Award-winning Bolivian journalist Harold Olmos, whose gentlemanly manner belied a remarkable reportorial tenacity and who led Associated Press operations in Venezuela and Brazil after fleeing his coup-convulsed homeland more than four decades ago, has died at age 78.
Olmos died Wednesday in the eastern lowlands city of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, of a heart attack after a long illness, said his son, José Olmos. He said his father had struggled with diabetes.
The journalist, a role model for younger colleagues with deep experience covering military challenges to democracy, had returned to his native country in 2006 after retiring from the AP. He launched a second career as a columnist, educator and author when Evo Morales, a leftist coca-growers’ union leader embraced by the country’s indigenous majority, began to dominate Bolivian politics.
“He had very strong and public opinions,” his son said, particularly about what he considered to be an assault on press freedom by Morales’ governing MAS movement.
Olmos joined the AP in 1969 in La Paz, Bolivia, at age 25, after working as a weekend editor at the Presencia daily. An internal company memo the next year described the young reporter running three blocks to the presidential palace during Bolivian coup attempt No. 187 to report on the strafing of the presidential palace for a story that “had no competition” on U.S. front pages.
Olmos was bureau chief in Venezuela for more than a decade until 1993 — years of tumult that saw Hugo Chavez rise to prominence — then in Brazil until his retirement in 2006.
Claude Erbsen, retired former director of World Services for the AP, said Olmos excelled in helping shed light on Brazil’s transition from military dictatorship to vibrant democracy. But he and others were most impressed by both Olmos’ disarming gentility and fearlessness.
“I think the most important characteristic in him was that he was really a gentle soul, but once he sank his teeth into something you couldn’t beat him off with a two-by-four,” said Erbsen.
Olmos would display that tenacity in his later years as a blogger and columnist for El Deber, one of Bolivia’s leading newspapers. In a four-year project that ended with the 2017 publication of a book, “Etched in Memory: Notes of a Reporter,” Olmos examined a deadly 2009 government raid that claimed the lives of three foreigners allegedly involved in a terrorist plot against then-President Morales. Ten people spent between six and 10 years in prison for alleged participation, only to regain liberty when charges were dropped in 2020. Olmos attended every court hearing.
Olmos was “a journalist like few others,” said Nestor Ikeda, a former AP writer and editor who worked with him in Ikeda’s native Peru. Olmos was forced to flee there after one of the multiple coups that then made Bolivia synonymous with political instability.
“He was always at the major news events, as a journalist and sometimes a protagonist,” Ikeda said.
Olmos’ friendship with Lidia Guelier, Bolivia’s first female president, had forced him to clandestinely flee the wrath of Gen. Luis Garcia Meza, the leader of a 1980 coup, Ikeda said.
In Lima, Olmos invited Ikeda to a secret meeting with Bolivian opposition activist Jaime Paz Zamora, whose face and head were wrapped in bandages from a plane crash, later determined to have been plotted by Garcia Meza’s government. Paz Zamora had been the sole survivor.
“Harold and Paz Zamora embraced with the intensity of a reunion of two brothers immersed in the same tragedy,” Ikeda said. In 1989, Paz Zamora would be elected Bolivia’s president.
Olmos became bureau chief in Caracas in 1982. AP reporter Jorge Rueda remembered him as “a maestro for various generations” of AP journalists and “the rock that supported us all in difficult coverages including the 1989 street protests and rioting that came to be known as ‘The Caracazo.’” More than 300 people died in the violence triggered largely by gasoline and transport price increases. Olmos also anchored coverage of the failed 1992 coup led by then-Lt. Col. Chavez, whom Venezuelans would later elect president.
Olmos, “understanding South American political reality and the region’s militarism, was among the first to warn that Venezuela had opened a Pandora’s box by using soldiers to repress protests during the Caracazo,” said Rueda. “After that it would be difficult to make them return to their barracks.”
Born in the Amazonian city of Riberalta, Olmos was educated at the University of San Andres in La Paz and the University of Social Studies in Rome.
An AP internal publication at the time of his hiring, picturing him with a mop of black hair, said “English is still a struggle for him, but he’s coming along.”
Olmos’ English was nearly impeccable.
In 2007, he was awarded Bolivia’s National Journalism Prize.
Upon receiving it, Olmos said that “I left a country enchained by an implacable dictatorship and returned to one gripped by opposing views. In this realm where journalism is trapped in the crossfire of political and ideological disputes it seems the journalist can be considered the enemy.”
Olmos is survived by his wife Cristina, daughter Paula and son José.
Bajak was the AP’s Chief of Andean News from 2006-2016.
Associated Press reporters Carlos Valdez and Paola Flores in La Paz, Bolivia, contributed to this report.