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Drugs, unrest and socialism

Top Bolivian politician Silvia Lazarte talks about her role in reforming the South American country

For a politician whose country is wracked by such violent unrest some commentators predict civil war, Bolivia's Silvia Lazarte is surprisingly positive about her nation's prospects – steely, even, in her insistence the outlook is good.

As one of the most senior politicians in the ruling party, MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo, or Movement towards Socialism), Lazarte is understandably keen to emphasise the widespread support enjoyed by Bolivian president, Evo Morales.

At a referendum held in August, she points out, he won 67 per cent of the vote.

But, equally, the division and dispute at the heart of Bolivian politics are clear when she speaks about the government's right wing opposition.

“These are people who never accepted their downfall in the last elections, who don't accept that they were kicked out of power. They were used to being in control and being in power and ignoring the people,” she tells me when we meet at the New Statesman's offices in Victoria.

The most recent illustration of the opposition's refusal to submit came on 11 September this year, when at least fifteen people were killed on their way to a pro-government rally in the northern region of Pando.

Bolivia's political polarisation is matched by its shockingly wide poverty gap: despite rich reserves of oil, natural gas and minerals, it is one of Latin America's poorest countries.

Most of the country's resources are concentrated in a few wealthy lowland regions in the east known as the “Half Moon”, which are largely populated by a European-descended elite.

However, the majority of the population – about two-thirds – belong to Bolivia's 36 indigenous peoples and live at subsistence level in the country's more mountainous, western regions. The current constitution ignores both women and the indigeous peoples.

So as the president of the Constitutional Assembly, Lazarte's importance to Morales's socialist reforms is clear.

She has led the drafting of the charter – expected to pass into law when it is put to a referendum in January next year.

The new constitution aims to improve the living standards for the indigenous population by redistributing profits from the gas fields in the east of the country.

Like Morales, Lazarte is herself an indigenous Bolivian, and she arrives for interview in full traditional dress: layered skirts, a narrow-brimmed white hat and an almost neon-bright patterned shawl.

For a Brit used to the funereal gloom of Western political fashions, her colourful appearance gives an immediate impression of flamboyance, but in her choice of words, of course, Lazarte is no less calculating than a British cabinet minister would be.

Her comments on the new constitution are unequivocal: “It is inclusive. That is the most important thing about the constitution, that everybody is taken into account,” she explains, her expression completely neutral. “The rights of women ... the indigenous, first peoples of Bolivia, all the ethnicities, languages, these are all recognized.”

What she glosses over though is the response from the right wing, which has been vehement, sustained and extremely violent: the incident in Pando is only the most recent in a series of anti-government gestures which have erupted repeatedly in the two years since the Assembly was first created. Five of the wealthy regions have also voted for greater autonomy.

However, Lazarte is adamant that the situation has started to improve in recent months. “There really isn't as much division now. We got through this with the formulation of the constitution - the writing of the constitution was everybody's work. The government had their representatives there [on the Assembly] and in congress just like the opposition did.”

The MAS government has made several major concessions in order to secure a date for the referendum, including an agreement that the president, Evo Morales, must only seek one more term in office.

Surely this suggests that the opposition has retained its ability to strongarm the government? Lazarte insists not: "the right wing has recently lost a lot of power, it's fighting within itself.”

Her view stems from the aftermath of the killings in Pando. Leopoldo Fernandez, Pando's regional governor, has been jailed and stands accused of hiring hitmen to kill farmers on their way to a pro-government rally.

There is also an investigation looking at “the broader network” of regional governors and civic committee members who may have been involved in the killings.

As a result, she says, several suspects appear to have fled: “Branco Marinkovic, who is a key figure in Santa Cruz politics, apparently is no longer in the country, according to the information we have. Ruben Costas, who is the prefecto [regional governor] of Santa Cruz, apparently left, went to his hacienda and is not at large.” Lazarte does admit though that there are “a few other groups around the place”, such as the Santa Cruz Youth Union, who have been implicated in violence, but as the investigation is ongoing, will not go into further detail.

The US has also waded into this strained relationship. Concerned by Morales' warm relationships with Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and his support for coca-leaf growers, whose crop is important both culturally and for the Bolivian economy but also provides the raw material from which cocaine is produced, the US has never been supportive of Morales.

In 2005 the then US ambassador warned that if Morales was elected, Bolivia would lose Washington’s financial support and goodwill.

Last month his successor, Philip Goldberg, was expelled after holding meetings with opposition politicians including Ruben Costas. Morales accused Goldberg of “seeking the division of Bolivia”.

“The US ambassador was constantly meeting up with the right wing,” Lazarte claims. “What happened with the ambassador from the United States was that instead of complying with Bolivian law and Bolivian policies, he decided to conspire against the government, and the Bolivian people will not accept that.

"What the Bolivian people don't want are impositions. We don't like it, we never will like it, and we won't allow it.”

She claims that, along with Leopoldo Fernandez' arrest, his expulsion was “significant” in weakening the right wing, although Morales clearly didn't feel Goldberg's ejection was enough: just days ago he also suspended the activities of US drug enforcement agency, accusing its agents of working “to conduct political espionage and to fund criminal groups” involved in anti-government protests.

In this context, Lazarte's calm assurances that Bolivia has a united, peaceful future ahead of it - “we are now in a process of consolidation and achieving more consensus every day” - seem less than reliable.

With Fernandez in jail and the US presence in Bolivia weakened, the dangerous minority of right-wingers appears to have been brought under control for the meantime. But it is unlikely that the US will stop meddling in the country's affairs as long as Morales is in power; and how the right wing will behave as the referendum draws closer still remains to be seen.

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.