Ben Beall: Observations upon returning from Latin America
November 29, 2009
Steamboat Springs — 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.
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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.