Issue - June 2007



June 2007
Editorial

This month's issue: Dual Tourism. Bolivian Theatre. More from the Museum of Archaeology. The Peace Corps in Bolivia and many others! Read on and familiarize yourself with some of Cochabamba's happenings! Do not forget...we enjoy recieving feedback from our readers...so please write to us and share your comments with us and the rest of Cochabamba!...read more...

June 2007

An uneasy, but important friendship: Peace Corps Bolivia

Peace Corps celebrates five decades in Bolivia this month with a reunion in Cochabamba of founding members. But being a USborn initiative in an anti-American country has been a challenge, finds Andrew Page

By: Andrew Page From Newcastle, United Kingdom
Journalism volunteer, Projects Abroad
Assisted by: Lamin Kamara
Essex, United Kingdom
Journalism volunteer, Projects Abroad

On October 14th 1960, Senator John Kennedy was engaged in his presidential campaign. He arrived at the University of Michigan to find an audience of 10,000 students waiting to hear him speak. Standing on the university steps, he challenged them to serve America and the cause of peace by working for needy causes in developing countries. He was also aware of growing international hatred for his nation and how sending waves of well-meaning humanitarians to poor countries could tackle the popular image of the Yankee imperialist. Six months later, Kennedy had signed an order to create the Peace Corps, and that August, the first volunteers were dispatched to Ghana and Tanzania. Since then, of course, the Corps has become a major international humanitarian agency, not affiliated or funded by any military or political goal or branch, and over the following five decades around 187,000 Americans have worked for the Corps in 139 countries. Today, there are nearly 8,000 volunteers working in 75 countries, represent ng a 30-year high in volunteerism for the agency.

Peace Corps: The Manifesto

Help the people of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained workers

To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served

To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans

Interestingly, one notable feature of the Peace Corps is that it sets out to establish reciprocally useful cultural exchanges, both for its host countries – many of whom, including those in South America, are openly anti-American and are suspicious of any American interest in their needs – and for Americans and America, often acknowledged as an inward-looking nation. This year, that ambition comes to fruition for Peace Corps Bolivia, with a reunion of founding volunteers in Cochabamba this month.

Javier Garca, director of Peace Corps Bolivia with responsibility for 140 volunteers working in the country, tells Cocha-Banner that raising awareness of developing nations among his compatriots can only be a good thing: “We haven´t been such a good neighbour around the world, with our foreign policies,” Garca concedes. “The more Americans understand the world, the closer we will be to having policies that lean more towards peace than anything else.”

Although Peace Corps is supported by the American government, Garza stresses that it is not a government program. “It’s more of a people-to-people program,” he explains. “If we can keep it on that level so that we understand each other, I would say Peace Corps is the best embrace that the American people can send to people in foreign lands, because it’s the best of our people coming forward to help.” Crucially, Peace Corps only sends volunteers to nations that directly request its assistance, rather than taking action on its own assessment of needs.

That said, the links with America have posed problems for the organization in the past. Peace Corps was expelled from Bolivia in 1971 – the only expulsion in its history – following the release of the film “Blood of The Condor”, which director Jorge Sanjines explicitly stated was intended “to denounce the gringos” as a movement to restore indigenous strength swept the country. This was realised graphically in one famous scene, where American volunteers were shown forcibly sterilising indigenous female patients in a Peace Corps-run clinic, as indigenous men stage a siege. Questions have long hung over the Corps´ raison d´etre and how closely linked it may be to an imperialist mindset, but Garca returns to its manifesto: Peace Corps has always left the decision of where volunteers are posted to its host government.

Whatever the relationship with America ordinary Bolivians may have today, Peace Corps has at least one high-profile fan in South America. Peru´s president Alejandro Toledo has said outright that he owes much of his current position and success to the intervention of the Corps when he was a poor shoeshine boy. The young Alejandro struck up a close friendship with two volunteers, Joel Meister and Nancy Deeds, who taught him English and eventually helped him enroll on a scholarship program at the University of San Francisco. “A large proportion of the path that I took – through my education, and leaving the shantytown in Chimbote – Peace Corps had a lot to do with that path,” President Toledo told the audience at the Corps´ 45th anniversary speaker series. “You people are responsible for this president.”

Education has remained a cornerstone of the Corps´ manifesto, and today about 43% of volunteers across all its global operations are involved in teaching. In turn, the agency has noted a shift in the type of help it is requested to give, most notably from a concentration in agrarian help – farming and agriculture – to speaking English, and giving lessons on conducting business, which now accounts for 16% of all teaching by Corps volunteers. Bolivia, says Garca, is no different. “Bolivia has been involved in agriculture for a long time, but we are seeing requests now for a different kind of volunteer – they are more in the area of youth development,” he tells Cocha-Banner. Who could say if this is in any way attributable to the appointment of the country´s first indigenous president - and the potential that change has to elevate Bolivia´s indigenous, uneducated youth majority from a life on the fringes of the economy, to one day actively driving it – with the right education, encouragement, and inclusion

Cocha-Banner spoke with Javier Garza, director of Peace Corps Bolivia.

Cocha-Banner: You have been director of Peace Corps Bolivia for almost two years now. What made you want to work with the organisation?

