivia. Reforms in 1998 added several components to the judicial system in an effort to curtail corruption, including an independent judicial council to oversee and investigate the conduct of judges and a public defender program.

Administrative Divisions: In 1989 the Congress divided Bolivia into its present administrative form, consisting of nine departments. In descending order of population size, the departments are: La Paz, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Potosí, Chuquisaca, Oruro, Tarija, Beni, and Pando.

Provincial and Local Government: Bolivia’s nine regional departments are divided into 94 provinces, which are further divided into 312 municipalities. The highest executive authority in a department is the prefect—roughly comparable to a state governor in the United States. As a result of constitutional reforms ratified in 1995, in December 2005 the nine departmental prefects were directly elected by voters, replacing the previous system of presidential appointment of prefects. Sub-prefects administer provinces. Bolivian towns and cities directly elect mayors and municipal councils. Municipal elections occur every five years.

Judicial and Legal System: Bolivia’s legal system is based on Spanish law and the Napoleonic Code. The 1999 penal code also incorporated the customary law of indigenous peoples. The implementation of the Code of Criminal Procedures (CCP) in May 2002 improved Bolivia’s court system. Members of the Judicial Technical Police, lawyers, law students, judges, and nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives have received training in the new CCP, emphasizing the protection of legal and human rights. With the goal of rooting out corruption, the CCP changed the criminal justice system from a closed, written system to one with open, oral trials. Additionally, the Public Ministry Law, enacted in March 2002, introduced the role of prosecutor in the Bolivian legal system. Rather than the judge leading the investigation against a defendant, prosecutors now conduct the state’s inquiry.

In misdemeanor cases, a defendant appears in the lower courts before only a judge. In felony cases, two judges and a jury of three citizens decide the defendant’s fate. Defendants have the right to an attorney, to remain silent, to due process, and to a presumption of innocence, among others rights. In practice, these rights are often ignored. Nevertheless, the new transparency brought with the CCP has made the rights of the defendant somewhat easier to defend.

Electoral System: Since 1982, Bolivian elections have produced largely peaceful exchanges of political power. Elections for national and municipal offices are held every five years. Universal and compulsory suffrage exists in Bolivia (at age 21, or age 18 if married), but citizens must produce documentation in order to vote. Electoral judges serve in each department in order to rule on contested voter eligibility and other election discrepancies. Election fraud historically has plagued Bolivia, and accusations of fraud are a part of the Bolivian electoral system.

Politics and Political Parties: Bolivia has a fragmented political party system, as evidenced by the multitude of parties represented in the Congress. Support for the traditionally dominant parties⎯the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario⎯MNR), Nationalist Democratic Action (Acción Democrático Nacionalista⎯ADN), and Movement of the Revolutionary Left (Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria⎯MIR)⎯has declined since the 1980s. In their place, a plethora of single-interest parties have arisen. Regional and ethnic loyalties have replaced national coalitions. This development has led to a series of alliances among seemingly disparate political parties. For example, in 2002 four presidential candidates each received more than 15 percent of the vote, led by Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada with 23 percent. This result triggered a runoff between Sánchez de Lozada and the second-place candidate, Evo Morales. Sánchez de Lozada prevailed in this contest, but only by securing the support of his former rivals and forming an impossible-to-maintain four-party coalition. The power sharing required in such a political atmosphere has severely curtailed the effectiveness of the Congress. Patronage is divided among the parties to such an extent that bureaucratic efficiency also is compromised.

Carlos Mesa, a political independent, resigned from the presidency on June 6, 2005, as a result of massive public demonstrations in La Paz and out of frustration over Bolivia’s deadlocked political system. Eduardo Rodríguez succeeded Mesa on an interim basis, and a special national election was held in December 2005. Bolivians went to the polls in December 2005 to elect a president, both houses of Congress, and the nine departmental prefects. The top presidential candidates were Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, former president and leader of the conservative ADN party, now associated with the Social Democratic Power (Poder Democrático y Social—Podemas) coalition; Evo Morales, indigenous leader of the leftist Movement Toward Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo—MAS) party; and wealthy businessman Samuel Doria Medina of the centrist National Unity (Unidad Nacional—UN) party.

Evo Morales won the December 2005 presidential election in a landslide victory with 53.7 percent of the vote, thus making him the first ethnic Indian president in Bolivia’s history and the first president elected by a majority since the 1952 revolution. The controversial indigenous leader campaigned on a platform of nationalizing the hydrocarbons sector and ending a coca eradication program supported by the United States. The MAS’s strong showing in the presidential race and in the Chamber of Deputies was counterbalanced by opposition control of the Senate and of a majority of the nine prefectures.

Mass Media: Bolivia has nearly 200 privately owned television stations, but because rural regions of the country have few televisions and television reception is poor in many areas of the country, radio remains an important news disseminator. At last count, Bolivia had more than 480 radio stations, most of which were regional in scope. Bolivia also has eight national newspapers, in addition to many local ones. Of the national papers, four are based in La Paz, three in Santa Cruz, and one in Cochabamba. Most Bolivians continue to get their news from newspapers and radio broadcasts.

