Published: July 2008
Riding With Evo
Or....Four Schools and a Hospital
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.

On our first stop, we landed in a field and were whisked into 4x4s that drove us to a village that had been decorated for our arrival. Evo was on his home turf—the place of his youth and heartland of his populist political base. People put garlands of flowers and coca leaves around his neck and showered him with confetti; supporters cheering and chanting his name lined the way. Everyone wanted to shake his hand, kiss his cheek, or have their kids photographed with him. We were ushered into an old schoolhouse, where the tables were set for a breakfast of fish-head soup, roasted chicken, rice, cassava, and beer. As the obvious foreigner, I tried to be low-key and sat at a distant table, but midway through the meal Evo looked my way and turned to the Cuban ambassador, who was traveling with him, to ask for a word. Then, with a big smile, he raised his can of non-alcoholic malta in my direction and said, "Cheers!" I was touched, for Evo, an Aymara Indian, doesn't speak any English, and even his Spanish is imperfect. He toasted me again at lunch at another school a few hours later. The best pieces of fish and meat were set before him, but he made sure to distribute them to his bodyguards and the military men who were accompanying him.

After the meal we visited a school expansion, which President Chavez had funded and Evo had come to inaugurate with long-winded speeches. They all started the same way, with Evo demonstrating his new national salute he was hoping would catch on: one hand over the heart and the other hand raised in a clenched fist. He went on to tell how he had nationalized the natural gas fields to give Bolivians more money, how he wanted to use this money to improve their lives, how he supported the rights of farmers to grow more coca, his partnership with Cuba and Venezuela, etc., etc.

We went on to three more school openings in Chapare that day, and once he donned a soccer uniform with "EVO" written on the back and played a match with his bodyguards against the local team. Evo's team won 5-3. As the daylight began to fade I reflected on what had been a most fortuitous day, and I felt an odd sort of kinship with a nation of people who, like me, had willingly been kidnapped by a charming indigenous idealist with a high school education. I didn't know where we were going to end up, but it was a ride I just had to take.