Peace Corps Venezuela 1966-69, the first months

This is a daunting task, to summarize nearly three years of working and living in a culture radically different than our own – and during a time that is so different than the world today.  To begin with, the war in Vietnam was dominating the news and the life of the Nation.   I was a young person, having left Harvard Law School at 23 and the clerkship with the Supreme Court of Massachusetts at 24. I started Peace Corps training in San Francisco State University upon turning 25, and the training was like Boot Camp, long hours, jammed with tests to see that you were learning whatever was being taught, punctuated with field trips about culture, and topped off with physical exercise which left you wrung out.  Arriving in Venezuela in late December of 1966, the world changed utterly and completely for me.  Instead of living in each other’s suitcase in a barracks with 27 male volunteers (see previous post on Training), I was on my own.  I moved to a routine where nothing in the day was scheduled and fixed – in fact you made your own schedule and set your own sort of fuzzy goals.  You assessed the situation in which you lived – in a manner which you had been taught over the last few months of 1966, and there was usually no one around with the same background as yourself with whom to check on your analysis.  There was damn little supervision or guidance as we stepped off into a situation that the Peace Corps had misread.   We had been trained in Cadastro, a system of rating properties and applying taxes, something that Venezuela had no interest in doing at all….

I lived at first in Decmber of 1966 in Nuevo Pueblo Barrio in Barquisimeto with Ed Kaufman, a volunteer younger than I who had been there about a year.  Every dwelling in the barrio was concrete block and some were mud walled.    Roofs were tin sheets overlapped, but sometimes red asbestos sheets were used, and when it rained (often and thrice daily during June and December), the noise was considerable.   Ed was friends with those who lived in his neighborhood, and like all Venezuelan barrios it was a neighborhood unlike those in Boston,  Every house had 5 or 6 kids, with maybe a married child having moved in with a few of her own,  The neighborhoods were awash in children at all hours – and few men were to be seen during the day.   The men to be seen in a neighborhood in the day were there because they had a business, a bar, bodega, metal working shop, auto-repair shop, or small factory.   There was no zoning law restricting what could be done and where.   There were industrial zones where the factories were larger and located cheek to cheek, but most neighborhoods had pottery and welding and auto-mechanics working next door to homes.  While nearly everyone was Catholic by heritage, almost none of the men went to church services; the women went and they took the kids.  There was a big imposing church downtown in Barquismeto at the Bolivar Plaza, one of which Plazas was found in every City in Venezuela.  In the barrios, there were low ceilinged  6,000 foot square churches, tin roofed, often with a priest from Spain or from Oklahoma.   The Jesuits had come to Venezuela in the fifties, at the same time as a flood of European immigrants fleeing war-torn Western Europe,  All those immigrants had to do in 1951 to gain admission was to SAY that they were going to work on a farm.  Everyone winked at each other and the Germans opened bakeries and restaurants, the Italians commenced clothing manufacture,  the French opened restaurants.  Arabs came in great numbers and they opened stores selling Kitchenware, stove, knives and dishes.  The Jesuits settled in and they created a system of Cooperatives, a culture of cooperatives.  They educated the native Venezuelans on how to raise cattle, potatoes, watermelons, pigs, etc., working together.  All over Latin America and especially in Venezuela the lower classes were learning how to band together, keep the accounting ledgers, manage the business of the Cooperative, share skills, and raise crops that they could sell and avoid the clutches of the money lenders and the crooks in the markets.   In the barrios, there was a remarkably friendly and help-your-neighbor spirit among all living there.   The Country had enormous natural resources. Democracy was less than  ten years old in 1966 and its upsides were in sight.  When you entered a barrio, very quickly it got around who you were and what your story was – and strangers to the barrio were spotted in a moment by the people from block to block.  Crime was not a great problem, except in a few such neighborhoods.  Of that, more below.

