Monday, November 21
STEPPING OFF THE PLANE in Rio de Janeiro more than 20 years ago as newly trained Peace Corps Volunteers, most of us felt we were going to change things for the poor people of Brazil. After all, we had been trained in basic health skills and community development strategies. The formula for success was simple. All we had to do was make sure everyone boiled their water and sent their kids to school each day. And, of course, we would work to identify community leaders so that they could organize the poor to have a better life.
Much, much later we would realize the formula for success was infinitely more complicated - that, in fact, the Brazilians had taught us much more about our own country than we had managed to teach them about overcoming poverty and powerless in theirs.
After all, how could they follow our advice to boil water when they had no money to buy fuel to heat the water. How could their kids go to school - we’re talking 4-5 kids minimum per family - when the costs of mandatory uniforms, books, paper and pencils had to come from the parents’ own pockets. How could indigenous community leaders blossom when men had to work blistering 10-hour/six-day shifts while women with infants and babies to care for put in dawn-to-midnight work weeks with nary a day’s rest.
While it took a long time for the relentless reality of day-to-day urban slum life to teach us enthusiastic young idealists about the Third World, it did not take nearly as much time for us to receive a new perspective on the comfortably rich and powerful society we had to recently left.
We served in Brazil during the Vietnam War and many times it became the first topic of conversation when people in the favelas learned we were norteamericanos. Some of these poor Brazilians couldn’t read or write, others couldn’t afford the price of a small radio or even a newspaper. Especially interesting was the fact that since Brazil was an anti-communist military dictatorship, whatever the citizens in the street did learn from the media was certainly not slanted against the U.S. Quite the contrary; the U.S. was a strong ally of Brazil.
But despite this pro-U.S. slant by media and government, the poor people of Brazil knew what was going on in Southeast Asia. Invariably they would ask us, “What is the greatest and most powerful country on earth doing in Vietnam, a nation halfway around the world and of no possible importance to you?”
This question was asked without rancor but with total inquisitiveness, as though the Brazilians were thinking “well, I’m finally face-to-fact with a real, live American, a college educated one at that, and at last I’m going to hear the reason for the war.” But then we would shake our heads in response and state we had no idea why our countrymen were burning rice fields and destroying villages. Self-consciously we explained our presence in their country as Peace Corps Volunteers was an effort to do all the things that weren’t being done in Vietnam.
Later on we were embarrassed when a noted university professor refused our invitation to speak at a Peace Corps one-year conference about Afro-Brazilian culture. The reason he gave was brief and concise. With the U.S. wreaking havoc on a poor nation in Asia and his students being tear gassed with U.S.-supplied shells when they publicly objected to the war, he could not participate in a U.S. Peace Corps event and face his students in class the next day.
Through the years we have reflected on our Peace Corps experience, with our friends and family and especially our children. It was the richest and most enlightening experience of our lives. It taught us from the bottom up the experience that four-fifths of the world must live through each day. It showed us that well-meaning idealists from technological societies couldn’t solve all age-old problems in those lands. But most of all it showed us that our own country was making those problems more difficult to solve with its misplaced emphasis on weapons and force as tools of so-called change in the Third World.
Sadly, 20 years later we see the same scenario being played out. Two-thirds of all U.S. foreign aid today goes for “security assistance,” not for food or technical help. More than $3 billion has gone to El Salvador since 1980. But do its citizens enjoy a better quality of life than they did before this so-called security assistance was heaped on their government? Are infant mortality rates down, health service delivery improved and protection against death squads increased? Are the Nicaraguan people better off since U.S.-financed mercenaries began burning health clinics, killing medial personnel and kidnapping farmers? Are the people of Grenada better off today, five years after the U.S. armed forces launched an invasion and occupied that tiny island?
Bringing it all back home - as the Peace Corps slogan goes - are we as Americans better off, more secure and more sound economically, after this decade’s three trillion dollar expenditure for defense?
We left these shores as proud Volunteers in a great new experience. Little could we have realized then that in the two decades which have passed since we returned, the philosophy and ideals of the Peace Corps would do nothing more than flicker faintly in the hurricane of U.S. policy contrary to all we worked for as members of America’s unarmed services.