Peace Corps Director Celeste’s writing on the situation in El Salvador may have been clear and rational, but “in the field” events were anything but. Angry Peace Corps Volunteers wrote to Celeste with their frustrations. If current technology had been available thirty-two years ago, would some of the problems documented in this letter have been avoided? I don’t know.
But, I think these old documents are important because they may provide a contrast to how evacuations are done, today. These documents from 1979 -1980 were declassified in the last few years. To protect the safety and security of serving volunteers today, current plans are not available to the public. However, I have heard serving volunteers, today, chafe at the incredible restrictions that they may face on travel out of site and the mandate that they be in communication with the in-country Peace Corps staff 24/7. Perhaps the situation faced by these Volunteers in 1979 contributed to the current regulations. Again, I don’t know.
On February 27th, 13 Volunteers who had been evacuated to Guatemala wrote and signed a letter to Celeste. In the December 27th letter, entitled, “Volunteers Perspectives on the Voluntary Evacuation, December 1979 ((DNSA/GWU, Collection: El Salvador – The Making of U.S. Policy, 1977 – 1984. Item Number: ES00340), Volunteers wrote:
Dear Mr. Celeste:
We are Peace Corps Volunteers from El Salvador, Central America. We arrived a few days ago in a few days ago in Guatemala on a strong but confusing “suggestion” from the director that we leave El Salvador. We are but a part of the entire Peace Corps Volunteer personel in El Salvador. The others are in the United States, Honduras or are still in-country.
Quite naturally we are upset….We recognize the immense strain the Peace Corps Staff, and ourselves, have been functioning under but feel this is a very poor excuse for the inefficient and ineffective performance by the staff in informing the volunteers of the temporary evacuation.
We met together in Guatemala on December 26th and discussed various issues. We would like to present our perspectives concerning (1) the chain of events that brought us to Guatemala (2) our opinion of the procedures taken, and (3) our recommendations to improve those procedures…..
The report enclosed with the letter outlined these complaints.
1) CHAIN OF EVENTS (CONTACT – ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEDURES – TRANSPORTATION)
A. Volunteers received conflicting information from the Peace Corps Staff.
(My note: The Volunteers argued that there it was not clear if the evacuation was temporary or permanent; voluntary or mandated. Logistical information was inadequate.)
10. One volunteer was told by a staff member that the voluntary evacuation plan was to appease the United States Embassy. Otherwise, he was told there was a possibility that Peace Corps El Salvador would be pulled out.
B. The pre-planning, organization of the “recommended” evacuation, and the administrative procedures were in general handled poorly:
1. Our warden system and evacuation plan have not been sufficiently revised since May of 1979. Apparently when changes are made in the system, volunteers are confused or unaware of who their contacts. We have on numerous occasions emphatically expressed the importance of revising this system to the Peace Corps Director. In Guatemala on December 26 we were informed that two staff members are presently working on updating the warden system. However, it has been seven months since the need for revision was recognized and to date it has not been presented to the volunteers.
(My note: The volunteers had problems getting money and their passports. The arrangements for transportation were vague, inconsistent or wrong.)
II. OPINON OF THE PROCEDURES TAKEN
A. In general, volunteers were disappointed and/or angered by the unnecessary anxiety and inconveniences caused by the apparent lack of planning and organization during our temporary evacuation.
(My note: The volunteers had praise for the warm welcome they received from Peace Corps staff in Guatemala and for the help of Pat Taylor, Health Program Director of Peace Corps El Salvador.)
A. Immediate revision of the present warden systems and preparation of a workable evacuation plan.
B. Dollars should be available in the Peace Corps Office at all times.
C. Volunteers should keep their passports with them and with visas for neighboring countries.
D. Volunteers should personally prepare for an evacuation; (1) keep all work reports updated and (2) keep dollars and travelers’ checks on hand.
E. Volunteers recommend that vital information which is affecting their lives not be withheld or presented in such a disorganized and disoriented manner.
In the final post, we shall finally see how Peace Corps left El Salvador thirty-two years ago.