The Bolivian constitution protects freedom of the press and speech. Most newspapers take antigovernment positions. Both state-owned and privately owned radio stations operate without government censorship. Some restrictions do exist, however. The Penal Code demands jail time for those persons found guilty of slandering, insulting, or defaming public officials. In particular, the president, vice president, and ministers are protected by the Penal Code. Those charged with violating press standards are brought before the independent La Paz Press Tribunal.

Foreign Relations: Bolivia traditionally has had strong ties to the United States. Economically, the United States has been a long-standing consumer of Bolivian exports and a partner in development projects. Bolivia is heavily dependent on foreign aid. The country receives about US$500 million each year from 18 foreign institutions, including about US$150 million from the United States. In 1991 the United States forgave more than US$350 million owed by Bolivia to the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Presently, about one-third of U.S. aid to Bolivia is earmarked for anti-drug trafficking programs.

More recently, Bolivia has attempted to strengthen its ties with neighboring South American countries. A bilateral agreement for natural gas exports with Argentina in 2004 represented a significant step in overcoming past hostilities to establish a mutually beneficial relationship. Bolivia’s diplomatic relationship with Chile remains strained, simmering still from the loss of Bolivia’s entire coastline to Chile in the late nineteenth century. Diplomatic relations between the two countries, reestablished briefly between 1975 and 1978, have been broken off at the ambassadorial level.

Membership in International Organizations: Bolivia is a member of the United Nations and many of its affiliated organizations. Regionally, Bolivia belongs to the Amazon Pact, Andean Community, Latin American Integration Association, Organization of American States, Common Market of the South (Mercosur), and Rio Group. Bolivia is also a member of the International Monetary Fund, International Parliamentary Union, International Telecommunications Satellite Organization, Non-Aligned Movement, World Health Organization, and World Trade Organization.

Major International Treaties: Bolivia is a party to many significant treaties, including international agreements on biological weapons, chemical weapons, copyright, human rights, intellectual property, nuclear weapons non-proliferation, and torture. In the environmental arena, Bolivia is a party to the following agreements: Biodiversity, Climate Change (including the Kyoto Protocol), Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 83 and 94, and Wetlands.


Armed Forces Overview: Although its political history has been dominated by military coups, Bolivia’s armed forces are relatively small and undeveloped. Bolivia currently has secure borders and few international threats, in comparison with previous times in its history. Efforts to reform and modernize the Bolivian armed forces have been suppressed as a result of the need to retain the support of the military establishment and because of more pressing political and civil issues. In spite of its weakness on the world scale, the Bolivian military historically has been the only institution that can maintain law and order in the country.

Foreign Military Relations: Bolivia receives military aid from the United States for its continuing fight against illicit drug production and trade. Bolivia and the United States have conducted joint training exercises, and Bolivia has received training funds through the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program. Military relations with regional neighbors remain stable, but tensions between Peru and Chile have the potential to unbalance the military equilibrium currently governing South America. Bolivia opposes most Chilean interests as a result of lingering resentment over the War of the Pacific (1879–80).

External Threats: Since losing territory to Chile and Paraguay through military conflict in the early twentieth century, Bolivia has remained relatively safe from international threats. Internal riots and resistance represent a much more significant threat to Bolivian stability than do external threats.

Defense Budget: In 2004 Bolivia devoted US$132 million to military expenditures. Bolivia ranks near the bottom third of world countries in terms of both military spending and military expenditures as a percentage of GDP.

Major Military Units: Bolivia has three military services⎯the army, air force, and navy. The army has the majority of the military manpower, with 25,000 troops of the 31,500 in the Bolivian armed forces. The army is divided into six military divisions and includes a presidential guard infantry unit. The army still includes five horse-riding cavalry groups, along with one motorized cavalry group, one assault cavalry group, two airborne regiments, two mechanized infantry regiments, three motorized infantry regiments, six artillery regiments, six engineer battalions, and 21 infantry battalions. The 3,000-member air force is organized in two fighter squadrons; other squadrons are devoted to helicopters, weapons training, survey, air defense, and transport. Bolivia’s navy has 3,500 personnel, 1,700 of whom are marines. Without ocean access, Bolivia’s navy focuses on the country’s rivers and Lake Titicaca. Six naval districts cover the country. One battalion of marines operates in each of the six districts.

Major Military Equipment: Much of Bolivia’s military equipment is outdated. The army inventory includes 36 SK–105 Kuerassier light tanks, 24 Cascavel reconnaissance vehicles, and 59 armored personnel carriers. In terms of artillery, the army has 75-, 105-, and 122-millimeter towed guns. Additionally, the army has 81-millimeter and 107-millimeter mortars. Bolivia’s air force makes use of an aged fleet of planes. Presently, it has 37 combat aircraft and 16 armed helicopters. Bolivia’s fighter squadrons fly 18 AT–33AN fighter jets and 19 PC–7s. For transport and surveillance, a collection of Cessnas, Learjets, Saberliners, and King Air aircraft are used. Bolivia’s naval fleet consists of 60 riverine and 18 support craft.

