A (brief) political synopsis of the Bolivian Human Rights Ombudsman

Rolando Villena, the current Bolivian Defensor del Pueblo

Activated in 1998 under the leadership of the first Defensora, Ana María Romero Campero (1998-2003), the Defensoría quickly emerged as a powerful human rights voice from within the state.  As with many such accountability innovations that accompanied the sweeping neoliberal reforms of the 1990s, the Defensoría was conceived by its designers as a tool of modernisation and administrative efficiency.  That the Defensoría quickly and decisively moved away from the ‘neoliberal category’ to become an authoritative human rights champion is largely attributable to Romero and the election of a principled individual with strong inter-personal ties to social actors.  Various high profile acts during her tenure, including opposition to coca eradication policies under the government of Hugo Banzer (1997-2001), mediation efforts alongside the Catholic Church in the 2000 so-called ‘Water Wars’, and a decision to go on hunger strike in the wake of the shooting dead of 67 people by military forces during the ‘Gas War’ of October 2003 cemented her reputation and indeed the institutional credibility of the Defensoría itself.  This final controversial act was credited by the then sitting Vice-President as ‘[destroying] the government’s support base within the middle class’.

Underlying these cycles of violent conflict was a crisis of representation, with the privatisation of public utilities and deterioration of economic and social conditions fuelling popular dissatisfaction with faltering representative institutions.  This combustible mix provoked a situation of almost constant social protest throughout the early 2000s, a political crisis that toppled three governments in quick succession, and paved the way for the eventual election of Evo Morales, the leader of the Movement for Socialism (MAS), and a radical new political agenda.  Throughout this period, the Defensoría has withstood powerful political crosswinds to retain its status as a credible human rights actor under Romero’s successor Waldo Albarracín (2003-2008), a prominent human rights lawyer and former President of the Permanent Human Rights Assembly (APDHB) and his successor Rolando Villena (2010-present).  As Albarracín puts it, “the people know that the Defensoría is not with the government, not against the government, and not afraid of the government.”[1]

However, ensuring independence has not been simple.  The Defensor is elected by a two-thirds majority in Congress for a term of six years, enjoys legal immunity for acts carried out in the performance of his/her duties, and has broad budgetary and operational autonomy.  Notwithstanding formal design safeguards, the Bolivian office has repeatedly been subject to interference and delays in appointment.  Congress has routinely violated its legal obligation to elect a new Defensor within 30 days of the post falling vacant.  First, in October 2003 the embattled Sanchez de Lozada government (2001-2003) summarily replaced Romero with its own preferred candidate.  The collapse of the Lozada government and under intense pressure from civil society the new Defensor was forced to stand down just 11 days later.  In effect, social actors mobilised to ensure the integrity of the Defensoría and further compelled Congress to elect Albarracín to the post two months later.  Upon Albarracín’s departure in December 2008 Congress failed to elect a successor for well over a year, leaving the institution in a debilitating state of insecurity.  Rolando Villena, a Methodist Bishop and former President of the APDHB, was finally elected in May 2010 with the support of the governing MAS party.  Notwithstanding initial concerns, Villena has proven to be a serious voice for human rights, unafraid of criticising government policy.

A new political context has facilitated a more expansive rights agenda; but the turbulence of the period has also presented profound challenges to the integrity of the Defensoría.  The issue of human rights has become one more arena of intense contestation between highly polarised political forces in a context of endemic social conflict, an increase in what the Defensoría has termed the ‘racialisation’ of political violence, and attempts at secession by departments in the East.  Social actors aligned with the Morales government have gone so far as to question the need for a Defensoría “when we [the people] now defend the community”.[2] In turn, those opposed to Morales have repeatedly attempted to co-opt the Defensoría to their own partisan ends.  Some argue that the price of independence for the office has been a bunkering down, a lowering of its public profile – with Albarracín criticised on occasion for not confronting the government on high-profile politically-charged human rights issues. Albarracín conceded in interview in 2008 that “the environment is not favourable, as the Defensoría we are always in the eye of the storm disliked by both government and opposition for not taking sides.”[3] This claim seems to be borne out by the critical assessment of Albarracín’s tenure by the Vice-President, Álvaro García Linera:

“The role of Defensor demands not only being on the side of civil society, but also a regard for strengthening the State and the rule of law…This [Albarracín] failed to do, the State was under assault, it was subject to mutilation and division, the Defensor should have defended the State as guarantor of the liberties and rights of the people.”

A number of factors emerge from this brief synopsis which are worth highlighting.  Firstly, as with many other cases in the region, leadership is central to understanding the experience and impact of the Bolivian Defensoría. The ability of the Bolivian Defensoría to retain independence is largely attributable to the personal qualities of Romero, Albarracín and Villena.  It is also critical to the strategic direction of the institution and its relations to other actors within and outside state structures – especially powerful and mobilised social movements.  Although Romero liked to characterise the Defensoría as a bridge between state and society, such a bridging function is in practice perilous and always hostage to partisan forces on both sides of the divide.  Given such conditions, advancing a human rights mandate will inevitably be shaped by powerful external, cross-cutting pressures and the often incompatible demands and expectations that arise.  Nevertheless, the Defensoría has attempted imperfectly, but importantly, to address these new and competing demands.

* Extract from forthcoming paper.  Please do not cite without permission of the author.  Comments gratefully received.

[1] Waldo Albarracín, former Defensor del Pueblo (2003-2008), interview with author, La Paz, 15 July 2008.
Sonia Cuentas, functionary in the Bolivian Defensoría del Pueblo, interview with author, La Paz, Bolivia 17 July 2008.
Albarracín in interview with author, 15 July 2008.

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