Disappointed by democracy, Chilean youths turn violent Students say government falling short on reforms

November 26, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SANTIAGO, Chile -- The Guanaco is the nemesis of angry Chilean youths.

An ominous-looking armored vehicle used by riot police, the Guanaco gets its nickname from a llama-like animal that spits when threatened. The vehicle's water cannon sprays a powerful torrent laced with tear gas that mows down crowds, burns the eyes and eats through clothes.

These days, the Guanaco is working overtime.

Even before protests for and against the arrest last month of former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet in London on human rights charges, this once-orderly Latin American nation had experienced a surge of youth riots. Gatherings of young people -- soccer games, the anniversary of the 1973 military coup, the triumphs of tennis star Marcelo Rios -- often end in rampages by youths who trash public property.

The unrest reflects disgust with Chile's entrenched authoritarianism eight years after the restoration of democracy, youth leaders and worried politicians say.

"When democracy returned, I felt very committed," said Camilo Cintolesi, 26, a member of the rap group Tiro de Gracia, which rages at police brutality. "Soon I got disillusioned, and during the last election I didn't vote. This democracy is a lie, a fiction. The human rights issues haven't been resolved. And Pinochet still has power."

Pinochet still looms over Chilean society. His regime's institutions and attitudes still constrict the democracy, according to youth leaders, opinion polls and political analysts.

Even though voters have elected two consecutive center-left governments, the constitution imposed by the Pinochet regime in 1980 ensured that appointed officials in the Senate, judiciary and National Security Council preserved his influence after he stepped down to become a senator.

The military and right-wing allies have blocked human rights investigations, banned divorce and abortion, limited freedom of expression and otherwise thwarted democratic reforms.

Censorship -- practiced by both the government and the private sector -- has led to Human Rights Watch's recent assessment that "freedom of expression is more restricted in Chile today than any other democratic country in the Western Hemisphere."

A generation alienated

This ossified political culture alienates the generation that will inherit the task of consolidating democracy. The number of 18- and 19-year-olds registered to vote has plunged to less than 6 percent. A million young people, enough to decide an election in this nation of 14 million, shun politics.

"Their message is that politicians don't represent them, don't speak to them, that they feel invisible," said Ernesto Jorquera, director of research and planning for the government's National Youth Institute. "If we don't do something fast, this could be potentially more dangerous in the future."

While a small minority of youths are active in politics, many others channel their energy into proliferating rebel subcultures and urban tribes: soccer hooligans, anti-everything anarchists, neo-Nazi skinheads. And rappers, part of a hip-hop craze sweeping Santiago.

Tension between young people and the disciplined, green-uniformed force known as the carabineros is a good example of how conflicts dating to the dictatorship still plague the democracy.

The federal paramilitary force still answers to the Defense Ministry, despite attempts to shift it to civilian control. Human rights leaders accuse police of being brutal and indiscriminate with young people and leftists.

Rising youth violence

On the other hand, youth violence is a bona fide problem. Chile is one of South America's safer nations, but violent crimes and those committed by youths are rising. Police are analyzing the phenomenon with the help of psychologists and sociologists, trying to distinguish between hardened lawbreakers and youth at risk.

An increasing number of 13- and 14-year-olds are being arrested for all types of crime, and one of every three defendants convicted of violent robberies is under 19, government statistics show.

The government's recent repeal of the summary detention law was a rare gesture to young Chileans, youth leaders say. The national debate strikes them as being behind the times.

"What we reject is not politics, but what the political parties offer us," said Ivan Mlynarsz, 23, the student body president at the University of Chile.

"They still argue about censorship, abortion, divorce. We don't even want to waste time talking about those things," he said. "And the politicians have no solutions to other problems."

Mlynarsz wants the government to tackle inequality, rising youth unemployment and prohibitive university costs. He has the intelligence and stare of a born leader. A member of Chile's Communist Party, he embodies another trend: Although hard-line Communists cannot win a seat in the National Congress, they control half the elected student governments at public universities.

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