Barquismeto (in the State of Lara, located about 225 miles Northwest from Caracas and about 200 miles South of Maracaibo the oil port) was a city of over 500,000 people when I arrived (750,000 today) and it had one traffic stoplight, no fire department, and a garbage system that consisted of picking up piles of refuse in the barrios in open trucks, driving to the river a little downstream from the City, and dumping the contents into the river.  The City governments operated the Municipal Slaughterhouses.  No animal could be killed and butchered in the City without going through the slaughterhouse and paying a fee.  This worked for farmers raising cows and pretty much for pigs – but in the barrios, people kept goats and a few pigs and they slaughtered them in their backyards whenever they wished and paid no fees.  The town was huge but essentially all one story homes and, downtown, there were just a few 2 story buildings and one or two 6 story new office-residential buildings.  The Peace Corps had a regional director officed there in one of the few 6 story buildings.  Bill and Ellen Dewey (Californians about 25 years old)  lived in an apartment on the 5th floor and the office was in a space on the 6th floor.  There was a Peace Corps Doctor, Stevenson, who lived in a big house with a huge yard on a nice street,  He and Bill Dewey tended to about a 5th of the 300 volunteers in country,  That meant that Dewey travelled all the time in a green 4 door Willys Jeep with 4 wheel drive so as to visit the individual sites where 60 volunteers lived in an area larger than the State of Texas, each volunteer living alone (unless they were one of the rare married couples volunteers).  Doctor Stephenson had office hours and volunteers who would get ill could drag themselves a few hundred miles (more on that below)  to see him or they would come in for regular checkups from time to time.

After my hiding out for a few weeks (see previous post), the fellow who was to become the first City Manager in Barquisimeto came to town and presented himself to the City Council, which had secretly agreed a year earlier to replace the Tammany Hall Crowd that were running the place and scamming the City.  Señor German Noria was a Creole Petroleum administrative employee who had signed on to be trained at Central Government expense in Covina California.  He and I one morning went to the Office of the City Manager (one Mr, Moros) and the Mayor (Don Luis Gallardo) came in and told Moros to get out of town.  Noria fired about 65 cronies of Moros that afternoon.  That night the tires on Noria’s car were slashed.   Over the next few days, Department Heads who were serious about their jobs and the work that their Departments were supposed to be doing came in to discuss with Noria what was happening.  One by one, they signed on to Noria’s stated vision for the City, no graft, competent services, and a new rejuvenated kind of service-providing to the citizens.  There were 21 political parties in the State of Lara and the Barquisimeto City Council was a coalition of the 3 largest parties.  The Council met weekly and they were content to have Noria run the business of the City with only the occasional request for patronage, i.e.  employment of their family and friends.   Noria was a master politician and, from Engineering to Tax Records to Streets to Garbage to Fire to Collectors of Taxes, he sure-footedly gained the Council’s trust and then their admiration.   The first job was to get control over the levying of taxes and the intake of the income from taxes.  There had never been a budget for the City and it was a real task to assemble one.  The records as to income received in the past were hazy and incomplete.  An amazing find was that the 45 or so Collectors of 5 different branches of  Taxes were given each week big bundles of paper slips showing what tax to collect from a particular business. There was no accountability as to how many receipts they handed out, what reductions they negotiated on the spot at the doorsteps of the businesses, and what portion they turned in of the cash that they gave receipts for.  In other words, each Collector had a license to steal what he could get away with stealing and there was no knowing what he had pocketed.  Collectors for one branch of Taxes would knock on a business door on Tuesday but a different collector for a different branch of Taxes would arrive on Thursday and another one on Friday.  No one talked to any of the other collectors.  One collector did not collect from one businessman for all branches of the 5 types of Taxes…   The first week, I sat through a memorable meeting with a citizen.  To go abroad, a citizen had to have his Identity Card (Cedula) stamped with the seal of the City of Barquisimeto.  A gentleman came in and admitted to Noria that he owed the City  approximately 10,000 Bolivars in Taxes – but said that he could not pay that amount and that he needed to go abroad to visit family.  I watched the negotiation session at the end of which he paid 5,000 Bolivars and he got his Cedula stamped…   The City had an “accounting machine”, an IBM Hard-Wired-Board early computer, but the young hotshot (Suarez) who had been hired from Caracas to run it was in over his head and was concealing that he could not make it do what was wanted and could not make it sum correctly.

