Policy and Passions Collide in Bolivia

When the Peace Corps, concerned about security, evacuated all its volunteers from Bolivia last month, volunteer Cooper Swanson decided to return to the small town of Mizque to finish the work he had started on his own.
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 23, 2008

MIZQUE, Bolivia -- For an unemployed man, Cooper Swanson is busy. One minute he is at the hospital, going over a plan to combat Chagas' disease. The next, he is teaching accounting to peasant weavers.

At the Catholic boarding school, he demonstrates PowerPoint software to teenage girls. At the public high school, he screens a movie he directed about protecting archaeological sites. He worked to open a library. He served in the mayor's office. He helped bring the Internet to this village of 4,000 people nearly 8,000 feet up in the Andes.

"I have lots of ambitious goals," Swanson said.

The Peace Corps' evacuation of all its volunteers in Bolivia last month forced Swanson, 24, to consider these goals and make a choice: stay with the Peace Corps and finish his term in another country, or leave the organization and return to Mizque. He would not have the salary, health insurance, support network or protection that come with the Peace Corps, at a time of sporadic political violence in Bolivia and just after the government had thrown out the U.S. ambassador.

"It wasn't even really much of a decision," he said. In an e-mail to friends and family, he wrote soon after the evacuation: "I am no longer a Peace Corps volunteer."

The Peace Corps flew all 113 of its volunteers out of Bolivia on cargo planes, and 78 of them later decided to leave the organization. But several of those -- more than 15, by some of their estimates -- have since returned to the cities and villages of Bolivia to keep working on their own. In the aftermath of the evacuation, a sense of distaste lingers for some. Why, when so many of them felt so safe, were they forced to leave?

"Peace Corps, unfortunately, has become another weapon in the US diplomatic arsenal," volunteer Sarah Nourse of Mechanicsville, Md., wrote in a widely circulated e-mail. The Peace Corps withdrawal "is one more chance for the US to maintain its tough image and hit back, harder.

"More than ever, Bolivia needs living examples of real Americans," Nourse went on. "They need someone to help, not for financial gains but because the task exists and because it's the right thing to do."

President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961 to "promote world peace and friendship . . . under conditions of hardship if necessary." Since then, 190,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries. Today, there are about 7,800 Peace Corps volunteers. Evacuations are relatively rare but not unprecedented. This year, in addition to Bolivia, the Peace Corps suspended programs in Kenya and Georgia for safety and security reasons. The organization is already back in Kenya and hopes to return to Georgia and Bolivia when appropriate, officials said.

Swanson, the son of musicians from Raleigh, N.C., and a graduate of North Carolina State University, had been in Bolivia since August 2006. About 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 11, he received a text message on his cellphone. It was the Emergency Action Plan, again. Twenty times over the past 21 months, the Peace Corps had initiated its emergency plans in response to violence or political disturbance. Usually, it involved staying put and calling in to headquarters regularly. But twice, Swanson had been "consolidated" with other volunteers in another city to wait out an intense period. And this week had been particularly intense.

That Tuesday, in the lowland region of Santa Cruz, the heart of the fierce opposition to President Evo Morales, protesters had clashed with police and sacked government offices, including the national telephone company, Entel. The next day, Morales declared U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg a persona non grata, only the sixth such declaration in U.S. diplomatic history, and accused him of conspiring with the opposition, a charge Goldberg and the U.S. government denied. On Thursday, two days later, supporters of Morales marching in the far northern region of Pando came under attack, and as many as 18 of them were killed, according to the Bolivian government.

Still, Swanson did not want to leave. His small town, in a central mountain valley, was quiet, as always. The violence seemed isolated and distant from the cobblestone streets of Mizque, set amid the hills of scrub brush and cactus, dotted by thatched roof adobe huts. He had work to do, and the best weekend of the year lay ahead: the town's biggest festival, with bullfights and parades around the tree-shaded central plaza. "I obviously had no plans of going anywhere," he said.

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