Javier Garza: I was the Peace Corp Director in the Dominican Republic for two years before this and had volunteered for the Corps in Peru – way back in 1970, after I got out of university. I wanted to work with Peace Corps because I felt that my country had given me a whole lot, and I wanted to give something back to the world. I wanted to travel, experience other cultures and other places. I grew up in the southern part of Texas, but my family was originally from Mexico, so I grew up speaking Spanish and I always had an interest in Latin America. So when I was offered a job with Peace Corps in Peru, it was really a wonderful placement. And later on when they transferred me from the Dominican Republic to Bolivia I thought, “This is really the perfect placement.” I´d been in Andean countries before and I´d also worked in La Paz for three years at the end of the 1970´s. It was almost like coming home. I have a lot of friends here too, I´ve always loved and enjoyed the country, and I reall believe in the work Peace Corps does here.

CB: How many projects are there in Bolivia, and which of those are you involved with?

JG: We have five different project areas here in Bolivia, including agriculture and integrated education. All the projects are connected with our teaching, and this includes things like basic nutrition, hygiene classes, and education about the HIV virus. Our third project area is water and basic sanitation. Volunteers dig wells so they can get water to communities, and construct latrines. The fourth area is natural resources for which I´ve got environmental education volunteers that build wells or irrigation channels, which is becoming so important as deforestation in Bolivia is affecting natural drainage and causes more erosion. We have volunteers here working with co- operatives and micro-business groups to help those develop - for example, we´re working with weavers currently in the Sucre area, helping them develop better products, better presentation of the products, and better sales skills, so they can make more money to support their families.

CB: How is Peace Corps´ work changing as Bolivia changes?

JG: Bolivia asks us now for more volunteers to work in particular with the youth, helping them make better choices, like using condoms for example, and avoiding the HIV virus. And making better choices elsewhere in their lives – not getting married until they are ready - those kind of things. Those are still taboo subjects in this country because it is a very Catholic country. But we´re starting to see that Bolivians are asking us for more and more volunteers in this area and we do not put volunteers where they are not asked for. They first have to ask us for a different kind of volunteer, then we respond.

CB: What specific issues do Peace Corps volunteers see in Bolivia that you do not see in other developing countries?

JG: Well, it’s a fast changing culture. Since the last time I lived here, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I´ve seen huge, huge strides in terms of gender equality and treatment of women. We´re still not there, it is still very much a mestizo culture in that regard, and women still tend to be very discriminated against. But these values are changing. For example, 10 years ago you would never, ever ever see a man pushing a stroller with a baby in it. Now you can see that. Now you see men changing baby´s nappies. Previously, the mestizo culture would never allow that. I think Corps volunteers are really in the front row of viewing this cultural change, and I think it’s a good change.

CB: Can you describe life as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia?

JG: We have everything, all the way from ones who work in very isolated areas not close to anything at all, without any electricity, with running water only some of the time, all the way to volunteers who work in the cities. A typical day could be anything from waking up when the rooster starts to crow, to waking up in the city when the church bell starts to ring. It is very diverse.

CB: It has been nearly two decades since Peace Corps was re-admitted to Bolivia. Have you experienced any problems related to the nationality of Corps volunteers in Bolivia since then?

JG: We haven’t really had any problems. That was a strange era. I was a volunteer in Peru at that time and some of those volunteers transferred to Peru. I have to say, I don´t believe the story. I´ve heard Jorge Sanjines, the director of “Blood of the Condor”, talk and he said the piece was more a metaphor for the imperialist invasion of Bolivia, it wasn´t specifically about American Peace Corp volunteers. Of course, they had German actors playing the parts too. It was a difficult and different time in Bolivia then too, when military dictatorial President Torres was in power - he was leaning towards the Russians, he was getting a lot of Russian aid. So there was a lot of pressure on him to quarrel with the Americans, and so there were a lot of other things in play during that time. Peace Corps has always been very, very careful to be respectful of the dignity of man. We only go where we´re asked to go, we never send people where they haven´t been asked for. So I think that’s a good thin that we´ve got going for us in terms of diplomatic relations. Certainly, a lot of people have not forgotten that film, and they do really think that we were involved in sterilizing women. I actually met some of those kids back in 1971 - they were English majors, like myself, out of university. They wouldn´t have known how to do that.

CB: You mentioned the HIV virus before. Around 20% of Peace Corps projects are now educating people about this problem. Is HIV an issue for Bolivia?

JG: We´re seeing it more and more in Bolivia. When I was the director in the Dominican Republic we saw a huge, huge rise in HIV infections, and of course we were next to Haiti where the problem was acute and it was awful throughout the Caribbean. Here in Bolivia it is scary to see the numbers move upward, especially in the larger cities – La Paz, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz. So we feel that if we can help educate people about prevention, and the methods they can take to stay away from this, I think it would be a very useful thing to do.

CB: What has been your proudest moment with the Peace Corps?

JG: Seeing all the accomplishments of the volunteers. I get to go out to inaugurations of libraries they build, or museums - even just a bunch of latrines, or a simple water filtering system that our volunteers built. It’s a proud moment for me because of them, because they´ve been able to do the work.

A second piece on Peace Corps Bolivia – which celebrates the reunion of founding volunteers in Cochabamba this month – will feature in July´s Cocha-Banner

The Guacharo Birds Canyon
It is now recognized that our community must work to conserve bio-diversity. Bolivia cannot fail to awaken the interests of visitors to discover this countrys amazing natural, cultural and rich bio-diversity resources...
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