Community Roles for Young People. GUATEMALA'S YOUTH PLAN
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.''Skip to next paragraph
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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.''