Since Barquisimeto was the largest of the thirty cities into which the Peace Corps was placing those of my 30 person group of volunteers, the top 2 Spanish speakers of our group had been assigned to Barquisimeto, myself and Steve Woolf (and, incidentally, it was thought, Steve’s wife Beverly Woolf).  Steve was a brilliant MIT Architect whose father was a well known engineer in the City of Boston.  Steve was a gifted musician and, with a moment to practice, he could play any instrument (more of that below).  It had never been clear what Beverly might do – but she had been working as graduate student on computers in MIT on the Mars shot – and that was going to become really important.   They lived in a different barrio than mine and even further out.  Steve worked in Municipal Engineering and he wangled a grey small Willys jeep to get to and from work and to spots where he would be doing on-site work.   In the first few weeks on life in the Municipal Council, we three were doing what Peace Corps taught us:     ask polite questions, really listen to the answers and explanations, look for holes and vacuums and voids in services, figure out the force-diagram that explains why things really are the way they are.   Then slowly and with care, seize the day and find a way to dramatically cut through some snarl and tangle to make something dramatically better.   While Steve Woolf was learning what engineering did and what services he could perform there (it turned out to be a big one),  Beverly and I stumbled onto the fact that the citizens of Barquismeto were killing each other off at an incredible rate in the streets of the center-city.  As we tumbled to how amazing the carnage was, we could easily envision why.  The streets (Carreras running North and South, Calles running East and West) all met at right angles – and there were no stop lights.  Streets were usually one lane with 20 inch high curbs because when the rainy seasons came, the houses in the blocks had roofs that sloped into central courtyards and then drains gushed all the water into the streets, which flooded 20 inches deep at least, filled with refuse and rats that had lived in the drains (more of that below).  Carreras were usually two lanes, that is opposing two lanes going North and South.  Everyone drove at whatever speed they liked and on entering an intersection, say going East on a street, they simply blew their horns loudly and charged through.  Enormous traffic jams were caused by busses in a dozens bright colors that stopped everywhere at any moment, creating gridlock for blocks behind them, so blow more horns please.   Beverly and I decided to get the traffic records which were controlled by the National Ministry of Traffic, in a separate remote office to which no one ever went.  We plotted five years of records of accidents on a huge map – with purple dots for deads and red dots for woundeds and green for crash and yellow dots for pedestrians, with a slash if deads.  The map showed patterns and when we overlaid the chaotic bus routes, it was clear what was occurring.  Certain places in the City were death traps.  We then got yellow pads and folding chairs and invented a way to score the rhythms of traffic during long days at those intersections.  We created a report showing that we needed to create one-way Carreras North and South, that we needed to systemize the bus routes and control the stops, and that we needed a few more traffic lights.  Beverly then had the genius idea to computerize the data that we had, especially the stuff on the map.  Working with punched IBM cards she created an impressive pile of greenbar paper.   We presented the report to the Council, which was waiting to see what in the heck these gringos could bring to the City.  There was initial resistance to our idea of limiting the free-for-all approach to traffic,   which resistance came to an end when Beverly got up and dramatically went through piles of green bar paper showing that the computer had been used and all opposition then ceased.  About a month from the time we started the study, the city council ordained one way streets, a bunch of changes in bus routes (boy, were the bus guys angry), and the creating of about a dozen new traffic lights.  In the nearly three years that I was in Barquisimeto, the cacophony of auto horns reduced and I believe thousands of potential deads and woundeds were avoided…  That computer, primitive hard-wired board machine that it was, was a godsend.

So, the time Easter came around, I (and the Woolfs) were pretty plugged into the rapidly reforming City Council. I had acquired an Estonian girl friend who was a veterinarian and had come to the conclusion that I could not run with her crowd as they were too well off and insular. Some of my co-workers at the Council invited me to accompany them to the Beaches for the Easter week celebration, Pascuas.  This, like Christmas, was a 10 day period when no business is transacted anywhere in the Country.  Everyone who can relocates to the beaches, lives in tents or palm thatched lean-tos and shares beer and bug spray.  My group planned to go to a Beach near San Felipe then use dugout canoes to get out to a small island where the deposed Dictator, Perez Jimenez, had once had a luxurious home, looted and burned in the late 50’s when he was forced from office.  We got there and campfires were started.  We all hung up our hammocks from the palm trees, enjoyed the beach, cooked food as darkness fell, and drank beer or um til midnite while Quatro music was played and sung.  About 1am, I took off my shoes and fully clothed lay out in my hammock about 4 feet off the ground.  Before I got well off to sleep, I heard rustling and movement.  I shine a flashlight and saw that the place was overrun with rats.  I reached down and got my shoes, took the laces out, used them to stitch the hammock closed at the top (so a rat would not fall from the palm tree into the hammock) and spent an uneasy night.  Un the morning, I told my friends and we paddle through the mangroves back to the big Beach and stayed there the rest of the week.

While there was not much crime in Venezuela, the volunteers all lived in the worst barrios and it seemed that the bad guys knew when it was that volunteers got paid once a month.  There were stories how in all the cities in the barrios when payday came around, one or another volunteer would get robbed, quite often at knifepoint.  In my City, Pete Adolph was a volunteer a couple of barrios away from mine. He had been a Marine, in Vietnam, and after the Marines came down in the Peace Corps. About 4 or 5 months after I came in-country, a trio of locals came onto Pete one Friday payday at about midnight. With a knife or two they demanded his money.  Pete left them in an intersection in a pile of body parts.  The word went out in the barrios and then went around the Country:  Do NOT mess with the Peace Corps volunteers – because they are martial arts trained and are expert that way.  In all the time I was in Venezuela, three years, I never heard of another volunteer being robbed after Adolph’s event, not once.

