Service with the United States Information Agency
About 58 years ago, when J.F. Kennedy was President and Edward R. Morrow was head of the United States Information Agency, I was sent by the USIA to serve as Director of the Centro Colombo-Americano in the city of Manizales, Colombia. There was a concern on the part of the State Dept. that this city was a hotbed of communism in the country and needed a strong U.S. presence to counter the propaganda and the activism of the communists. So this youngster, a mere 32 years old at the time, was sent to try to present democratic idealism as practiced in the United States to the citizens of that province.
Those U.S. Cultural Centers, American Libraries, English Teaching Centers, etc., were a way to put a U.S. presence in cities throughout the world. Most of them were supported, in large part, by providing English as second language classes. Even though these centers usually were locally registered corporations the US government selected the directors and paid their salary. So it was in Manizales. I was the second person to hold the role of Director of the cultural center in Manizales, a city of about 250,000 population. The center was located on the main street in town, on the second floor of an old building, above a hardware store. It had no heat even though the city was at 7,000 ft. altitude. It was a drafty, cold, and damp building. Eventually, we purchased our own building and restored it to its historical character and made it a truly wonderful cultural center only two blocks from the central plaza of the city.
One of the first things that I did was to decide that the mornings I would spend in my office and the afternoons I would be out in the community getting to know the various social institutions operating in the city. I also spent a lot of time walking in the slums and talking to the residents, trying to get to know the people and the needs of the community. It wasn’t long before I had the BNC (Bi-National Center) involved in many community service activities such as providing literacy classes for the poor illiterate persons who lived in some of the squalid slums of the city. Before coming to the classes held in the BNC they would scrub themselves and come in their best clothing washed for the occasion as they would be rubbing shoulders with children of the middle and upper-class families who were studying English at the same time they were learning to read and write their own language.
We expanded the programs in the BNC to include training in operating photo laboratories as no such course was available in the country, to our knowledge. We had classes in mechanical drawing, auto mechanics, music appreciation, art, natural science, anthropology, typing, and secretarial training. Many of these classes were taught in other locations and some of them were free or offered at a minimal cost to the participants. We also sponsored many seminars or lectures on community development oriented to the directors of social service agencies in the city. The Manizales BNC became a center where local organizations could meet and discuss common issues they faced in attempting to provide social services to populations in need in the community. On occasion, when a particular social problem faced a wide portion of the community the Centro Colombo-Americano was where the meetings would be held so the public and relevant service agencies could come together to discuss the issue and decide on a collective course of action. On occasion, this got the BNC into trouble with local authorities.
Such was the case when the milk that was being brought to Manizales for CARE was impounded by the railroad because the governor of the State of Caldas had not paid the shipping bills for many months. Given this action on the part of the railroads, the local administrator of CARE decided to close their operations in the state and move elsewhere. I saw this as a real loss to the community and, with the agreement of the Director of the CARE office in the city, called a meeting of the representatives of some of the major social service organizations in the city. When this group was told of the situation and the imminent loss of the milk that CARE was providing to orphanages, ‘gota de leche’ programs, food programs for the poor, etc, they decided to seek an appointment with the governor to protest his failure to abide by the state agreed to pay for the shipment of the milk from the port to the city of Manizales. The governor was furious that this had been made a “public issue” and demanded to know why the citizens were meddling in the affairs of the “government.” The citizens’ committee stated that this was the affair of the people of the state and not a private affair of the governor. With the public ‘eye’ on him (the newspaper had a reporter at the meeting) the governor agreed to sign a new contract with CARE and to pay the outstanding bill owed the railroad so the impounded milk could be released.
Reaction to the role the BNC played in this affair varied. Local citizens commented that the BNC was perhaps the only place in the city where such a meeting could have been held served as a demonstration of the role and responsibilities of citizens of a democratic society. The U.S. Consul in Cali, in whose district the BNC was located, was not too pleased with the involvement of the BNC in this issue as he felt it was getting involved in political action which could threaten the BNC standing as a ‘non-political’ organization, (Duh!) He felt this notwithstanding the philosophical basis for the action but accepted it as “well done” since there were no repercussions. I felt that the BNC was merely offering a channel of communication between the interested parties so that civic responsibility could be accepted by the persons affected by this situation.
The list goes on and on of such involvements on my part in the life of the community for the two years and two months, I spent in Manizales. On my departure, the Mayor of Manizales, Dr. Fernando Londono Londono, one of the wealthiest landowners and coffee growers in the nation, former Ambassador to France and to the U.N., formerly head of the conservative party of the nation, granted me, my wife and infant son David the title of “Honorary Citizen” and presented me with the “Keys of the City in Gold” for my work. This was the first time such was ever presented to a foreigner! And this merely because I was trying to teach by action the role of a responsible citizen in a democracy.
Now, most of the Bi-National centers are closed or no longer play a role in the spread of the ideology of democracy. Even the United States Information Agency no longer exists. Its role is replaced by contract PR firms in Washington, DC whose job it is to place favorable articles in foreign media telling the poor how good we are. We no longer fund people on the streets to promote democracy in the poor barrios as well as among the oligarchy. Read the ordinance written by Dr. Londono Londono bestowing ‘Honorary Citizen” status on me and my family and wonder if such work could be replaced by a PR firm in Washington, DC. I am also showing here several other honors I received for these activities. One is a ‘pergamino’ or illustrated sheepskin on which is written “The attendees of the seminar on Community Development as an honor of gratitude [ presents this] to Sr. George F. Drake for his valuable services given to the city.” It is signed by the attendees but the signatures are fading now after about 58 years.
Another pergamino is a large one on which is written: “The society of Manizales positively laments the absence of the distinguished caballero Jorge Drake, appreciates his life and his work as an example for the community and feels pride in declaring him, ‘adopted son of the city.’ This document is signed by over 100 persons who attended a banquet hosted by the governor of the state the week before I left to return to the USA. Another pergamino, this time painted on a sheet of plastic cut to represent a real sheepskin, is from the Rector, Faculty, and Students of the Francisco Jose de Caldas industrial trade school. That school was attended by some of the poorest boys in the city and when it collapsed in an earthquake I had the Centro Colombo Americano raise donations in Colombia and in the USA to help in its reconstruction. (resource mobilizing). I also intervened with the state government in getting some things done for the school by state entities. (political mobilizing using influence). This pergamino reads: To Senor Jorge Drake: The Rector, the Professors, and Students of the Instituto Tecnico Industrial Francisco Jose de Caldas appreciate the multiple assistance of Senor Jorge Drake and take honor in proclaiming him “Distinguished Benefactor of the Establishment.” It is signed by the administrators, faculty, and students of this very poor industrial trade school. This is but one more sign of the breadth of our work in this city. No PR firm in Washington, DC can replace this type of American representation abroad.
When my wife and son and I got on the plane to leave Manizales I wept. I loved that city and felt truely to be a part of it. I had been deeply involved in the dynamics of social change in the city, from work in the poorest slums to working on projects with some of the wealthiest citizens of the nation. So, why did I leave? It wasn’t because the Embassy was fed up with my activities. On the contrary, they gave me the highest performance evaluation possible. It was a family matter. Our son, David, is Downs and needed better medical attention and professional training than was possible to acquire in Colombia. It was a choice of keeping the family together and go back to the ‘states to teach or to work on the Ph.D. or to separate with me remaining in the Foreign Service pursuing the goal I had dreamed of for many years. I chose family and went back to the United States but Manizales will forever have a place in my heart.