Ben Beall: Observations upon returning from Latin America

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— My wife, Millie, and I just returned from 27 months in the Peace Corps working in the Andes of Bolivia and the rain forests of Costa Rica. We are glad to be home, and in this week of Thanksgiving, we believe that every one of us needs to give thanks for our good fortune to live in these United States. We also have a new feeling about the need for all of us to work together for the global common good.

It was an experience to have lived in another culture. It is different from a vacation where one only bumps up against the culture. In the Peace Corps, one lives with a local family, works with local counterparts and develops projects that assist his/her community.

In Bolivia, we lived in Totora with a Quechua-speaking population, part of the 70 percent of Bolivians who are Native Americans. In 2005, Bolivia elected its first indigenous president, Evo Morales, a coca farmer union leader, with 53 percent of the votes, an unprecedented majority. A nationwide recall election of all high-ranking elected officials in 2008 brought to the forefront the split between the indigenous Altiplano and Andean Valleys versus the wealthy eastern states and urban elites. Evo, as he is called, detests the United States and its support of capitalism, globalization, the traditional political elites and the agri-business landowners of the eastern lowlands. In this internal conflict, which appeared would turn into a civil war; the United States government appeared to side with the minority in promoting states’ rights, the eradication of the coca leaf through the DEA and the opposition governors.

In 2008, the U.S. ambassador was declared “persona non grata,” and all PC volunteers were evacuated during the civil unrest. It was clear that Evo’s actions were political in order to further his agenda.

In observing the U.S. approach to Bolivia, these following changes need to be made in our relationship. One: There needs to be a respect for the differences between cultures. Two: We need to support the rights of the poor. The poor indigenous majority had been discriminated against for 500 years since the Spanish arrived. Three: We need to respect democratically elected governments even if we don’t like their politics. This is difficult for Americans who confuse capitalism with democracy.

Peace Corps Costa Rica invited us to complete our service. We lived in Tortuguero on the northeast Caribbean coast, an eco-tourism site where the endangered green turtle comes ashore to nest. Tortuguero is accessible by boat and has sandy paths, no cars and patois-speaking Afro-Caribbeans.

Costa Rica is generally supportive of the United States and is a destination for many U.S. tourists. It is known for its democratically elected governments (since 1949), the longest in Latin America. In a contentious election in 2007, supported by the government, Costa Ricans passed a national referendum by 51.6 percent for a free trade agreement with the United States.

Two concerns were often shared in conversations with our work partners and Costa Rican friends:

One, as in all Latin Amer­ican countries, there is a general interest in the United States because of economic influence. There is a desire to visit the United States. This has been made almost impossible because of concerns about illegal immigration. It was difficult to explain to a Costa Rican, who sees his country open its arms to the American tourist, that it will be impossible to obtain a tourist visa for the United States unless you have a sizable bank account.

Two, Costa Ricans could not believe that the United States did not have universal health care. In Tortuguero, there was a small free health clinic, with a larger one being built, which would have 24/7 care. (Even Bolivia, the poorest country in Latin America with limited resources, has universal health care.) As representatives of the “richest” country in the world, it was always difficult to explain that 15 percent of our population did not even have health insurance.

There is hope for our relations with the world with a new president who has lived part of his life in a different culture. I would like to share a scene in Tortuguero that made one proud to be an American. In the afternoon of the Inauguration, I was heading home, crossing the small park in front of the public boat landing. Walking on the main path was an Afro-Caribbean, an older man, heavy-set, who in a loud voice to no one in particular but in a voice so that everyone could hear, said, “Obama, president of the world.”

Ben Beall was a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia and Costa Rica from 2007 to 2009. He also was a Routt County Commissioner from 1993 to 2000.

Comments

nikobesti 4 years, 4 months ago

Ben and Millie: Thank you for your volunteer service and your thoughts from your experiences. I would encourage anyone, regardless of age or background, to pursue volunteering in the Peace Corps. It's a quite a challenge, but also very rewarding and a fun experience.

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Scott Berry 4 years, 4 months ago

Ben, thanks for your volunteer work to help the poor. As blessed Americans, we should all take the opportunity participate in other cultures to better understand the world. But your predelection for socialism colors your comments. Capitalism does not get in the way of democracy, entitlement does. America is crumbling right before our eyes as private sector jobs are lost to government stimulus jobs that will never go away. And, Pelosi and Reid rejoice with each step of the so called health care bill which will do nothing to insure more people but for sure will redistribute wealth from the middle class to the welfare sector. And for your comment about Obama, I only wish he was one tenth as capable as the messiah image the press has so gloriously perpetrated.

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Steve Lewis 4 years, 4 months ago

Thanks Ben and Millie. You give so much.

I once benefitted from Costa Rican healthcare. It was an amazing feeling to walk out of the hospital in Limon with no payment due. But I was also very happy to return home to the U.S.

Commoncents, Capitalism is the world's most efficient organizing principle, in my opinion. No one attempts serious policy successfully without addressing that policy's relation to the free market.

But capitalism has obvious problems too. It's focus on the bottom line can be fatal. Many corporations exhibit less and less concern about distant fiscal quarters, which makes them unstable to the detriment themselves and their markets. A larger problem is the competitive disadvantage of adding social and environmental cost into their bottom line. Thus regulatory constraints of capitalism are mandatory for our own protection.

Consider the sobering article: "General Electric's superfraud" in the December issue of Harper's magazine. Ouch. The biggest corporations seem to be the worst offenders.

Unfortunately, I don't like the beltway government much either. It seems even the Rep or Dem inputs (the will of the people) have little effect beside the power of the entrenched interests. Campaign finance reform anyone?

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ybul 4 years, 4 months ago

I believe their is a major difference between the capitalism as envisioned by the founding fathers of this great nation and the corporatism of today.

A free market requires a free currency, laws which ensure that one individual does not have their rights trampled by another. Corporations ability to print certificates, borrow from "investors" who receive a tax break by giving them money and are run many times by people who only worry about how to make a bonus is wrong. But so are we for giving those people our money, so we have an unearned income from that loan. We need to ensure that who we are loaning money to are good upstanding citizens. Not simply worrying about how much money those investments will produce for us.

It would be far better for us to find a way to invest in our community or invest in a small business in another country to allow the poor to fish for themselves, as opposed to be given that fish. If we teach the art of fishing then we will hopefully not need to help in the future and can help someone else take care of themselves.

BTW, health care starts with the food we eat. Treat the problem not the symptom.

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1999 4 years, 4 months ago

I believe in heath care reform. I believe our health care system is seriously flawed. but I do not believe the kazillion of dollars being thrown at the problem will solve anything.

the propossal is far too vague, far too expesive and far too experimental.

My idea has always been to incorporate, as your travels showed, a system of gov owned clinics in every town in america.

start with a few experimental ones then go from there.

The healthcare reform seems to be more about special interests than common interests

but thanks to you and your wife for your time of giving and for writing this piece.

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