It took Ellen Arnstein the better part of two years to win the trust of the people of Camargo, a farming town of 5,000 in southeastern Bolivia.
The mayor agreed to partially fund the Peace Corps volunteer's proposal to have children plant fruit trees at their school. Arnstein, 27, was about to be interviewed by a local TV crew when she got the call: The Peace Corps was pulling all 113 of its volunteers out of Bolivia.
“I just started crying. I was like, ‘I don't want to go!'” recalled Arnstein, a native of Monroe, N.Y., as she sat in a cafe in Lima, Peru. She is among more than 70 volunteers who left the corps, having nearly completed their two-year stints, rather than start over in a different country.
The hasty pullout came directly on the heels of Bolivian President Evo Morales' Sept. 10 expulsion of the U.S. ambassador for allegedly inciting opposition protests. Arnstein was among disappointed volunteers who believe their government overreacted. True, some parts of Bolivia were dangerously unstable, but most volunteers felt no security threat, several told The Associated Press.
“Peace Corps, unfortunately, has become another weapon in the U.S. diplomatic arsenal,” said Sarah Nourse, 27, another volunteer who opted out.
Nourse had been developing trash management projects in a small town in the eastern state of Santa Cruz, the center of opposition to the leftist Morales. She questioned the wisdom of depriving Bolivians of a rare firsthand opportunity to weigh Morales' anti-U.S. rhetoric against real Americans.
The top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, Thomas Shannon, said security was the only reason behind the “saddening” pullout.
“Remember, the Bolivians on at least two occasions that I'm aware of said that they thought the Peace Corps was part of a larger intelligence network,” Shannon said.