Elections in Bolivia

E-mail Harrigan
Video: Election Day

Dec. 19, 2005
La Paz, Bolivia

Alfredo called one minute before 4 p.m. A competitor was going to have a report on the Bolivian elections. After the report ran, the hotel phone rang again. It was Alfredo, to discuss the report. We went through it shot by shot. Chewing coca leaves at the rally was strong. The stand-up was weak. The pan was too long. It was a good package, though, with a strong reporter — although he referred to the country's capital as La Paz erroneously, when of course it is Sucre. They had been working all week for one report. I may have to call New York to have the package killed.

Another competitor did not even come to the country. They filed their reports from the U.S., tracking a script over pictures from local TV. The images were dull, blurry, and of course the track was flat. What can you say about a country you've never been to? I've always wondered how many viewers who don't work in television actually pay attention or recognize whether the reporter is on location or not. It seems like it ought to be illegal, or at least discouraged, to report on one place from a completely different place. Then at the end you sign out, "reporting," instead of saying a city in the U.S., because that would tip people off to the fact that you are not even in the country your report is about.

The altitude is getting easier, but I still get winded after walking a little. Got a beautiful Alpaca sweater while we were downtown at the coca leaf market. Just gorgeous. Handmade and you could tell it took someone a long time to make. There was no one in the stall, and I could have looked at the patterns for a long time, but we had to get back for a live shot that was killed when a plane went down somewhere else.

Dec. 16, 2005 3:56 p.m.
La Paz, Bolivia
Video: Coca Market

In the middle of shaving I had to stop to catch my breath. That's how the altitude gets you. Also a slight sting behind the eyes. Not as bad as that guy said, though, and easier today than yesterday. We climb on the roof to do live shots. I rest against the wall after climbing up, but it doesn't seem to bother Alfredo, not even with a cigarette. Eating bananas, rice and Cipro.

Evo Morales had a stadium rally that was packed. Despite thunderstorms and pouring rain, nobody left. Some of his supporters have painted their houses blue, the color of his party. Much of the passion comes from the fact that he is an indigenous Indian, like 70 percent of the population. Darker skinned Indians have not been in power here before.

Dec. 15, 2005 4:35 p.m.
Cochabamba, Bolivia
Video: Pro-Morales March

A long line in front of the bank. Government soldiers with rifles at the front door. Never a good sign. Saw it in Russia. People are scared of what will happen in the election here in three days, so they are taking their money out.

Others, though, are very excited about the election. For the first time, they get to vote for someone they consider one of their own, who looks like they do, an Indian. He was poor, they are poor. Right past the bank line they have a huge march of their own, with banners and flags and singing. They are going to a stadium rally for Evo Morales, slightly favored to win the popular vote Sunday.

Winning the popular vote here does not mean becoming president. If you don’t get 50 percent plus one it goes to the Congress, which is more conservative than Evo. He has the streets, though. The last two presidents were brought down by street violence, and the possibility of more is high.

The administrative capital, La Paz, is in a bowl, with one main road to the airport, easily blockaded — if someone kept gasoline and food out for three days there could be trouble.

I have never been to La Paz. It is at a very high altitude. A stringer told us today it feels like an ice pick in your head. He said you can't light a match because there is no oxygen. He said it is higher than helicopter skiing. He said, take anti-altitude medicine right away, at the airport, because it would be like trying to move on the moon. He said it would be impossible to walk and play golf. Of course, he was trying to scare me, like people always do when you haven’t been someplace. The ice pick image got me though. Alfredo and I immediately went to a pharmacy and bought some altitude medicine. I ate a bad fish yesterday, so they may go well together.

The crowds are large. They will wait in line 200-deep for an Evo button. I thought that showed how excited they were — Alfredo thought it was because they had nothing, and wanted a free button.

So far the mood is good — not violent, no guns, just fireworks. But you don’t have to know much Spanish to hear "gringo" and "Yankee" in the chants.

Dec. 14, 2005 4:08 p.m.
Cochabamba, Bolivia
Video: Coca Farm

A six-hour ride to the coca leaf growing jungles of the Chapare region. Most houses are a few boards propping up a piece of metal, open on all four sides. There are a lot of little kids and mangy dogs on dirt floors. Out back there is jungle and in the jungle are coca bushes, the leaves that are used to make cocaine.

