Peace Corps Volunteers shouldn't be pulled out of Central America
Writing in the Los Angeles Times on Friday, January 20, 2012, PCV Jared Metzker, who is stationed now in Guatemala, said that the Peace Corps should not have pulled out of Central America, saying that the one Volunteer who had been murdered in Guatemala was the first in 40 years.
Metzker goes onto write in his op-ed piece, “The Peace Corps director Aaron Williams decided last month to take a step back from the programs in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. He has evacuated all Peace Corps workers from Honduras and is suspending the induction of new volunteers in Guatemala and El Salvador. From my perspective, based on being here, speaking to other volunteers and reading the Guatemalan press every day, these decisions seem unnecessary, even cowardly.”
I don’t think Director Aaron Williams is a coward or afraid to assign PCVs to the “real world.” Aaron and I were born and raised on the southside of Chicago; we know what the “real world” is like. (There is, however, a very funny story about his chief of staff living in the “real world” but I’ll save that’s for another blog.)
What is important about the past, present and future of the Peace Corps, and what makes the agency unique, is Metzker’s final point:
There is no Peace Corps draft, after all; we sign up and agree to come, fully cognizant of the risks. Furthermore, if we decide once we get here that it’s more than we’d bargained for, we can leave at any time. Unlike in the case of the military, there is no such thing as a dishonorable discharge from the Peace Corps.
Before the Peace Corps’ inception, some Americans wondered whether our “young men and tender young girls, reared in air-conditioned houses,” could handle life in a poor country for two years. Fifty years later, with more than 200,000 current and former Volunteers, the Peace Corps remains as clear evidence of America’s best intentions with regard to foreign policy. Volunteers working in countries such as Guatemala do much to improve the United States’ image abroad and often make significant contributions to the development of their host communities. The Peace Corps has proved itself to be a phenomenal idea, and, in contrast to our military endeavors over the last 50 years, its mission has never lacked approval from the American people, liberal and conservative alike.
As the U.S. passes through adverse times, it’s important that we not lose sight of the ideals that made us great in the first place. The Peace Corps is a paragon of these ideals, and any decision to scale it back should be taken with full awareness of the damage that doing so would cause. In the case of those of us who are now finishing up our service, much of the work we started will be left unfinished because there will be no one to continue it, but it’s more than that. Young Americans, and those young at heart, deserve the opportunity to venture unarmed and un-air-conditioned into developing countries to experience life as it presents itself to the majority of the human population. To deprive them of that opportunity unnecessarily is cowardly, and such cowardice – although perhaps appreciated by their mothers – is inexcusable considering the courage that potential volunteers exhibit just by signing up.”
Jared Metzker is just stating once again — as PCVs have for fifty years — that Volunteers in the field are much more courageous than the staff back home, tucked away safely behind their desks in their downtown D.C. offices.
Read the full article here at LATimes.com.
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Peace Corps has become reactive and risk-averse since 9/11. The current administration, unfortunately, is no exception, stunned by its pathetic handling of a tragic and preventable PCV death in 2009.
Indeed, PCVs are more courageous and creative than Peace Corps leadership. A typical response of leadership is “if you knew what we know, you’d do the same.” In some cases I know this to be true. But far too often, the response to perceived risk is reactionary and self-protective; a continuing, sad trend.
The U.S. is perhaps more responsible for the current wave of violence in Central America, that it is for the regions economic and political backwardness. I think we have an obligation to not only maintain a Peace Corps presence in Central America, but to curtail the destructive political policies that are driving the violence. Our drug war is being fought all throughout Latin America. The causalities are mounting on all sides of the border.
I note this caveat. What has not been reported is the opinion of the governments of Central America about the presence of Peace Corps Volunteers in their countries. It may be that such governments would be more comfortable if PCVs were withdrawn. I don’t know.
I know in my site, fifty years ago, when FARC became active, that I was scared. I know that the people in my area were scared and that their commitment to protecting me was an added burden. We had no contact from PC/Bogota.
However, I have learned by reading memoirs of other PCVs from the same time and almost the same place, that they had no problems. Some may even have had peaceful contact with FARC members.
I also note the captivity of Richard Starr who was kidnapped by FARC and held for three years before being privately ransomed.
During those years, Volunteers remained in Colombia and continue their work during those years. I consider Starr and those Volunteers
incredibly brave and they should be receiving medals. Unfortunately, Starr died within a few years of returning. Also, the payment of ransom put a price on every PCV head and it was only then that Peace Corps withdrew from Colombia.
Who know what is going on in Central America.
If PCVs are being targeted for violence then they should be withdrawn. But if they are just in the “wrong place at the wrong time” then they are just running the normal risk of being in any place with indemic danger. I served 50 years ago in a place where a violent, vicious civil war broke out right after our group arrived. We were in danger, as was anyone else, but not specifically targeted by the competing forces.
Metzker makes a strong case against the removal of PCVs from Central America. The greatest danger to volunteers in most of the world is probably as a passenger on an inter-city bus. In Colombia the “Flota Magdalena” was affectionately referred to as the “Yellow Death.”