GUATEMALA CITY — IN a country like Guatemala where many people, particularly students, have been killed for political organizing in the past, young people are not quick to join a youth movement. But the nation's new democratic government has found a way to persuade them: Allow the United Nations to play the leading part. ``We Guatemalans are very distrustful,'' says Brenda Reyes, a psychology graduate who receives a small stipend as a UN volunteer. ``There has been much repression and thousands of students have been killed. That has branded the youth movement so that people have reservations about joining. But when they see that the UN, the UN Development Program [UNDP], and the Latin American and Caribbean Center for Youth [CLACJ] are involved, they know it is not a trick. The international sponsorship gives credit to the program.''
Ms. Reyes is talking about the National Youth Plan, initiated by President Vinicio Cerezo and involving six government ministries but managed almost entirely by staff paid by UNDP.
The Youth Plan is a response to a societal crisis, the result of the state's previous neglect of a major sector of Guatemalan society. Young people between the ages of 12 and 26 make up one-third of the population. Yet they have been excluded from a major political role and receive an education that in many cases encourages them to drop out of school or does not prepare them for a productive role.
As a result, high schools are the scene of constant protests, and 63 percent of youths in Guatemala City are unemployed. Many youngsters are turning to drugs and crime and, a recent phenomenon, to gangs called ``Las Maras.'' These bands of rebellious middle- and upper-class youth have been accused of vandalizing, robbing, and raping.
With a budget of $700,000 granted by UNDP for a 2-year pilot program (1986 to mid-89), the National Youth Plan aims to incorporate young people into Guatemalan development in a number of ways: volunteer brigades, leadership skills training, employment opportunities, regional political conferences, and informing the public on the reality of Guatemalan youth. The first phase will culminate with the delivery of a national youth policy proposal to the President.
Young people are designing alternatives to drugs and delinquency within 30 youth brigades in the capital city. Brigade members offer a variety of reasons for joining.
``We are doing this so that our community will learn to trust us and have confidence in us,'' says Renato Alonso, 15, president of the brigade in Zone Six.
``There is a time for playing and a time for being serious,'' adds secretary Brenda P'erez, 16. ``Playing doesn't bring us any future benefit, but organizing and planning for the brigade does.''
Seventeen-year-old Mario David Rivera explains: ``Some of us have had problems with drugs and with our families, so we help each other out in the brigades.''
Four hundred city teens lived in small towns throughout the countryside for 23 days last year. During the ``work camp'' most slept on the floor of a community building, were stung relentlessly by mosquitoes, and ate the local diet, usually beans and corn tortillas three times a day.
``The majority of us in the capital aren't aware of the reality of people our own age in rural areas,'' says Roberto Estrada, 16. ``We learned that they can't study because they have to work in the fields or in the home, and they get married early and repeat the process. During those three weeks we lived with people who are also Guatemalan but may be forgotten.''
The work camp brigades swept streets, planted forest tree nurseries, built mountain trails, taught basket-weaving, painted signs identifying the towns, and presented cultural events in the evenings. Yet many were initially received with suspicion by those who have learned not to trust city people, especially those sent by the government. ``At first they didn't offer to shake hands with us,'' recounts Ms. P'erez. ``But after they saw us work, cleaning and painting the central plaza, they extended their hands.''
Some 750 Guatemalan young people have put in at least 20 hours of volunteer service to earn a plain embroidered shirt, worn proudly as a kind of uniform. And thousands more have contributed time to activities sponsored by the National Youth Plan.
Ecology-minded youths are in charge of recycling plastic, metal, and glass in 10 outlets in Guatemala City; others have planted 16,000 eucalyptus trees in what is now called ``Youth Forest.''
Teen-age girls, who attend a special high school focusing on home economics, visit six neighborhoods every Saturday to teach local mothers skills such as food preparation, nutrition, vegetable gardening, and pinatamaking.
These activities do not cost much yet produce material and personal satisfaction for many. The Youth Plan staff members simply provide encouragement, a place to meet, and sometimes loan a vehicle.
Constructive use of free time
So that youths are less tempted to fill time with drugs and troublemaking, the Free Time program, run by young volunteers, sponsors sports and cultural events. ``Run and Beat Drugs,'' a 10-kilometer race, attracted 600 young runners last July. It was an opportunity to promote athletics, and also to distribute leaflets about alcohol, drugs, abortion, prostitution, and AIDS. And it was a chance to incorporate private-sector businesses into the youth movement by enlisting their financial help for the advertising and prizes.
