Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Wrong Briefing


Peace Corps volunteers live in host countries’ hinterlands for years at a time, building, cultivating and teaching. And then, whenever the host government feels put upon by the U.S., it uses Peace Corps volunteers as convenient whipping boys because, of course, they are “foreign influences” or worse, spies.

A friend of mine had to abruptly evacuate her post in Chad’s hinterlands in the late 1990s after Libya’s Qaddafi made these kinds of accusations, and another friend had to flee the Philippines with just the clothes he wore after Abu Sayyaf threatened that country’s Peace Corps contingent.

And now to Bolivia, where U.S. embassy official Vincent Cooper apparently gave the wrong briefing to a group of inbound Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar:

[U.S. Embassy La Paz] released a statement Monday explaining that Peace Corps volunteers had been mistakenly given a security briefing meant only for embassy staff, asking them to report "suspicious activities" [of Venezuelans and Cubans in Bolivia].

"Nobody at the embassy has ever asked American citizens to participate in intelligence activities here," U.S. ambassador Phillip Goldberg said during a flood relief visit to the eastern city of Trinidad. "But I want to say that I greatly regret the incident that was made known this weekend."

Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, declared Cooper undesirable but no word so far on whether La Paz formally PNG’d him. Regardless, Cooper has left Bolivia, but not before creating an excuse for Morales et al. to jack up anti-U.S. sentiment and hysterically summon the armed forces to protect it from sinister yanquis.

How’d the story break in the first place? Apparently, a Fulbright scholar who Cooper also mistakenly asked to “spy,” John Alexander van Schaick, went public with the news:

"My immediate thought was 'Oh my God. Somebody from the U.S. Embassy just asked me to basically spy," he said. "I was in shock that something like that would happen to me -- just a humble Fulbright scholar who's here to do research."


The controversy erupted after van Schaick said Cooper asked him in a November meeting at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz to report the names and addresses of Cuban and Venezuelans working in Bolivia, according to the Bolivian Information Agency.

"I smiled and just sat there because I did not want to show that it completely dismayed me to be asked such a thing," van Schaick said, according to the news agency.

Van Schaick might consider turning the “shocked, shocked!” bit down in the future. The “humble” Fulbright scholar hasn’t been born yet, as indicated by the fact that he apparently outed Cooper to the press over a mistake, in the process damaging the Peace Corps program that’s probably helping Bolivia a lot more than his research.

Not to mention the Fulbright program itself, which is sponsored by the State Department and will now be looked on by host governments as yet another nest of spies.

But look on the bright side: Van Schaick is undoubtedly a hero in Caracas. He could always get a teaching post there.

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