Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Life is Calling

[An essay I'm going to try to get into our volunteer magazine "La Vaina"]

When the John F. Kennedy administration created the Peace Corps on September 22nd 1961, the United States was suffering a major public relations crisis. That year, Fidel Castro's victory in the Bay of Pigs thoroughly embarrassed the country and solidified popular support for Cuba, which at that time, had few allies among the governments of Latin America. In response to this black eye, and to make less tempting Marxist rebellion in the region, Kennedy proposed the "Alliance for Progress", a $20 billion program for land reform and wealth distribution in the region, and the creation of the Peace Corps, in a move Castro called "a very astute strategy for putting the brakes on the revolution". By 1962, there were seven Peace Corps countries in Latin America alone. So, if the Peace Corps was created in part to kill Marxism, where does that leave patriotic, leftist volunteers who have asked what they can do for their country? Can a government employee be a progressive?
Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that the Alliance for Progress, although an ultimate failure, and the Peace Corps were concessions to the Left. This is why they were effective, for a time, in corralling Cuba's growing regional influence. While certainly as far as possible from Marxist, the Peace Corps is leftist in the sense that it is designed to address root causes of poverty by aiding the advancement of disadvantaged people and in that we work with local cooperatives as opposed to corporations. Further, we are internationalists as opposed to nationalists, inclusive and not exclusive, capacity-building and not patronizing.
Secondly, we must remember that we are here with a political agenda. Of course, it would be incredibly inappropriate for us as foreign professionals working in a sovereign nation to instigate political activities of any kind but, as staff reminds us, we are representatives of the United States. We are part of a public relations campaign to bolster the image of the US abroad and, we are symbols of the friendship between our home country and our host country. The fact that we are Americans volunteering in disadvantaged communities is designed not only to give community members greater capacity to improve their own lives, but also to make the point the Americans are awfully nice people, so maybe our political agenda is not so bad either. This is goal number two. This implicit campaign of which all volunteers are a part carries with it great responsibility (think of our compadres who have been sent home for inappropriate behavior) but it also presents us with unique opportunities.
As community leaders we are in the perfect position to seek out and aid those who would like to see Panama become a more progressive country. However, as a politically neutral entity we cannot do so directly. Just because Che was in the business of exporting his own Latin blend of Marxist-Leninism does not mean that we should. What we can do, and what we have the responsibility to do is support groups, programs, and events that advance progressive ethics. GAD's work with community counterparts in addressing Panama's immense gender divide is a wonderful example. And all volunteers who attack racism, misogyny, homophobia, lack of access to education, etc. are doing their part in the struggle. Every time we help a cooperative or community group make itself stronger and more independent, we are moving forward. The most revolutionary thing we can do as volunteers is helping campesinos appreciate their own worth and feel that they can control their own destiny. Slowly but surely we are encouraging the development of a culture that one day may allow real, fundamental changes to the economic structure that disproportionately rewards the already wealthy and funnels scarce resources away from the poor.
As hard as we work here in country, it would be a waste to abandon our efforts when we return home. The experience we are gaining ought to be used to bring about change in our own neighborhoods. We could organize organic community gardens to reduce our dependence on corporate agriculture, start literacy classes for the homeless, teach English to recent immigrants, start sewing clubs so we don't have to buy sweat-shop products, or an adaptation of any one of the great projects Peace Corps volunteers are involved in here in Panama. Taking our experience into more political territory, we could work with labor groups. Think of a PML with fruit pickers or bus drivers! Dare I imagine hosting a GAD-style camp with Baltimore's young gang members!
Marxists might say that these activities are nothing more than a band-aid on a severed limb because they do nothing to change the "system" i.e. the marriage between big business, the military, and the government. But it is time to expand our definition of a revolutionary. It is not just a group of bearded men in green hats running around the mountains. It is not only a cloister of priests setting themselves on fire or men in wigs signing parchment. Change can come peacefully and without a media circus or a place in the history books. In this age of constant police surveillance and a US military budget of $533.8 billion, we should not be tempted by militaristic reactionary action. Violence, even the illusion of violence, only provides the corporate establishment with an excuse to crack down on any progress in wealth distribution, making it futile. The murders of 19th century strikers at the hands of the Pinkertons, the 1968 Democratic National Convention debacle, the assassination of Black Panthers, and the attack on the Kent State protesters demonstrate that our government has no problem eliminating citizens that are even perceived as a threat. In such an environment, change can only come quietly from the heart.
We need to work calmly but tirelessly in order to advance our cause based in our own values. If nothing else, Peace Corps has taught us patience and the value of slow but sure progress, and we can outlast and survive the most frustrating setbacks. We are an endless fount of creative solutions. In this era of complacency, it is vital that we give as much as we can to as many as we can, that we animate as many as we can. I would encourage you all to practice what you learn here back home and never forget who you are, an agent of change.

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