Peace Corps in Brazil: Lesson from Failure

Brazil, U.S, Officials Bungle Plans; Corpsmen Find Own Jobs in Villages

"Dysentery and boredom" was how one volunteer summed it up: sitting around the house all day swatting flied, gulping down paregoric, and feeling generally out of touch with the world. For most of the 88 volunteers in the interior of Brazil, that is what the Peace Corps meant last year. By August of this summer, the Brazil project had already set a record for the highest drop-out rate in a single Peace Corps program. The project suffered a severe case of the ills that beset the Peace Corps around the world during its first two years. The Brazilian example proved how easily the Great Idea could turn into a miserable experience.

Most Peace Corpsmen will agree that the volunteer's job is the most important part of his day. The rest--meeting the people, speaking the foreign language, the poor condition most corpsmen live in--these are incidentals. But the 88 who arrived in Brazil last November didn't have jobs for a very long time. Most of them had imagined that they would settle right into work slots. As it turned out, they had to find their own jobs and even make them up where there were none. It was a slow and frustrating process, and for 32 corpsmen not worth the trouble.

A year ago, when they left Rio de Janeiro for their "duty stations" in a long, arid river basin 500 miles away, the volunteers were advised to look up the local officials of the Commissao do Vale do Sao Francisco (CVSF). The CVSF, a federal agency charged with developing the river basin, was supposed to supply Brazilian technician counterparts to the volunteers in each station.

No Work

What happened to geology majors Bill Chase, 21, from Trinity College, and Paul Onstad, 22, from the University of Montana, was fairly typical. The "chefe" at the CVSF office in their station of Lapa told the volunteers that "at the moment" there was no work in geology around Lapa and suggested that the boys spend a few weeks "getting to know the environment." Getting to know Lapa, a tiny fishing village with no industry, no movies, no newspapers, and 60 per cent illiteracy, was roughly a two-day project. After that the volunteers began to get desperate. They borrowed a CVSF Jeep and went to examine a nearby hill. "It was sort of a joke," reported Onstad. "Even if we found something out, no one here in interested."

Howard Hunt, 38, another volunteer in Lapa, was out of luck as well. The CVSF had no program in his field--agriculture. He as told to sit tight--something might be started in irrigation as soon as electricity was available in Lapa.

And up the river 300 miles, the CVSF office in Joazeiro, Bahia, was telling Princeton geology student John Cadman, 21, to "come back tomorrow," until Cadman stopped coming and started reading books from the Peace Corps book locker instead.

Boredom and Desertions

It was the same all over the interior. A good 75 per cent of the volunteers found themselves unemployed during the first month, November, 1962. In December, with the situation largely unchanged, the desertion began.

"I hate to think about those first months," recalls Cadman. "I just about went crazy with boredom." Only the excitement of the Christmas and Carnaval celebrations kept him from quitting the Corps during that period. Volunteers all over the interior began withdrawing from village life and retiring to the houses provided for them by the CVSF. One volunteer said she was so bored she found herself reading the same two-month-old copy of TIME Magazine three times through. Progress in speaking Portuguese came to a dead stop. "Everyone sat around and griped about the vigah of the New Frontier," said Cadman.

The least adaptable volunteers wanted out, and began requesting passage to the U.S. There were many who felt they ought to stay, but not in their original duty stations. On the chance that there might be work elsewhere, they began drifting from one outpost to another. They would cruise into Peace Corps stations in the CVSF planes, look around town for a few days, and move on. It became a habit to find out where drifters were hanging out, and go there for short reunions. Most of the drifters couldn't find work and headed for home.

Planning a Rush Job

What had gone wrong? Mainly the planning by the Peace Corps administration. But a large share of the blame should fall on the Brazilian officials involved, and on some of the volunteers themselves.

First of all, the Brazil project was obviously a rush job. On the Brazilian end, the CVSF headquarters put out a list of requests without much consultation with its branches in the interior. When Peace Corps directors from Rio flew into the interior on a check, they found most village officials very vague about what the volunteers would be doing. The CVSF people would assure the Corps officials that their superiors knew about work for the volunteers, but that unfortunately the superiors were travelling.

Negotiations for the Brazil project went ahead anyway, Lapa volunteer Jim Murray, 32, from St. Paul, Minn., had the impression that "the whole thing was a big political move by President Joao Goulart. Having the Peace Corps here is a political advantage to Brazil. Goulart was in a hurry to get as many down here as possible. When we arrived, naturally many of us didn't have work."