You can get about $2 a pound for the leaves in Cochabamba. If you process the leaves into paste, you can get $500 a pound. If you can process that into cocaine, and can get it into the U.S., officials here say, that pound is worth $15,000.

The farmers here fill big mesh bags with the leaves, about 30-pounds worth, and sell the bags in the open at a coca leaf market. At the coca leaf market everyone is chewing the leaves. We asked them to open their mouths and show us the big green chaws. In its leaf form the locals say coca is used as a medicine, to ease stomach pain, and to provide energy. It is chewed and used in tea. One woman who was nursing was chewing. After the child was finished with the breast, the mother handed him a coca leaf.

For the locals, who see it only in leaf form, it is not considered a drug, and many of them are puzzled about the fuss, why helicopters and soldiers sometimes appear to eradicate the leaves.

Most people in this region support a man running for president this Sunday, Evo Morales. Morales himself was a coca leaf grower. He argues that the coca leaf is an important part of Bolivian culture, history and tradition, and supports its legal growth for these purposes.

Bolivian jungle commandos go out in helicopters to destroy cocaine laboratories. One colonel told us that cocaine cannot be a crime for every country in the world except for one. He said drug traffickers pose a threat to the state.

In support of Evo Morales people here have painted their houses blue, the color of his party's flag. Blue flags fly from almost every house.

The hotel in Chapare was $10 a night. I did not know how much to tip the guy who carried my bag to my room. I did avoid Alfredo's recommendation of rodent on the dinner menu. He realized it was not the most appetizing translation, and tried to backtrack, first with "rodentia" and then with "gopher." He got me once with "cheek meat" in Mexico, so no more, but I think I did hear him say, "put a little side of gopher with Mr. Steve's fish so he can try it."

Dec. 12, 2005 9 p.m.

"You're gonna be a giant there."


"They're short because of the altitude."

"Yeah. So where do we fly?"

"We fly into Santa Cruz, then catch a flight to Cochabamba."

"Then we have to drive?"

"Yeah. Then we drive to Chapare."

"I bet it's a nice paved road."

"Yeah. He said it's four-wheeled drive. That's why I'm bringing two vehicles."

"That's a brutal itinerary."

"You're traveling light."


"You didn't bring any..."


"Did you bring a gas mask?"


"F that. Just give me an f-ing wet towel."

"If you get gassed at that altitude you're gonna go down."

"If I go down just make sure you roll on it."


Wise choice on passing up the rodent for dinner. My husband would try anything, including eating the street food in Mexico and not get sick. When we were in Peru he ordered guinea pig at this one restaurant. It was terrible and he had diarrhea for a month. He is now more careful on what he eats.



I wonder how gopher goes with wheatgrass.

Jane from Colorado

Man do you ever find time to go home and just crash? It seems you are always on the road. Keep your column going it makes for good reading.



I'd bet the large, 12 pound rodent was a nutria, or coyou as they are called in South America.

Atlanta, GA

If it is legalized will the growers make less money? How will legalization affect drug trafficking?



I have no idea how tall you are, but I'm only 5'10". This summer I visited my brother and his family in Cochabamba. I have never felt so tall. Many people are less than five feet tall in Bolivia.


I have missed your blogs and check first thing each time I turn on my computer to see what you have to tell us. You are amazing! I am sure your mom is so proud of you and that your dad will forever watch over you with so much love. Please be safe, I feel you are part of my family, too.

Mary in Texas

There I was ...watching FOX as usual, when who should appear at Miami airport but Steve Harrigan, the man always "on the spot." How do you do that, Steve?

Fort Worth, Texas

Hi Steve

It's good to see a new blog. I'm sure learning Spanish is not easy, but at least you are learning it. Good for you! Keep up the good work and I look forward to seeing more of your blogs!

Wayne, NJ

Come on Steve...say it with me..."Donde esta el bano?"


Dear Steve,

I so enjoy reading your blog and I will enjoy even more reading about Bolivia. I was in La Paz and El Alto and surrounding villages in February 2005 with a medical mission team. A piece of my heart lives in Bolivia now. I can't wait to read about your time there. I like you cause you keep it real. God bless you and Merry Christmas.



Wheatgrass? Yuuuck!

Tampa, FL

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