The Beatles were the craze the world over.  A friend of the Woolfs sent Steve Woolf a record of “Revolver”, the Beatles latest album.  Steve set it up at his house in the barrio on a stereo with outdoor jury-rigged speakers and the neighbors begged him to play it over and over.  Steve cajoled a local Priest, Padre Jose from Nebraska. to loan Steve a folding pump organ.  Steve learned to play the songs from Revolver in just a day or two and was in demand everywhere with the traveling portable pump organ.

About 40 miles away from Barquisimeto (over very bad dirt and mountain roads towards Acarigua) lived a volunteer married couple, Tom and Janet Bazis.  He was a metal-welding tractor mechanic and she was a midwife nurse,  Janet was off in the mountains on a mule delivering babies and teaching midwives.  Tom was home in the home shop in which they lived one night and had an appendix-burst attack.   There was no way anyone there in the village could help him.  He took a decrepit jeep that someone had left there to get its brakes repaired and drove the jeep with no brakes to Barquisimeto by himself.  I was in the Peace Corps office when he opened the door and fell through it unconscious.  He was rushed to the not-so-good local Hospital and Doctor Stephenson did an emergency appendectomy on Tom.  Tom lived and did fine.   He would attend my wedding 2 and a half years later…

In June the rainy season arrived one day with a spectacular torrential rain.  As I made my way home that night, riding my bicycle North from the Council offices heading for my barrio, the tile roofs in each block of homes dumped all of their rain into the courtyards in each block.  Water spewed out of the underground pipes that vented from the courtyards into the streets, spewing refuse into those narrow one or two lane streets with 20 inch curbs, which promptly became deep rivers.  I took my shoes off and pedaled furiously with the shoes hanging from my neck by their laces – until I realized.  The water choking the streets was filled with rats expelled from the drainage pipes and they were swimming in the water through which I was pedaling my bike.  I put the shoes back on and pedaled home warily. On reaching the edge of my barrio, I found that I had to pick my bike up and carry it on my shoulder because the streets in the barrio were no longer dusty, but were gluey clayey mud which choked the tire against the mudguard of the bike.

One thing that we volunteers could not eat in Venezuela was the lettuce.  It was cultivated in fields where human waste was used as fertilizer and the consumption of lettuce was bound to make you ill, maybe with something that could not be cured.   I lived in a little 900 sq foot cinder block house with three rooms, including an indoor toilet and shower.  I had a small refrigerator and a hot plate and an electric fry pan.  I had the usual Peace Corps Book Locker, filled with books selected by earlier volunteer groups.  I had a bed with a mosquito net and 2 hammocks in the front room.  I built my own furniture.  In front of my house, I excavated a garden, 30 ft by 15 ft.  I sun dried the soil, turning it constantly.  I then wheedled horse manure from the veterinarian, before parting from her.  I grew lettuce and I made salads. Steve Woolf painted a huge mural on the wall above the Garden.  Essentially every person in my Peace Corps Group arranged in-country travel such that they could come through Barquisimeto.  I lived 4 blocks from the station for rural busses and the volunteers  all came to eat a salad, sleep a night in a hammock at my house, and have a salad for breakfast before leaving in the morning.

There were two meetings held of all the volunteers in my group in the first year, one in late March and one in August (3 months and 8 months after arrival).  All 30 of us met in Caracas and reported in open session what was going on in our local City Councils, how obstacles were being overcome, how useless our Peace Corps training had proved to be, what good systems were in place in one City to be copied for another – and how stressful it was to live and work in a culture where you were never quite sure that you really understood what was said to you or why something was being done – or not done.  The meetings were incredibly interesting and informative.  I thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing and learning.   My parents wrote and said that they would come down in December of 1967, when I would be a year in country.  We would rent a Volkswagon Bug and we would travel throughout the country.   It would turn out to be a strange trip.


One thought on “Peace Corps Venezuela 1966-69, the first months

  1. Sean Tierney says:

    Dad, let’s find the old slides you guys have from the Peace Corps, digitize them and add them to these posts. I’ll help you. It would be amazing to add the actual visuals to these stories (which are fantastic BTW).


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