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PAX, LUX ET VERITAS SINCE 1965
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Memories of Peace Corps in Brazil (David Fleischer, Brazil, 07/07/12 1:08 am)

Memories of Peace Corps in Brazil

As a comparison to Richard Hancock's memories of Peace Corps in El Salvador (6 July), I would like to describe my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Brazil at about the same time (1962-1964).

Our Brazil I group began training at the National 4-H Club Center in Washington in early January 1962. Most of our group had been 4-H Club members or local 4-H county agents in several states before joining the Peace Corps. Some were college graduates, some had only a high school education, and the rest (like me) had dropped out of college to join this project. A few were 18 years old and some were older. I turned 21 shortly after we arrived in Brazil.

Some had been "IFYEs"--had participated in the International Farm Youth Exchange program and spent six months living on a farm in a foreign country. I had been a 4-H club member in Columbia County in upstate New York and worked on several projects--dairy calf, chickens, sheep, gardening, and reforestation. I was recruited by my county 4-H club agent in mid-1961 and dropped out of Antioch College in December 1961 to join the training group.

Our training in Washington permitted the participation of many area and technical experts regarding Brazil, Latin America, foreign relations and economic development. My only "foreign travel" before then was a family summer camping vacation trip to Canada in 1956.

The National 4-H Club Foundation had been contracted to administer our group in Brazil. The Foundation had a very good relationship with the Brazilian national rural extension service (ABCAR) and that was the "foot in the [Brazilian] door" to get Peace Corps into Brazil. This happened in some other countries. For example, in Senegal, the UAW (United Auto Workers) had a very good relationship with labor unions there and so was hired as the contractor for the first Peace Corps project in that country--to train local auto mechanics.

After six weeks of training in Washington we had four weeks of "Outward Bound" training at the same Camp Cozier in the mountains near Arecibo, PR. Our group had six volunteers from Puerto Rico. We were grouped into several "boy-girl" teams and did one week of "internship" with the Puerto Rican extension service teams to observe their 4-H club activities. Then in late March 1962 we landed at the international airport in Rio de Janeiro. The Portuguese language teachers at the US Embassy were horrified to find that our level in that language had regressed since we left Washington, because of our four weeks interaction in Spanish in Puerto Rico. So it was decided that we would have eight weeks of intensive (eight hours a day) language training at the rural agricultural university outside of Rio, living in the dorms with Brazilian students. Several times, the latter invited some of us to go into Rio with them to participate in student demonstrations and protests--a good learning experience.

When we arrived in Brazil, Tancredo Neves was still Brazil's Prime Minister during the short-lived parliamentary government period. The US Ambassador who received us was Lincoln Gordon, a Harvard professor who JFK had recruited into the foreign service.

Then, we came back into the city of Rio for three weeks of training regarding Brazilian rural extension activities by ABCAR specialists and more language training--plus family home stays. I was placed with a family in the city of Niteroi, across the bay from Rio de Janeiro--so I got to ride the ferry boat every day. Our group of 54 volunteers was then distributed to several Brazilian states--from Rio Grande do Sul (in the South) to the Northeastern state of Ceará. I was sent to the central state of Minas Gerais. There, we received an additional two weeks of training in how rural extension was done in that state--where these activities first began in 1949. So by the time we finally got out to our work sites in mid-June 1962--we had had 5.5 months of training--probably the longest training program ever in Peace Corps history.

Our country Peace Corps Representative George Coleman had previously worked with the OAS and his wife Peggy (and four children) were part of our Brazil I family. Francis Pressly had been recruited as a volunteer but because he had been a county 4-H club agent in North Carolina, he was hired by the National 4-H Club Foundation to be its contractor's representative. He and his wife Sybil and two children also became part of our family.

Because our group arrived in Brazil with 11 more men than women, the Brazil II project that worked with community development in the San Francisco River basin in central Brazil as of November 1962 also trained 11 women to compliment our project--they were nicknamed the MOBs (mail order brides).

We were in Brazil during two difficult periods for the US--first, the Cuban missile crisis, and then the assassination of JFK. Most of our group returned to the US in December 1963, but I extended for seven months through July 1964 to finish some of my 4-H (called 4-S in Brazil) projects. Thus, I was in Brazil during the 31 March 1964 military coup that toppled the João Goulart government. My wife, Edyr, and I were married in Lavras, MG in August 1964, just before our return to the US.

