Bolivia's make-or-break referendum

Bolivia's Right has pushed for a referendum to unseat Evo Morales, but could it hurt them more than

The gauntlet has been thrown down. President Evo Morales has fixed 10 August as the date for the recall referendum that will decide his fate, and that of his vice-president and nine 'departmental prefects', the heads of regional government. He will hope for a victory that will silence the country's increasingly vocal right-wing opposition.

It was the right who initiated the recall referendum, though it now seems the ploy may backfire. On 8 May, the bill introducing a referendum, originally a government initiative, was passed by the opposition-controlled senate. Opposition leaders believe that popular opinion is fast moving against the government and that the bill creates an opportunity to force Morales’ resignation. Rising to the challenge, Morales immediately signed it into law.

The left-leaning government in Bolivia has come under growing attack from the opposition parties, which refuse to accept the legitimacy of a new constitutional text, drafted last year by a representative constituent assembly. The new constitution promises to extend the political and social rights of the country’s indigenous majority, one of the pledges that helped Morales win a landslide victory in the December 2005 presidential elections.

From its political base in the resource-rich eastern lowland department of Santa Cruz, the opposition wants to neuter the constitution. To do so, it recently raised the political stakes by demanding autonomy for Santa Cruz, as well as three other lowland departments (Tarija, Beni and Pando). On 4 May, in spite of widespread abstention, civic authorities in Santa Cruz scored a victory in a departmental referendum to approve de facto ‘statutes of autonomy’ that negate the sense of the new constitution. But the vote was denounced by the central government as illegal and unconstitutional.

By calling the August recall referendum, Morales is now putting his own presidential career on the line. It is a gamble he thinks he will win. To force the president’s resignation, the opposition will need to muster a greater margin of votes than the 53.7% that Morales secured in 2005. Recent opinion polls underline the president’s popularity, especially in the more populous western highlands.

By the same token, the prefects will also be obliged to submit themselves to the recall referendum in their own departments. As with the presidency and vice-presidency, to recall incumbent prefects, a ‘no’ vote must be supported by at least the voting strength with which that incumbent was originally elected.

Until 2005, prefects were presidential appointees, but since then they have gained legitimacy as elected local leaders. In the case of the lowland departments, they have won prominence by spearheading the demand for autonomy. Ruben Costas, the prefect of Santa Cruz, was a key figure behind the 4 May referendum. Under the statutes of autonomy, he stands to become the department’s first governor.

Most lowland prefects will probably secure a renewed mandate in the recall referendum, since their role in the campaign for autonomy has put them in the limelight. However, the future is not so certain for opposition prefects in those parts of the country where Morales' MAS party is strong. The opposition prefects of La Paz and Cochabamba may be particularly at risk.

So rather than undermining his position, the campaign for the recall referendum may actually help Morales seize the political initiative. If he emerges strengthened from the vote – a distinct possibility – he will then push ahead with holding a further referendum required to approve the new constitution.

The constitution is central to the government’s reform agenda. This seeks to reverse neoliberal policies, reclaim public ownership for key industries and use the resources this brings to improve the lot of the poor, in what is South America’s most poverty-stricken republic.

The opposition, however, is in no mood to admit defeat. Assuming the lowland prefects are ratified in post this August, they will continue to use the issue of autonomy to harry the government. This may mean appointing de facto departmental governments and even seeking to retain the fiscal resources that the wealthier eastern departments contribute to the national coffers.

John Crabtree is a research associate at the Latin American Centre, Oxford.

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.