Bolivia: A liberty hell

By José Manuel Ormachea

For the last few years, most of the regional analysis as to the status of civil, political and economic liberties has focused on the Venezuelan crisis. Nonetheless, there is another country where a crisis is taking place and basic freedoms are at stake. That country is Bolivia.

Bolivia has always been poor regarding protection of individual rights and liberties, but since President Evo Morales took office back in 2006, most threats to civil rights not only stayed untouched, but actually multiplied at a scale not seen since the days of the military dictatorships.

A study named “Doing Business 2016” made by the World Bank places Bolivia between the 32 worst countries in the world to have a business. This particular phenomenon has to do mostly with the legal uncertainties the country presents for local and international investors. It is normal to identify Bolivia as an “unfriendly” environment for businesses, and to see neighbors like Brazil, Chile and Peru as potential partners. This tends to happen in economic sectors that Bolivia has in common with other South American countries; like the wool industry, nuts, quinoa, soy, and, most recently, the lithium industry.

The general perception of uncertainty is due to a risk of social unrest the country continuously shows, as a vicious cycle not even the Morales´ administration (the longest and most “stable” the landlocked country has ever had) could change in the last decade. According to CERES foundation, for the last four decades the Andean nation suffered at least 1 roadblock, strike or protest every day of every week and more than 50 social conflicts per month.

This non-stop social unrest, which naturally led to the existence of a very small, weak, private and formal sector, is the most important reason why 70% of the Bolivian economy is nowadays informal. The kind of informality reigning in today’s Bolivia is one causing nothing but harm to people. What this economy does is to restrain citizens’ chances to pursue a better quality of life through a real open and free economic system: and to submit them to an anarchic, wildly unfair, corporatized mercantilism dominated by a few rich smuggler kingpins who make millions on unregistered, tax-evaded retail profits on “ghost” imports from neighbor countries.

But why did the Bolivian economy evolve that way? This situation has its explanation with the way public service functions. The Andean country is a true “fiscal hell” for it is the most difficult country for paying taxes in the world. According to a study made by Diego Sanchez De la Cruz, a Spaniard economist, Bolivia places first in the entire Latin American region in tax pressure on incomes and profit. And, an enterprise needs an average of 50 days to finish all the paperwork in order to open its doors.

So what is the current way of doing business and dealing with bureaucracy? It is through corruption. The Morales administration has always said it is one of the most “transparent” and “incorruptible” governments in history. To keep their word, the legislative passed the anti-corruption law “Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz”. In its article 123, the rule legalizes retroactivity in corruption cases, meaning any corruption felony committed by a state official can be taken to trial even before the rule became law of the land. This clause violates several international human-rights treaties the country has signed, and Morales has used it to prosecute opposition leaders instead of applying it to his own government officials –many of them deeply involved in corruption scandals.

Over the past 20 years, the criminal justice system in Bolivia experienced major setbacks. Bolivia is the country with the most inmates incarcerated with a pre-trial detention status (83%). But the worst thing is that, whoever deserves to be free, is not, and whoever needs to be tried as soon as possible, is free.

It is becoming quite difficult to participate freely in politics as well. 10 political parties presented candidates for national elections in 1997, 11 in 2002, 9 in 2005, but since President Morales took office in 2006, numbers went down dramatically: 8 candidates ran in 2010 and only 5 in 2014. This is not only because there is a deep polarization the current government introduced in Bolivian politics which makes opposition leaders collude in regional and national alliances in order to try beating Morales in the ballots, but because all the restrictions the Electoral Supreme Court –mostly controlled by the government- establishes for the non-governmental candidates.

The central government does not finance the political parties anymore, which used to be a method of leveling the playing field for all of them moneywise. In 2015, the Electoral Court banned Ernesto Suarez, the most popular opposition candidate of the Beni department -a northeastern region in Bolivia- for running for Governor. This controversial decision to illegally remove Suarez from a subnational electoral process -which led to a victory of Alex Ferrier, the Morales’ candidate- was, for many, a confirmation of the Court’s bias in favor of the government in electoral processes.

However, politics is not the only field where liberties are currently in danger. Freedom House´s “Freedom of the press 2017” points out that “Bolivia experienced severe setbacks for press freedom over the past decade. The administration of President Evo Morales targeted critical journalists with threats of prosecution and accused three media outlets that covered a corruption case against him of forming a ´cartel of lies´” and their recent studies lists Bolivia as one of the most repressive countries for exercising independent, critical journalism (111 of 199 in the global rank). In fact, President Morales once said he was proud that “80% of the media now stands beside him”.

Given all these elements, it is not an exaggeration to emphatically point out that Bolivia stands alongside Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador as a leader of the illiberal-unfree Latin American block of nations.