Our Brazil I group has had several reunions, beginning with our 20-year encounter at the same National 4-H Club Center in August 1981. My wife and our then 7-year old daughter also participated. Our last reunion was during the 50th anniversary celebration of Peace Corps in September 2011--also at the National 4-H Club Center.

My Peace Corps service "changed my life." When I returned to Antioch College in Fall 1964, I switched majors from chemistry to political science and eventually ended up at the University of Brasília in January 1972.

JE comments: Outstanding reminisces from David Fleischer. I had often wondered what circumstances led David to choose a career in Brazil. David, together with Richard Hancock, were Peace Corps pioneers--truly one of the brightest spots in International Relations during the tension-filled 1960s.

Perhaps David Fleischer or Richard Hancock could answer this question:  how long and how intense is the training for new volunteers presently?

Who else in WAISdom served in the Peace (Pax...et Lux) Corps? We'd love to hear your story.


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  • Memories of Peace Corps in Brazil (Anthony D`Amato, USA 07/07/12 11:46 PM)
    David Fleischer's reports (7 July) on the Peace Corps in Brazil are indeed fascinating. But I am puzzled as to why there is no mention of the street children. Were they not on the Peace Corps' radar?

    JE comments: Street children are the sad result of urbanization and the displacement of the rural peasantry. I presume that in the period 1962-64 in Minas Gerais, where David Fleischer was stationed, these demographic upheavals were still in their initial stages.  Plus, David worked on agricultural development in MG, so he must have been in a rural area.



    David:  did I understand this correctly?




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    • Street Children in Brazil in the 1960s (David Fleischer, Brazil 07/09/12 12:29 AM)

      In response to Anthony D'Amato's query of 8 July, when I arrived in Rio de Janeiro in the early 1960s, Brazil was still pretty much a rural country (some 60% rural). By the 1980 census, it had become about 65% urban, especially after the military regime decided to impose social security and labor legislation on rural areas. This produced a massive rural-urban exodus, much faster than the same process in the US.



      Thus, in 1962, Rio de Janeiro did not have very many "street children" and crime was not a threat to movement around the city, even in the early morning hours. However, by the early 1980s, urban crime and the problem of "street children" got much worse--aggravated by drug trafficking in the large cities, especially in Rio de Janeiro. However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many volunteers were placed in urban "community development" projects in large cities and had direct contact with the social problems of these communities.



      As JE pointed out, our project worked with rural extension in small towns in the interior of several states. I was stationed in Lavras, in the southern region of Minas Gerais (then population 40,000). I did visit São Paulo and Rio several times for very short periods, but would go into Belo Horizonte (the state capital city) more frequently--where the central office of the MG rural extension service was located. Thus, during my Peace Corps experience, I had little contact with urban areas.



      To answer JE's question about the length of training programs, some were quite short. One of my friends trained for community development in Espírito Santo and said that her training was just 8 weeks at U Wisconsin/Madison and then directly into the field with no in-country training. Later in the 1960s, Peace Corps tried to find training sites in the US that had "characteristics similar" to those the group would encounter in Brazil. While my wife and I were at the U of Florida/Gainesville, in mid-1967, I helped a contractor "advance" a possible training site in Cedar Key, FL, a small Gulf coast fishing community. The Peace Corps group was to go to the coasts of the states of Rio de Janeiro and Espírito Santo to work with fishing cooperatives.



      The contractor (Westinghouse Learning Corp.) got the contract and my wife and I worked on this project between August and November 1967--she teaching Portuguese language and I doing Brazil studies and community development. I got the group involved in a poultry project (raising some broiler chicks). One of the trainees had gone to Hunter College and had never left the NYC area. She called home every night. But later on (in Brazil), she said that if had not been for this Cedar Key "cross-cultural" experience, she would not have been prepared for Brazil.



      If anyone is interested, there is a recent book about the Peace Corps in Brazil (in Portuguese), I recommend Cecilia Azevedo, Em nome da América: Os Corpos da Paz no Brasil. São Paulo: Alameda, 2008.



      This was a history PhD dissertation done at the U of São Paulo that involved interviews with former volunteers, some former Peace Corps staff and considerable research done in the US on the JFK/Johnson period and the "Alliance for Progress" context. I am sure that Amazon.com could supply this book for those interested.



