For Peru's Toledo, return of Peace Corps is personal

On Saturday, the US signed an agreement to reintroduce the program after 27 years.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Amid heightened security following last week's explosion outside the US Embassy here, President Bush's arrival Saturday marked the first visit to Peru by a sitting US president. The trip was billed as part of Mr. Bush's commitment to Latin America that has been sidelined since Sept. 11.

And while the war on terror, drug trafficking, and free trade were the dominant themes of Mr. Bush's 17-hour stop, it was a much smaller announcement that held particular significance to Peru's President Alejandro Toledo: the return of the Peace Corps to Peru following a 27-year absence.

As a young boy in Chimbote – a fishing town on Peru's central coast – a meeting with two Peace Corps volunteers changed Mr. Toledo's life. "My close tie to the Peace Corps is no secret," Toledo said earlier this year. "The volunteers helped me understand the world."

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Last month, Bush announced a plan to double the number of Peace Corps volunteers overseas. Beginning in August, the organization expects to send up to 150 volunteers to Peru in the coming 15 months.

The corps sent 2,046 volunteers during the 13-year stint between 1962 and 1975. They were asked to leave by the military government in 1975 during an anti-US backlash.

For Toledo, the return of the Peace Corps is a concrete example of the US government's commitment to the country during its democratic transition. It also reflects the Toledo administration's commitment to eradicating poverty.

In power since last July, Toledo is busy rebuilding democratic institutions gutted during the 10-year authoritarian rule of Alberto Fujimori, who was impeached by Congress in November 2000.

Bush echoed the sentiment of his Peruvian counterpart Saturday, saying the Peace Corps' return is "a symbol of the strong ties between our people and the stronger relationship between our countries."

In 1964, two Peace Corps volunteers met the young Toledo while the two were looking for a place in Peru to live. Within two years, they had helped Toledo get accepted to the University of San Francisco. He would go on to earn an MA and PhD from Stanford University.

Nancy Meister – one of the two volunteers – who was on hand for Toledo's inauguration in July, says it is still hard to believe that he is president. "Alejandro used to say that someday he would be president," Ms. Meister says, "but that was a boy speaking. I have mixed emotions. I am surprised seeing him as president, but I also knew that he would accomplish everything he wanted in life."

The Peace Corps got its start in 1961 as part of President John F. Kennedy's plan to put a human face on US foreign policy and international relations. Since then, more than 165,000 volunteers have served in more than 130 countries. There are currently 7,000 volunteers overseas, roughly one-fourth of them in the 16 programs in the Americas.

For Yomar Melendez, spokesperson for the New Left Movement, a coalition of left-wing parties, Toledo should be focusing on bigger issues with President Bush. Mr. Melendez says the Bush administration should take responsibility for much of the drug trade. "We also want the US government to admit that it is responsible for the drug problem, because they cannot control consumption," he says. At a press conference Saturday, Bush said, "The best thing that America needs to do is to reduce demand for drugs."

David Scott Palmer, a professor of International Relations at Boston University and among the first group of original Peace Corps volunteers, sees opportunities for the new endeavor: "I am very enthusiastic about the return of the Peace Corps to Peru and feel that it continues to have a role to play. I think it could make a useful contribution to Peru's efforts to reduce extreme poverty," he says.

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