Overview: Bolivia’s economic history reveals a pattern of a single-commodity focus. From silver to tin to coca, Bolivia has enjoyed only occasional periods of economic diversification. Political instability and difficult topography have constrained efforts to modernize the agricultural sector. Similarly, relatively low population growth coupled with low life expectancy has kept the labor supply in flux and prevented industries from flourishing. Rampant inflation and corruption also have thwarted development. The mining industry, especially the extraction of natural gas and zinc, currently dominates Bolivia’s export economy.
Gross Domestic Product (GDP): Bolivia had an estimated GDP of US$22.3 billion in 2004, with a growth rate from the previous year of 3.7 percent.
Government Budget: Bolivia experienced a budget deficit of about US$500 million in 2004. Expenditures were nearly US$2.8 billion while revenues amounted to only about US$2.3 billion.
Inflation: Inflation has plagued, and at times crippled, the Bolivian economy since the 1970s. At one time in 1985, Bolivia experienced an inflation rate of more than 20,000 percent. Fiscal and monetary reform reduced the inflation rate to single digits by the 1990s, and in 2004 Bolivia experienced a manageable 4.9 percent rate of inflation.
Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing: Agriculture, forestry, and fishing accounted for 14 percent of Bolivia’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2003, down from 28 percent in 1986. Combined, these activities employ nearly 44 percent of Bolivia’s workers. Most agricultural workers are engaged in subsistence farming⎯the dominant economic activity of the highlands region. Agricultural production in Bolivia is complicated by both the country’s topography and climate. High elevations make farming difficult, as do the El Niño weather patterns and seasonal flooding. Bolivia’s agricultural GDP continues to rise but has attained only a rather modest average growth rate of 2.8 percent annually since 1991.
Bolivia’s most lucrative agricultural product continues to be coca, of which Bolivia is currently the world’s third largest cultivator. The Bolivian government, in response to international pressure, has worked to restrict coca cultivation for the use of producing cocaine. However, eradication efforts have been hampered by the lack of a suitable replacement crop for rural communities that have cultivated coca for generations. Since 2001, Bolivia’s leading legal agricultural export has been soybeans. Additionally, cotton, coffee, and sugarcane have been viable exports for Bolivia. For domestic consumption, corn, wheat, and potatoes are the crops of choice of Bolivian farmers.
Despite its vast forests, Bolivia has only a minor timber industry. In 2003 timber accounted for only 3.5 percent of export earnings. The Forestry Law of 1996 imposed a tax on sawn timber and consequently cut Bolivian timber exports significantly. The tax was used to establish the Forestry Stewardship Council, which has been only minimally successful in forest restoration efforts and eliminating illegal logging. With increased efficiency, Bolivia could likely expand the profitability of its forest resources, while still protecting them from overexploitation.
Bolivia has a small fishing industry that taps the country’s freshwater lakes and streams. The annual catch averages about 6,000 tons.
Mining and Minerals: Mining continues to be vital to Bolivia’s economy. The collapse of the world tin market in the 1980s led to a restructuring of the industry. The state dramatically reduced its control and presently operates only a small portion of mining activities. Small-scale operations, often with low productivity, employ many former state miners. Natural gas has supplanted tin and silver as the country’s most valuable natural commodity. A discovery in 1997 confirmed a tenfold gain in Bolivia’s known natural gas reserves. Finding markets to utilize this resource, both domestically and internationally, has been slowed by a lack of infrastructure and conflicts over the state’s role in controlling natural resources.
Although the world tin market has reemerged, Bolivia now faces stiff competition from Southeast Asian countries producing lower-cost alluvial tin. Gold and silver production has increased dramatically over the past decade. Annually, as of 2002 Bolivia extracted and exported more than 11,000 kilograms of gold and 461 tons of silver. Additionally, Bolivia has increased zinc production, extracting more than 100,000 tons each year. Other metals excavated include antimony, iron, and tungsten.