Military Service: Military service is voluntary unless enlistments fail to meet government quotas, which has been the case in recent history. More than half (20,000) of Bolivia’s active troops are conscripted. Males become eligible for voluntary service at 18 but may be conscripted as young as 14. According to one estimate, nearly 40 percent of military personnel are less than 18 years of age. Active members of the armed services serve for periods of one year.

Paramilitary Forces: Bolivia’s paramilitary force is larger than its armed forces. More than 31,000 national police officers and 6,000 narcotics police officers serve Bolivia’s citizenry. The national police force is divided into nine brigades, two rapid response regiments, and 27 frontier units. Political instability and frequent civil unrest have made the paramilitary forces vital to Bolivia’s well-being.

Foreign Military Forces: In the 1980s, the U.S. military collaborated with Bolivian forces to attempt to eradicate drug production. Public outcries against the presence of U.S. military forces, however, led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Currently, no foreign forces reside in Bolivia.

Military Forces Abroad: Bolivia plays a limited role in international peacekeeping. In 2004 Bolivia sent 207 troops the Democratic Republic of the Congo to participate in peacekeeping operations. Additionally, Bolivia sent observers to United Nations operations in Côte d’Ivoire, East Timor, Haiti, Liberia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Sierra Leone.

Police: Bolivia has a national police force of 31,000 officers that is responsible for internal security and maintaining law and order. Unlike in most Latin American countries, the Bolivian police force always has been responsible to the national government rather than to state or local officials. The 1950 Organic Law of Police and Carabineers officially separated the police from the military. Frequently, however, the national police call upon the military for assistance in quelling riots and civil protests.

Internal Threat: Bolivia has internal conflicts stemming from a variety of sources. Coca farmers resisting government efforts at crop eradication frequently have resorted to protest and violence against national police forces. In 2003 coca farmers and Bolivian troops clashed repeatedly, leaving more than 60 dead. Similarly, indigenous groups have organized in opposition to the perceived injustice of exporting natural gas for the primary benefit of large companies. And more generally, Bolivia’s long-term poverty has produced instability and a rift between rural and urban communities. Although democratic participation is present in Bolivia, the fragmented political parties frequently serve as instigators of internal divisions rather than as functional outlets for varying opinions.

Terrorism: Bolivia is a signatory to the Inter-American Convention Against Terrorism and the Asunción Declaration of 2003, which unites Latin American countries to fight alongside the Colombian government against terrorism and drug trafficking. Despite its meager military budget, Bolivia has been one of the United States’ most reliable South American partners in the war on terrorism. Bolivia has shared financial information with the United States regarding suspected terrorists in the country. In 2004 Bolivia established a counterterrorism coordination unit to bring together police, military, and diplomatic leaders.

Bolivia’s efforts to eradicate the coca industry have been modestly successful. Increased pressure on coca farmers, however, has resulted in heightened domestic conflict and opened new possibilities for cooperation with terrorist organizations. Bolivia’s varied topography and porous borders make the country a possible haven for terrorist groups. However, no major terrorist actions have taken place on Bolivian soil, and there is no evidence of the presence of international terrorist organizations in the country.

Human Rights: Bolivia is in accord with general human rights standards. It affords its citizens freedom of the press, speech, religion, and assembly. Those accused of committing crimes in Bolivia enjoy the right to a trial by jury and to legal representation. Although the judiciary operates independently, low pay makes many judges susceptible to bribes. Prisoners do not enjoy equal treatment. Those with money are able to buy larger cells and more food than those without access to funds.

Bolivians enjoy the right to vote in regular political elections and to assemble for political protests. Oftentimes, however, political protests have devolved into violence, and military and police forces have used violent measures to restore order. Bolivian political parties range from extreme conservative to extreme liberal, and citizens are unrestricted in joining the political party of their choice. Additionally, Bolivian workers have the right to unionize. About 25 percent of workers employed in the formal work sector belong to unions. A minimum wage and workweek standards exist, but enforcement has proved difficult.

Abuse of women and children is widespread and often unreported in Bolivia. Family violence, when reported, results in only a few days in jail and a small fine. The punishment for rape has become more severe in recent years. Those convicted of rape, including statutory rape, face significant jail time. However, a victim must press charges in order for rape to be a crime. Economic scarcity has led to human trafficking and child labor in Bolivia. Prostitution is legal in Bolivia, but many Bolivian women are taken against their will to other countries and forced to work in prostitution for little compensation. Children are often trafficked for labor. The Bolivian government, in cooperation with the United Nations, is working to curb abuse of Bolivian women and children both within Bolivia and abroad.

Index for Bolivia:
Overview | Government


Country profiles index | What's new | Rainforests | Madagascar