Ever since writer Paul Theroux got booted from the Peace Corps in 1965 for inadvertently conspiring to topple Malawian president Hastings Banda, the issue of political expression has been a sensitive one for Peace Corps headquarters in Washington. And today, as American soldiers pledge to bring democracy to Iraq, our “Ambassadors of Peace” face threats of expulsion for exercising their freedom of speech.
Earlier this year, a group of Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) in the Dominican Republic planned a peace demonstration to be held at the US Embassy in Santo Domingo on March 31. Co-organizer Aaron Drendel thought it was essential to “show Dominicans that there are Americans who don’t agree with the policies of our government right now.” Sixty to seventy volunteers agreed to join the demonstration. According to Drendel, local Peace Corps officials did not object initially, so long as the protest wasn’t held in the Peace Corps’s name. But three days before the march was scheduled, after consulting with Washington headquarters, local Peace Corps officials sent an e-mail to all volunteers warning that the protest would “cause tarnish and embarrassment to the Peace Corps” and that anyone taking part could face administrative separation, the equivalent of a dishonorable discharge. Fearful of being sent home, the vast majority who had planned to protest dropped out, including Drendel. In the end, only three protesters showed up, among them co-organizer Aaron Kauffman. Washington investigated Kauffman’s case but ultimately found no grounds for discipline, which makes him all the more bitter that the larger march was suppressed. “We were basically silenced,” says Kauffman.
Though the Peace Corps is independent from the State Department, its upper echelons come and go with Washington’s prevailing political winds, and volunteers who protest Administration policy have never been well received. (The President appoints the Peace Corps director and deputy director, and the appointments must be confirmed by the Senate.)
At the same time, the Peace Corps takes great pride in its political autonomy abroad. PCVs are not required to promote US foreign policy objectives and are barred from getting involved in the domestic politics of their host country, lest they sully the agency’s reputation of independence. As former Secretary of State Dean Rusk once insisted, “To make the Peace Corps an instrument of foreign policy would be to rob it of its contribution to foreign policy.” Yet the rules are far less clear when it comes to expressing opposition to US government actions. As outlined in a training manual distributed to all volunteers, PCVs must make clear that any political views expressed are their own, but they are also free to “petition the US government,” as many had planned to do by marching to the US Embassy in Santo Domingo on March 31.