August 24, 2005: Headlines: Speaking Out: Computers: Interent: : Andrés Oppenheimer proposes "Virtual Peace Corps"

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Andrés Oppenheimer proposes "Virtual Peace Corps"

Andrés Oppenheimer proposes Virtual Peace Corps

"You should announce the creation of the Virtual Peace Corps. It's an idea that has been making the rounds at the Miami-based Network Access Point (NAP) of the Americas, a major Internet interconnection center in the hemisphere, and it calls for offering technological assistance in education and health."

Andrés Oppenheimer proposes "Virtual Peace Corps"

Bush should talk of trade, funding

If I were a U.S. ambassador in Latin America and were asked by President Bush to give some recommendations for his forthcoming trip to Argentina for the 34-country Summit of the Americas, I would suggest that - in addition to trade and investment proposals - he announce creation of a Virtual Peace Corps.

This is what I would write:

"Dear Mr. President,

"We have a problem in this part of the world. Anti-Americanism is at record levels. There will be 10 presidential elections over the next 16 months - including those in Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico and Nicaragua - that could change the region's political map for the worse.

"Populism and socialist militarism are on the rise, supported by Venezuela's petrodollars. We could see a new cycle of anti-capitalist rhetoric, capital flight, greater poverty and its customary corollaries - regimes that blame the United States for their self-inflicted problems, as an excuse to stay in power forever.

"Venezuela's strongman, Hugo Chavez, is taking advantage of Brazil's growing diplomatic weakness - resulting from its domestic corruption scandals - to try to take over that country's leadership role in South America. Meanwhile, the Chinese are everywhere, increasing their trade, political and military ties with most countries.

"In this context, the United States - while still the biggest player in the region - is losing ground. Our biggest carrot - the promise to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas - faces an uncertain future.

"Most Latin American leaders would tell you - and many of us agree - that you could make a big splash at the Nov. 4-5 Summit of the Americas by indicating a willingness to reduce our outrageous agricultural subsidies. But I'm aware that you are not prepared to do this unless the Europeans do the same.

"Most Latin American leaders would also tell you - and I agree - that you should offer a U.S. Infrastructure Fund for the Americas, much like the European Union did for its poorest members. But I'm aware of your position that unless Latin America learns to make more efficient use of the $270 billion it receives annually from exports to the United States, the $20 billion it receives in U.S. investments, and the $32 billion it gets in family remittances, no amount of foreign aid will be of any help.

"My suggestion is that, in addition to signaling a willingness to discuss agricultural subsidies and an infrastructure fund, you should offer something concrete, highly visible and given directly to the people - unlike previous foreign aid packages.

"You should announce the creation of the Virtual Peace Corps. It's an idea that has been making the rounds at the Miami-based Network Access Point (NAP) of the Americas, a major Internet interconnection center in the hemisphere, and it calls for offering technological assistance in education and health.

"We could offer free Internet English courses, through existing U.S.-accredited online universities. These courses could be backed up by free CDs and distributed by U.S. consulates, which could invite people to copy them freely, without any intellectual property restrictions.

"There is a huge demand for English classes in the region. Following the path of China, which this year started offering mandatory English classes to all children starting in third grade, many countries are trying to upgrade their English classes, but lack the resources to do so. We could also offer much-demanded business and education courses. The University of Phoenix Online alone says it has more than 1,000 students in Latin America. In addition, the U.S. government could open tele-diagnostic and tele-consultation centers at its embassies' cultural sections in the region to offer local physicians and patients a second opinion from U.S. doctors in difficult cases where local expertise is not available.

"Installing such equipment at U.S. consulates would cost as little as $50,000 per country, says Guillermo Amore, a NAP of the Americas director. The Peace Corps, a U.S. government agency that sends volunteers to 72 countries, has an annual budget of $317 million.

"Granted, Mr. President, the Virtual Peace Corps would not change things overnight. But it would be something concrete that could benefit millions of people directly, while we have time to untangle the bigger trade and investment issues that separate us."

Andrés Oppenheimer

( is Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.

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