Decolonialising Bolivia

César Navarro, political ally of Bolivian President Evo Morales, on the struggle to drive through ch

As news broke that Hugo Chávez had failed to win a referendum on constitutional reform, Bolivian politician César Navarro shook his head and pulled a face.

The Venezuelan president had lost by 51% to 49%, the narrowest of margins and an indication of the depth of the political divisions in Venezuela.

Navarro, the leader of Evo Morales's ruling Movement for Socialism Party (MAS) in Bolivia's chamber of deputies and a firm supporter of Chávez, seemed relatively phlegmatic about the outcome.

Perhaps he didn't know that just a few days later Morales would call a referendum on whether he and the country's nine regional governors should stay in office. Or perhaps he did.

The closeness of the vote in Venezuela could come to mirror Bolivia's own struggle over constitutional reforms which have already led to unrest and bloodshed – mostly recently in Sucre, the country's constitutional capital and home of its supreme court.

Two thirds of Bolivia's population is indigenous – most of them extremely poor. Until Morales, its governments were widely seen as ruling for the benefit of the post-colonialists and others of European descent.

Enthusiasts for the direction MAS is taking argue constitutional reforms will give poorer Bolivians more of a say in the running of their country as well as enshrining the nationalisation of gas and oil resources. Opponents say too much power will transfer to the government.

Navarro says the changes are the most important part of the MAS agenda because they are “fundamentally anti-colonial” and recognise the different indigenous nations that exist within Bolivia's boundaries.

“This doesn't mean the division of the country, it means recognising the indigenous nations in the interior of Bolivia have the right to self-govern without negating the national government, without having a separate constitution,” he says.

“We are talking about broadening rights which means taking away privileges from some sections of society.”

But, of course, the richer segments of Bolivian society have a great capacity to organise – through the privately owned media, through the regional prefectures and in some towns and cities.

“The confrontation is therefore not just going to be at a level of parliamentary and political debate – it's going to be among the social classes, with the indigenous nations and between regions,” he says.

“Bolivia is a long way from a civil war – there won't be a civil war. But you don't discount in some moments there could be a level of confrontation between some social groups and that will be a critical moment for the government.”

Navarro represents Potosí – which bankrolled much of the Spanish empire with its mountain of silver and around which grew what is said to be the highest city in the world.

It's a bleak place, as I found out when I visited in 2004, and there are signs of terrible poverty. Late at night on a Sunday we saw several women fetching their incapably drunk husbands home from bars. Life expectancy among the miners is desperately low – typically they die at around 40.

“Mining in Bolivia operates today much as it did in colonial times,” says Navarro. “There's no reinvestment. Today we can see a lot of mining activity in Potosi – lead, silver and zinc – and they keep on exploiting raw materials but still it remains poor.

“There's a few rich people but the wealth is concentrated in other parts of the country or abroad.”

Navarro says the MAS goal is to create a situation where the local economies don't just depend on one product and its current market value.

“This is a long term vision and if we don't start now a decade down the line we are going to regret it – and we won't be able to blame the capitalists and colonialists, because it will be our fault.”

Of course Morales also runs risks from another direction – the impatience of his own supporters.

“In Bolivia there is much expectation for change but Bolivia, as a state, has great economic limitations.

“For example, we've got a programme for social housing which has generated a lot of expectation at a national level but has the capacity this year to reach just 5% of the population. Expectation mustn't exceed reality!”

So where will the Morales revolution be in 10 year's time?

“All revolutionary processes either impose themselves or they are brought down,” says Navarro.

“You can go for the Nelson Mandela route and have symbolic power leaving the economic muscle where it always was - in the hands of the rich.

“In Bolivia we are trying to create constitutional and judicial power to implement our policies.

“Our success will depend not just on internal factors but also on our neighbours in South America and other countries in the world. So, for example, if a right wing government was to come to power in Brazil they maybe wouldn't want to buy petrol from Bolivia and that would hit our economy.

“There should be collaboration without subordination and that's the message we want to leave – respect for the self-determination of each country.”

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
Getty
Show Hide image

As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.