Industry and Manufacturing: Annually, manufacturing has accounted for approximately 18 percent of Bolivia’s gross domestic product since 1995. Most industry is small-scale, aimed at regional markets rather than national operations. Inadequate credit options and competition from the black market have kept Bolivia’s manufacturing sector from developing fully. Leading manufactured goods in Bolivia include textiles, clothing, non-durable consumer goods, processed soya, refined metals, and refined petroleum.
Energy: Bolivia is energy self-sufficient. The country’s energy needs are relatively small but growing consistently. Bolivia uses oil for the majority of its power needs, followed by natural gas. The country has large reserves of both. Bolivia’s energy sector changed significantly when the government allowed privatization in the mid-1990s. International companies quickly invested in Bolivian energy sources, particularly in natural gas, and made Bolivia into a player in the world energy market.
The exportation of Bolivian energy resources, while potentially lucrative economically, has been politically hazardous. President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada ultimately resigned over his plan to export natural gas to the United States and Mexico in 2003. Subsequent politicians have been hesitant to act decisively even though Bolivia’s economy could readily use an export boost. On June 6, 2005, President Carlos Mesa offered his resignation to the Bolivian Congress after months of demonstrations by Bolivia’s Indian population calling for renationalizing the natural gas and oil sectors. Mesa had increased taxation on foreign companies while still encouraging their investment in Bolivian energy development.
Bolivia has estimated oil reserves of 441 million barrels, the fifth largest in South America. The country’s natural gas reserves total 27.6 trillion cubic feet according to Bolivian government figures, ranking Bolivia behind only Venezuela in terms of proven natural gas reserves in South America. Additionally, Bolivia produces more electricity with its nine power companies than it can consume. In 2002 Bolivia generated 4.1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity but consumed only 3.8 billion kilowatt-hours.
Services: The services industry in Bolivia remains undeveloped. Inhabiting one of the poorest countries in South America, Bolivians have weak purchasing power. The retail sector suffers from weak demand and competition with a large black market of contraband goods. U.S. companies such as McDonald’s and Domino’s have pulled out of Bolivia in recent years.
Banking and Finance: Banking in Bolivia has long suffered from corruption and weak regulation. However, a series of reforms initiated by the 1993 Banking Law and subsequent acts are gradually improving Bolivia’s banking sector. Bolivia has a Central Bank and nine private banks. Consolidation occurred following reforms, lowering the number of private banks in Bolivia from 14 in 1995 to nine in 2003. Foreign participation and investment in Bolivian banks are allowed.
About 90 percent of Bolivian bank deposits are held in U.S. dollars. The Bolivian government is trying to change this situation by taxing dollarized accounts while exempting boliviano accounts from the tax. As recently as 2002, 27 percent of all loans were non-performing, leading most foreign investors to focus their resources in the somewhat-safer venue of corporate lending. Most bank lending in 2003 went to manufacturing (24 percent), followed by property services (18 percent) and trade and retail (16 percent). Bad debt remains at a historically high level. Further reforms are necessary, including the pending act to introduce a deposit guarantee system.
Bolivia’s stock market expanded in 1998 to include corporate bonds, along with the money market and government bond options that had existed previously. The privatization of Bolivia’s social security program has bolstered the stock market.
Tourism: Bolivia’s spectacular vistas and natural attractions have not been enough to transform the country into a major tourist destination because of its political instability and lack of first-class accommodations. Still, Bolivia’s tourist industry has grown gradually over the past 15 years. In 2000 Bolivia attracted 306,000 tourists, compared with 254,000 in 1990. Tourist revenue peaked at US$179 million in 1999. Tourism in Bolivia declined following the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States, as was the case across North and South America.
Labor: The economic downturn of the late 1990s, coupled with privatization and austerity efforts led by President Mesa, resulted in significant unemployment. Although the Bolivian government does not keep unemployment statistics, outside experts estimate unemployment to be between 8 and 10 percent of the population. Underemployment of Bolivia’s workforce of nearly 4 million is also widespread. As a result of the lack of formal employment opportunities, nearly 65 percent of the urban workforce was self-employed in 2002.
