MY TENURE AS A PEACE CORPS Volunteer began during the final months of Richard M. Nixons presidency. While the local newspapers chronicled the daily Watergate developments, I also would listen each evening to the Voice of America on short-wave radio and read (cover to cover) my weekly Time magazine, to which I subscribed. Sometimes, the Peace Corps office would receive bulk quantities of the Week in Review section of the Sunday New York Times.
I used Watergate as an opportunity to acquaint my Paraguayan friends with the U.S. democratic tradition and its emphasis on justice based on respect for the law. They laughed, telling me that Nixon would never resign. Just wait, they would say. When it comes time for him to be removed, hell just seize power. While I replied that this would never happen, my private thoughts were exactly the same as theirs. It was not until the moment that Nixon actually stepped down that I fully realized that the U.S. governmental system really works, for which I was most grateful and like them rather awe struck.
Gerald B. Ford became the new president. Friends said he was a member of Henry Fords family, as if to prove that the U.S. government is controlled by a few wealthy families. I would explain that Mr. Ford was not related to the automobile Ford family, grew up in humble surroundings, and in fact was born with another surname, having been adopted at an early age.
John F. Kennedy was the president most revered by Paraguayans. People endowed him with saint-like qualities, considering him one of the few U.S. chief executives genuinely interested in the well-being of Latin America. For many, Kennedy meant free food. Foodstuffs in sacks emblazoned with the handshake symbol of JFKs Alliance for progress were distributed gratis in Paraguay during the 1960s and early 1970s. From time to time people would stop me on the street to ask for free bulgur wheat. Evidently, the Peace Corps Volunteer that previously served in my town gave away bulgur, a cereal that until the Alliance was not part of the Paraguayan diet and which disappeared once the free food program ended. During my training, we learned that the Peace Corps felt it had erred by participating in the distribution of Alliance food. The rationale was that it encouraged dependency and tended to produce temporary rather than lasting change. People often would adopt innovations introduced by Peace Corps Volunteers just to get free food, reverting back to their old ways once it was withdrawn.
The fascination with President Kennedy was based on both myth and reality and closely tied to his assassination. I was frequently asked questions concerning Mafia or Cuban complicity in his murder, and whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted as part of a conspiracy. While Paraguayans may appear no less curious than Norteamericanos in this respect, there were important cultural differences. A political history of short-lived, unstable military governments colored the average Paraguayans perception of the assassination, as did the tradition of machismo. In Paraguay, the emphasis was on the sensational and violent aspects of the Kennedys death, and on the possibility that JFK was the victim of a power struggle or even of an attempted coup detat engineered by powerful forces in politics, organized crime or the military.
One of our more obscure presidents was a hero in Paraguay and the namesake of the small town where I spent my first year. In the Triple Alliance War against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, Paraguay lost much territory and most of its male population. Following the war, President Rutherford B. Hayes was called to arbitrate some disputed land in the Chaco region and ruled against Argentina and in favor of Paraguay. My town, Villa Hayes, was located in the Department of Presidente Hayes. Once in Villa Hayes, I had to quickly do some research on Hayes and his administration, as I was beset with questions about him. I never had the heart to report my findings, that Hayes was the only U.S. president who lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College.
A statue of President Hayes graced the entrance to the Rutherford B. Hayes primary school, a gift from the U.S. ambassador. After my group of arrivals was sworn into the Peace Corps, Ambassador George Landau requested that I remain in his office. He then told me of his special interest in the Hayes school and asked if I would pay it a courtesy visit from time to time, which I did as part of my health education and community develop work.