Tensions between the government and opposition over the introduction of a new constitution and its possible implications for the control of Bolivia’s economic and natural resources led to further confrontations; most were violent and more than 20 people were killed. Journalists and media outlets were harassed and attacked. There were some positive developments in the area of economic, social and cultural rights.
Civil unrest and regional and political tensions continued as several departments pursued an autonomist agenda and rejected the proposed new constitution. Four departmental referendums on autonomy were held in May and June, but were declared illegal by the Central Electoral Commission. In a recall referendum in August, 67.4 per cent of voters confirmed President Morales in his presidency. The outbreak of violence in Pando department in September (see below) led President Morales to declare a state of emergency which remained in place for more than two months.
The international community, in particular the newly formed Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), played an important role in efforts to find a peaceful solution to the political crisis. In October, Congress approved a revised text for the new constitution. The new text was due to be put to a nationwide referendum in January 2009.
"...they were beaten, their shirts were stripped off and they were forced to burn their traditional clothing and flags and to chant slogans critical of the President."
Despite continuing high levels of poverty, particularly among Indigenous Peoples, there were positive developments in the area of economic, social and cultural rights. These included programmes to improve literacy and school attendance, to address malnutrition, to increase social housing and to provide retirement pensions. According to the United Nations Population Fund, Bolivia continued to have the highest incidence of maternal mortality in South America (approximately 290 per 100,000 live births).
Discrimination – Indigenous Peoples
Racially motivated attacks on organizations and individuals working for the rights of Bolivia’s Indigenous Peoples and campesinos (peasant farmers) continued. The UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous people expressed concern about persistent racism in Bolivia. He observed that racist discourse, employed by some political parties, regional government officials and civic committee pressure groups and disseminated by some media outlets, was affecting Indigenous Peoples at all levels of society. Following its visit in June, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed concern regarding the large number of Indigenous Guaraní families in the Chaco region living in what the Commission described as a state of bondage analogous to slavery. More than 40 people were injured in February and April when landowners and groups of armed men attacked members of the Guaraní People in Santa Cruz during the process of clarifying title deeds to traditional lands of the Guaraní.
- In May, Indigenous and campesino supporters of President Morales were marched by a group of opposition activists to Sucre’s main square where they were beaten, their shirts were stripped off and they were forced to burn their traditional clothing and flags and to chant slogans critical of the President.
- In September the offices of several NGOs working with Indigenous and campesino communities were attacked in several cities, notably Santa Cruz. Office equipment and documentation were destroyed.
Nineteen people, mostly campesinos, were shot and killed and 53 others were injured when violence escalated in Pando department in September. The violence occurred in the context of the mobilization of campesino groups on 11 September. Some prefecture and civic committee members were also allegedly detained temporarily by campesinos.
The results of detailed investigations by UNASUR and the national Ombudsman’s Office into the killings were made public in November. They reported that the opposition prefecture and civic committees had directly participated in the killings, providing vehicles and equipment to block the campesinos’ path and bring in reinforcements. The investigations also highlighted the failure by police to protect the campesinos. The Ombudsman’s Office and UNASUR concluded that the killings constituted crimes against humanity.
On 16 September, Leopoldo Fernández, Prefect of Pando department, was detained on the orders of the Ministers of Government and of National Defence. He remained in custody at the end of the year. Concerns were raised regarding the charges against Leopoldo Fernández, and the fact that no other individuals had been charged in connection with the killings.
Freedom of expression – journalists and media outlets
According to the National Press Association, between January and October there were 96 cases of physical and verbal aggression against the press. In September several pro-government media outlets were attacked by groups of university students and youths opposed to the government. Equipment was destroyed and several media outlets suspended.
- In February, journalist Carlos Quispe Quispe from Radio Municipal Pucarani in La Paz died after being severely beaten by opponents of the pro-government mayor.
- In October, approximately 200 members of the pro-government Popular Civic Committee and the radical Aymara group, the “ponchos rojos”, attacked journalists outside the San Pedro prison in La Paz where the opposition member and former Prefect Leopoldo Fernández was being held in connection with the deaths in Pando in September. According to witnesses, the police failed to act to protect the journalists.
In October, an extradition request was filed with the US government regarding former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and two former ministers, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín and Jorge Berindoague . All were accused of involvement in genocide for their role in the killings of 67 people during demonstrations in El Alto in 2003. In Bolivia, several former ministers and military officers were notified in November of charges in connection with the killings. However, there were concerns about delays in starting oral proceedings. In November, legislation was enacted which, in addition to recognizing state responsibility, provides for compensation for individuals injured during the confrontations and for the relatives of those killed.