It’s no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced human coexistence to rethink, revalue and reinvent itself in all aspects. Indacochea Asociados (IA) attorneys were no exception.
During this time, the Bolivian National Government issued a series of regulations in order to mitigate the impacts on our country. Regulations were focused mainly on labor matters, financial and tax compliance extensions, economic reactivations programs, enforcement of technology driven commercial mechanisms and most importantly, regulations regarding public health.
Due to quarantine, commercial and economic activities were practically paralyzed at a general level, which generated major uncertainty in the labor force where, despite the quarantine, employers were forced to take on a social burden while being limited or unable to continue commerce or cover day-to-day expenses. Adding complexity to this situation of uncertainty, Bolivian legislation provides high regulatory protection and labor stability for employees, which was reinforced by new regulations issued during the strict quarantine. Law No. 1309 established the prohibition to dismiss employees during the quarantine, a prohibition that would be applicable for a period of two months after the state of emergency had been concluded.
However, as the quarantine was constantly extended, some activities and restrictions have been partly lifted by the government, allowing the development of essential activities on-site. These measures have been regulated by Supreme Decree No. 4218, which establish guidelines, obligations and conditions for the execution of home office practices at a national level – work practice that has been highly encouraged by well-established companies. The implementation of these measures certainly upgrades labor practices in Bolivia.
Likewise, and as encouragement to taxpayers, the National Government through its National Tax Service issued several regulations aiming to provide payment facilities and extension deadlines for applicable taxes levied over personal and company obligations. These policies were reflected in programs that allow flexibility in the fulfilment of tax obligations, thus avoiding potential applicable sanctions by the National Tax Service. Similarly, these regulations provided various incentives for those taxpayers who complied with tax obligations in a timely manner or who performed donations directed to COVID-19 pandemic relief.
The Bolivian Registry of Commerce has issued a new Manual of Commercial Procedures which intends to reduce bureaucracy in all commercial acts that must be registered before this authority. This manual recognizes the digital signature as a valid way of securing certain commerce acts required by the Bolivian commerce code. Moreover, through new commercial regulations, it is now legally accepted that shareholders meetings may be held via communication technologies (prior to COVID, all shareholders meetings required shareholders to be physically present in the legal domicile of the company). Alongside this, the Bolivian Financial System Authority allowed for certain banking procedures to be executed with digital signatures, thus avoiding the physical presence of the interested party at financial offices.
In regards to welfare programs, the Bolivian Government provided economic support and relief to the general Bolivian population through various bonds. These bonds have been aimed at those whose economic or employment situation has been severely affected by the pandemic.
Taking into account the extended duration of the quarantine applied in Bolivia (In accordance to Supreme Decree No. 4199 strict quarantine started on 19 March and flexible and dynamic quarantine was established starting 1 June), the country’s economy will surely be impacted; experts predict anything from a 3% to 9% contraction in 2020.
In order to reverse these mid-2020 economic growth projections, the Bolivian government, through Supreme Decree No. 4216, Ministerial Resolution No. 159 and Ministerial Resolution No. 160 issued economic programs to support micro, small and medium enterprises, as well as programs to support employment and labor stability. These programs extended bank credits to micro, small and medium businesses bank credits in service of two main objectives: avoiding closure and maintaining jobs.
Additionally, and with the sole objective to reboost the national economy, a loan program was launched to promote the consumption and production of national goods and services. This loan has an historically low interest rate of 3% per year and intends to reactivate consumer buy-ins .
Despite the fact that economic support measures have become a reality, the current political scenario in Bolivia has made it difficult for them to materialize. A continuous struggle between the Executive Branch, which holds office, and the Legislative Branch, which holds a majority has seen the initiatives of one side opposed by obstacles from the other. This situation can be clearly identified with law projects in regards to international loans and sovereignty bonds proposed by the Executive Branch and blocked by Legislative Branch.
Although during the first months of the National Emergency the national economy was affected, as of June an increase in the labor market and in the generation of labor income could be witnessed, according to studies carried out by the National Institute of Statistics. Likewise, as a result of the implementation of virtual registries before the Trade Registry, there was an increase in the creation of small and medium enterprises, which implemented innovative business models and e-commerce in their offer of services and products. Also, because of the recently issued resolutions by the National Tax Service, tax incentive programs were created, implementing a system applicable to individual entrepreneurs and start-ups which offers access to a unique tax, as a replacement to traditional taxes applied to ordinary businesses.
We consider that despite the limitations COVID-19 brought to Bolivia and the world, it has given birth to what we call the Bolivian Legal System 2.0. This version comes with legal technology innovation, debureaucratization of public institutions’ procedures and new opportunities to reinvent business. It is necessary to adapt quickly to the new limitations and obstacles that are found in our reality, and to seek the effectiveness from the offer and customer satisfaction to provide the results that are sought.
The current situation has forced the state to adapt quickly, responding effectively with incentives that promote foreign investments likely to help the country’s continued economic growth. In this matter, new investments can count on a far higher level of legal protection than was offered by previous governments. The Government’s guidelines on new investments are certainly promising, and investors can have every confidence that legal protections are robust and will be enforced.
Thus, even though we are aware that much more needs to be done, COVID-19 certainly changed the rules of the game and government officials must continue to promote Bolivia as a promising emerging market, securing not only local but international investments. They must, they will.