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The Peace Corps kids are all right

Op-Ed

Peace Corps volunteers shouldn't be pulled out of Central America.

January 16, 2012|By Jared Metzker
(AP Photo/U.S. Postal Service )

My mother, reacting to the recent spate of alarmist headlines about "raging" violence and increased security measures affecting Peace Corps volunteers in Central America, has taken to calling me on a near-nightly basis.

"Just needed to hear your voice," she says to explain the call.

"I'm fine, Mom," I respond.

Frankly, it's getting annoying.

It's not that I don't appreciate the chance to speak with my mother. What bothers me is knowing that she is seriously worried. No matter how much I try to persuade her otherwise, she is convinced my life is in constant danger. Never mind that only one volunteer has been murdered in Guatemala in the 40-plus years the Peace Corps has operated there; as far as she's concerned, it's a war zone. Let me tell you (and her, for the thousandth time!): Guatemala is not Afghanistan. Not even close.

Americans who ride the bus in Guatemala are indeed often targets of pickpockets on the hunt for money, cellphones, cameras and iPods. Volunteers are no exception to this rule, and most of us have been fleeced at least once. It's usually a nonviolent affair, though, and, aside from the hassle of having to fill out Peace Corps reimbursement slips, it's not a big deal.

Officially, however, every such incident is misleadingly categorized as a robbery, a term that by definition implies violence, real or threatened, and that makes the incidents seem much worse than they actually are. Consequently, the media latches on to the upward trend in this scary category of crimes and vaguely connect it to the real but unrelated horrors of the drug cartels — and scare the bejesus out of my mom.

Unfortunately, stoking the false perception of a volunteer population under siege has ramifications beyond my mother's ongoing descent into madness. The Peace Corps director 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 am not saying violence against Peace Corps volunteers is unheard of or to be taken lightly. Serious calamities have affected some of my friends here. One of them was on a bus that was in a fatal accident, but he walked away uninjured, thank goodness. Assaults, sexual and otherwise, are probably more likely to happen to us here in Guatemala than in the U.S. (depending on where in the States we hail from), but that's sort of part of the deal. 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 a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. He graduated from the University of Oregon in 2009 with a bachelor's degree in political science. He reads the Los Angeles Times every day with breakfast.

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