Musical groups, religious associations, the Boy Scouts, and other established youth organizations receive technical support from Youth Plan staff, usually through courses on leadership and organizational skills. They also receive hours of personal encouragement and support.
The new Youth Association for Journalism is receiving advice from the Youth Plan's staff on structuring participation of its 80 members from 30 public and private high schools.
``The association was born as a response to a lack of communication among youths in the country,'' says vice-president Roberto Estrada. The president, Edwin Concu'a, 17, says the group's aim is to create a medium through which youths can express themselves, particularly on education and employment. The association already has a weekly one-hour radio program and hopes to publish its own newspaper.
Despite two decades of political repression, young Guatemalans have maintained active political organizations, some of which have a policy of not participating in any government-sponsored activity, such as the National Youth Plan. However, at the University of San Carlos, where left-wing students have been most outspoken, agronomy majors and medical students did participate in the 1987 work camp, and university student leaders have discussed participation with Youth Plan staff.
``Little by little they are accepting that the government backs the plan and that it does benefit the country's youths,'' says UN volunteer Marina de Godoy.
A major self-criticism of the plan has been the over-representation of the middle economic class in activities. The lack of participation by low-income youths is attributed to the financial limitations of these youngsters and the plan itself.
``Poor children are part of the labor and income of the home,'' volunteer Anabella Cerezo explains. ``You can't talk to them about sports and cultural events because they don't have time for them. You have to talk to them about jobs. You have to fulfill their basic needs first.''
Ms. Cerezo attempts to do that as head of the employment program, the part of the plan that in theory is most capable of reaching poor youths. So far 200 scholarships have been provided to students studying a technical trade. A projected Youth Employment Center would search for job opportunities for young people, and a Grants for Work program would pay the expenses of young people while they work for a company for three months learning a skill with the chance of then being hired.
Major financing is also being sought to support associations of young entrepreneurs. So far, the Youth Plan has been able to assist the formation of only 11 small enterprises from ice cream stands to appliance repair shops.
The interests of young Guatemalans go beyond their borders, particularly now when dialogue with other Central American countries is the chosen strategy for solving the region's problems. Guatemala has increasingly been the site of regional youth conferences: The Latin American and Caribbean Center for Youth moved its headquarters to Guatemala and held its 1987 meeting there, and the Central American Youth Conference for Peace also took place in this country in 1987. This year, Guatemala will play host to the second conference on peace as well as the Latin American Conference on Youth and Human Rights.
The Youth Plan must take a gradual approach so as not to provoke a backlash from the conservative political sector. So far the staff has been organizing youth for more than two years with minimal interference, indicating that political forces in the country are supporting democracy by permitting youth organization, at least on its present scale.
Yet the plan has been criticized by those who oppose the Cerezo government, including the major press. Project staff have had to communicate with the public through TV, radio, and newspaper advertisements, as well as posters and pamphlets.
Despite the election of a civilian government in 1986, a strong conservative military continues to influence people's decisions. The population is traumatized by what they refer to as ``The Violence,'' the period from 1978 to 1985 during which some 10,000 citizens were killed. And now, human rights monitors are reporting an alarming increase in human rights violations including political assassinations, torture, and kidnapping.
Guatemalans who work directly with youth organizations and student leaders were admittedly nervous during an attempted coup last May.
``My fear is that new leaders would misinterpret our work as an instrument of political organization rather than a project which is trying to solve a crisis in Guatemala's young population,'' says a volunteer who works some 100 hours a week on the project. ``I am convinced that the present democratic system will continue in the short run, but should there be a military coup tomorrow, we could be on a blacklist.'' The volunteer's faith in the democracy is strong enough that he allows his 15-year-old son to lead his neighborhood's youth brigade.
The pilot phase of the program has dealt principally with youths in Guatemala City, especially its marginal areas. Its activities are open to all, but participation has been dominated by males for cultural reasons. Depending on future financial and political support, the plan will eventually include the entire nation, a difficult task considering the 23 languages and distinct cultural groups throughout the country of 8.4 million people.
UNDP financing has been extended through April 1989. President Cerezo has agreed to absorb the plan into this year's national budget and has already transferred responsibility for the program from the Ministry of Education to the Ministry of Specific Issues, implying more support from the President's office.
``The plan foments the organization and promotes the solidarity of youth through volunteer work, deepens the knowledge of the reality of youths through research, and spreads the values and practice of democratic life,'' says UNDP's chief technical adviser on the project, Vladimir Alvarez. ``Through various mechanisms, the National Youth Plan develops a significant effort in favor of peace in Central America.''