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Gaddi Vasquez: Diplomat for Desperate, Poor

  • Nancy Greenleese

On a hot day, some farmers in southern Mozambique take a break from work in their fields to chat about agriculture with a U.S. ambassador. Gaddi Vasquez tells them he's on familiar terrain.

"My parents planted, and my parents harvested," he says.

Vasquez is the U.S. government's representative to the relief agencies that are assisting these farmers. Even though he works alongside world leaders, the 54-year-old understands these farmers' daily struggle - he lived it with his parents.

"They could not afford daycare, so I had to sit in the fields and play in the fields while they worked," he recalls, adding that every time he visits projects like theirs, it takes him back to his childhood.

A childhood in poverty

Vasquez grew up in California during the years of the guest worker program with Mexico. His parents - and other fieldworkers - were paid by the crate or bushel… and sometimes not at all. But that didn't prepare him for what he saw in his travels as ambassador.

"This has been a life-changing and transforming experience for me," he admits. "I am the son, the descendent of migrant farm workers. I have sampled, I have lived poverty, but the poverty and suffering that I have seen in certain parts of the world far exceeds anything that I've had to endure."

Vasquez met 12-year-old mothers in Colombia. He witnessed the devastation of the Bangladesh cyclone and the recovery efforts led by United Nations agencies.

Putting world attention on global poverty

Many U.N. member states have ambassadors who work with its relief agencies. But Vasquez is the rare ambassador who goes to where the aid is being given.

"There is no substitute, in my view, for traveling to these countries, holding these babies, looking into the eyes of these people, sensing their pain and hurt and knowing that you just might be able to make a difference."

During his three years as U.S. ambassador, Vasquez traveled to 10 countries. He wanted to put global poverty in the headlines and check up on the relief agencies.

One of those agencies is the World Food Programme, the world's largest humanitarian organization. The United States donates more money to it than any other country, and Vasquez wanted to make sure it was well spent. Josette Sheeran, WFP's executive director, says she appreciated his feedback and his recognition of those working in the field.

"It's very rare that someone comes and says to our staff, 'Thank you. Thank you for being separated from your family. Thank you for taking these risks. Thank you for being there.' We would hear back from our staff that, for many of them, it was the first time."

It's true to the nature of the former southern California police officer who used to visit schools. But he's had to learn some lessons, too. While heading the Orange County board of supervisors, the county went bankrupt.

"The public trust is very, very important," Vasquez says, "and when an official violates that or fails that, it can have serious consequences."

It did. The county treasurer pleaded guilty to six felony counts of fraud, and Vasquez's career suffered.

Reinvigorating the Peace Corps

In 2002, Vasquez was appointed director of the Peace Corps. Ron Campbell, who served in the Solomon Islands, says alumni loudly protested and tried to block his selection.

"[He was] someone who was perceived as not having the right background and skills to be the director of the Peace Corps," he explains, then adds with a chuckle, "Yet it's amazing how much he accomplished."

Campbell, who directed the Peace Corps Office of AIDS Relief when Vasquez was at the helm, credits his success to his attitude.

"It wasn't about Gaddi Vasquez. It was about the Peace Corps volunteers. It was about making a difference in the many countries that the Peace Corps serves."

Vasquez visited 56 countries as Peace Corps director. Early on, the Corps' first Hispanic-American director noticed that something was amiss.

"I firmly believe that the Peace Corps is the face of America. At the time that I arrived as director of the Peace Corps, I did not feel that it was reflective of the face of America."

This was confirmed in Morocco. Outside a mosque, Vasquez met a man who was surprised to hear that he was from the United States.

"And he says, 'You don't look like an American.' And I said, 'Why do you say that?' And he said, 'Because of the color of your skin and the color of your eyes and the color of your hair!'" Vasquez recalls. "And that really got me to thinking that there are places in the world where people still believe that an American is blond, blue-eyed and fair skinned, but not Vasquez, Latino with dark hair and dark eyes."

So he began an ambitious recruiting drive, and minorities now make up 15 percent of volunteers. Vasquez created a centralized office for AIDS relief that expanded greatly the number of people helped. Yet he says the work only highlighted what still needs to be done.

Images of poverty and hope

He recalls a visit to a children's center in Haiti, where he gave a little boy a piece of candy.

"He broke the candy into three pieces. He extracted one, ate the one. And very meticulously wrapped the other two pieces in the plastic. And I asked the center director, 'What is he doing?' And the director pointed out to me that he was basically taking one-third of the candy for his own consumption and was saving the other two because he was going to go off and sell the other two to generate a little revenue for himself and his family."

That image and others like it, he says, are seared on his brain to remind him of the urgent need to erase poverty.

Another image - a black and white photograph, decades old - is also always on display in his office and home. "[It's] a 3-year-old boy and his father standing in front of a small trailer that sat on a foundation of dirt with no heating, no cooling and no running water. That 3-year-old was me."

Vasquez has moved that photo to Southern California, where he recently became the executive director of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands. Part of its mission is promoting and studying democracy. Yet the migrant workers' son says he plans to continue speaking publicly about the need to end world hunger and the crushing poverty that he's seen - and lived.