Labor unions have a strong history in Bolivia. Many workers in the formal sector belong to unions. The larger unions, such as the Bolivian Labor Federation and the Trade Union Federation of Bolivian Mine Workers, have been successful in rallying workers to countless strikes and work stoppages. Nevertheless, working conditions for most Bolivian workers are difficult.
Foreign Economic Relations: Bolivia was a founding member of the Andean Group, a South American organization designed to promote trade among Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. Subsequently renamed the Andean Community (Comunidad Andina—CAN), the organization has succeeded in increasing intra-South American trade. Trade among member countries rose from US$3.6 billion in 1991 to US$10.3 billion in 2003. Bolivia also belongs to the Common Market of the South (Mercado Común del Sur—Mercosur). Bolivia became an associate member in 1997 in order to open investment opportunities with the founding Mercosur countries (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay), as well as other Mercosur associate members (Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela). Bolivia conducted more than US$1 billion in trade with Mercosur countries in 2003. As a result of negotiations initiated in 1999 on a possible South American Free Trade Area (SAFTA), the two groups announced in December 2004 that they would merge, creating a South American Community of Nations patterned after the European Union.
Imports: Bolivian imports of goods and services were valued at about US$2.1 billion in 2004. The import of consumer goods increased for the first time since 2002. By sector, Bolivia imported mostly intermediate goods, followed by industrial, capital, and consumer goods. Leading sources of Bolivian imports include Brazil, Argentina, the United States, and Chile.
Exports: Bolivian exports of goods and services in 2004 stood at more than US$2.1 billion compared with US$1.9 billion in 2003. Increased production of hydrocarbons, especially natural gas, led Bolivia’s trade upturn in 2004. A 20-year supply contract with Brazil for natural gas, ending in 2019, has provided the necessary capital to increase production. In 2004 export revenues for natural gas topped US$619 million. Bolivia also exported significant quantities of petroleum. Beyond hydrocarbons, other significant exports included zinc, soya, iron ore, and tin. In 2001 Brazil overtook the United States as Bolivia’s primary export outlet. Switzerland, Venezuela, and Colombia are also important export partners. Bolivia has actively sought to foster economic connections in South America after long relying on the United States as its primary trade partner.
Trade Balance: Bolivia had an estimated trade surplus of more than US$340 million in 2004. This figure represents a marked change in Bolivia’s economic balance sheet. Bolivia reached a peak trade deficit of US$888 million in 1998 before increased hydrocarbon exports radically altered the situation.
Balance of Payments: Bolivia had a large negative balance of payments for 2002⎯US$317 million. However, this situation has been remedied by the vast increase in export revenue. Estimates for the balance of payments for 2004 show a record surplus of US$126 million.
External Debt: Bolivia’s external debt totaled an estimated US$5.7 billion in 2004. The International Monetary Fund has assisted Bolivia in paying down this debt. In 1995 the United States, among other countries, reduced Bolivia’s debt by two-thirds.
Foreign Investment: Foreign investment in Bolivia was buoyed in 1995 by privatization. Investment in mining and natural gas extraction increased, as did investment in the banking sector. However, the economic decline of the late 1990s, along with political unrest, caused foreign investors to pull out of Bolivia once again. In 2000 foreign investors contributed US$736 million to the Bolivian economy. In 2002 this total fell to US$676 million.
Foreign Aid: Bolivia depends on foreign aid to fund its improvement projects and to service its large external debt. In 1998 the World Bank and International Monetary Fund awarded Bolivia a debt-relief package worth US$760 million. Bolivia also has received relief under the World Bank’s Heavily Indebted Poor Countries program, which, if Bolivia meets all checkpoints, will total US$1.2 billion by 2011. In 2004 the United States designated more than US$150 million for assistance to Bolivia.
Currency and Exchange Rate: Bolivia’s currency is the boliviano (BOB). The exchange rate in January 2006 was about 8 bolivianos per US$1.