Published: July 2008

Riding with Evo

Evo Morales Helicopter

Riding With Evo

Or....Four Schools and a Hospital

By George Steinmetz
Photograph by George Steinmetz

It was a slow morning at the military airfield in the Chapare, the heart of Bolivia's coca-growing area. President Evo Morales had swept into power a year earlier on a populist platform that included allowing coca growers to increase production. I planned to spend the day with the military tracking down jungle labs making coca paste. I also wanted to investigate rumors that the few labs being raided belonged to people who had not paid their dues to the coca growers union, of which Morales was still the president. I sat in the sterile military cafeteria drinking thin coffee with two Bolivian colonels, enduring the standard speeches about the importance of stopping the drug traffic in Bolivia, when suddenly I heard the whine of an incoming Super Puma helicopter. This was a rather odd event, as the Bolivian military has no working helicopters. But the Venezuelan markings on the tail told the story: The helicopter and its crew were on loan from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. A short while later, the colonels were again interrupted, as three new cars swept in and pulled up on the tarmac. One of the colonels stood up and said it was Evo, and I grabbed my camera bag and strode rapidly toward the helicopter.

Evo was already in the window seat, looking out the sliding door. He was traveling without a large entourage and seemed to recognize me from a photoop a few days before, when I'd been given a few minutes of one-on-one time with him. He gestured for me to get in, and when I asked where he was going, he wryly answered, "Top secret." I turned to Patricio Crooker, my friend and fixer, and apologized for the change of plans, and a minute later I had left him behind on the ground and was flying at 150 miles an hour over broken forest and fields of coca, sitting next to the President of Bolivia. My Spanish is pretty spotty, so I kept my mouth shut. Best was to be like a silent fly on the wall of Bolivia's borrowed Air Force One. When one of Evo's two mobile phones rang, it was dutifully handed to him by a heavily decorated army general (this seemed to be his main job). Evo often addressed his callers as jefe or chief.

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