      Many have asked me "Is the Peace Corps still active in Brazil?" The answer in "No." The Peace Corps was not "kicked out of Brazil," but rather died a "natural death" when no new projects were approved by the Brazilian Foreign Office and the last volunteer went home--in 1978. This was the result of "very icy" bilateral relations during the Carter administration. Brazil and West Germany had signed a "nuclear agreement" in 1975 and the US put heavy pressure on both nations to cancel this treaty--that called for the construction of eight nuclear power plants to generate electricity. Also, the government of President Gen. Ernesto Geisel (1974-1979) was very upset at US criticism of Brazil's human rights policy and in 1977 canceled the US-Brazil military agreement (signed in 1952). The Peace Corps was one of the casualties of this period.


      JE comments:  Countries with US Peace Corps volunteers may feel there is a stigma of underdevelopment attached to hosting such programs--is this the case?  Yet surprisingly, according to its website, the PC is still active in China.  Typical Chinese pragmatism?  What about the cultural "imperialism" that a PC presence imposes--the American Way of Life and such?  Perhaps David Fleischer or Richard Hancock could elaborate.

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  • Peace Corps Training (Richard Hancock, USA 07/09/12 9:30 AM)
    In answer to JE's question of 7 July about the Peace Corps training period, I would say that it was normally 13 weeks, 10 hours/day, 6 days/week. For the training of Peace Corps at the University of Oklahoma (1963-87), that was the normal training period except for fish-farming which required more, because it was impossible to recruit trainees who were skilled in that field.



    After 1972, most Peace Corps training was moved overseas and I know of no other US university that continued training after that date. The P.C. continued to use Camp Crozier (originally devoted totally to Outward Bound training) for the full gamut of training, but they soon gave up on that because the trainees learned to speak the Spanish spoken by the uneducated "Puertorriqueño" which, in my experience, is the world's worst Spanish. (When Shriver stepped down from the directorship of the Peace Corps, the Corps abandoned Outward Bound because the new director believed that the four weeks dedicated to Outward Bound could be better used for other subjects.)



    Oklahoma U could have continued to train Peace Corps at its Hacienda El Cóbano in Colima, Mexico, but the US Embassy decided to ban Peace Corps training in Mexico. The story is that the Governor of Oaxaca met some young American P.C. trainees in his state without his having any prior knowledge that any such training existed in his state. He apparently protested this to the Embassy and, unfortunately, the ambassador decided to ban all such training.



    Personally I can't see why P.C. training differed from dozens of other programs abroad sponsored by US universities in Mexico which were welcomed all over Mexico as a different form of tourism. We protested this decision, but the State Dept. bureaucrats are famous for ignoring claims by US citizens. Their is no other resort after having received an official negative from an Embassy. I have talked to businessmen in Latin America who said that it was better to seek aid from the Canadian Embassy rather than the US Embassy.



    In the fall of 1964 as the director of International Training at OU, I traveled to Washington, DC to get ideas about P.C. training. On meeting with a member of the training staff, I discovered that there was a program for Bolivia to train volunteers for service in Bolivia's share of the Amazon basin. When he stated that the training should be more appropriately conducted in Florida with its sub-tropical climate, I told him that we could conduct part of the training program in the humid tropical climate of Veracruz. He asked, "Can you really do this?" I told him that we could and spoke knowingly about Papaloapan River project, which was patterned somewhat after the TVA in the US. Although I had never been to that part of Mexico, I was familiar with a Stanford colleague's dissertation on that project, so I was able to speak intelligently about that region of Mexico. I assured him that we could do this.



    After calling my boss, Vice-President Thurman White, he agreed and I was off to the Papaloapan basin at my earliest opportunity. We eventually partially trained seven groups in Mexico. Our program consisted of 9 weeks at OU and 4 weeks in Mexico. In this manner I began my experience of training perhaps 1500 trainees at OU, 1964-87.



    In the fall of 2002, I wrote a complete account of Peace Corps training at OU in The Chronicles of Oklahoma, Volume LXXX, number three, Fall, 2002, pp. 348-369. Since the entire "Chronicles of Oklahoma" is now completely on line, interested WAISers can read this article by Googling The Chronicles as above with the article, "The Best Our Country Has to Offer," Peace Corps Training at The University of Oklahoma, by Richard H. Hancock.

    JE comments: My thanks to Richard Hancock for this excellent summary. I'll look for the Chronicles of Oklahoma article.


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