With Their Fists Clenched: The Protest Potential of the Young

It will take time to really grasp the significance of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab countries, but at least one thing is already clear: the younger generation played the key role in the developments. Fairly similar discontent is brewing in the Western hemisphere, the question being which country — Mexico, Honduras, or Chile — is going to be the first to explode with protests.How long will it take before the angered youths take to the streets in Latin American countries? In several of them, the younger people were more that other parts of the population affected by ruthless neoliberal reforms. Globalization split them into a handful of those who benefited from the Darwinist market-driven new world order and a disadvantaged majority who never got a piece of the pie.

The marginalized younger people, chronically unemployed or lacking motivation to study due to the condition of the job market, are increasingly posing a threat to the stability of the countries where liberal reforms have been deep. In Mexico 42% of the people aged 15-24 are unemployed and in Chili 33% of the young neither work nor study. In post-reform countries, a college degree holds little promise for the future. In Mexico and Chili, students joke bitterly that university diplomas virtually guarantee unemployment. It often takes college graduates years to land their first jobs, and the situation forces them to survive on informal employment making souvenirs, working as waiters and waitresses during holiday seasons, or making a living as street vendors.

In the meantime organized crime generously offers «alternative» employment opportunities, and these days, drug cartels hire more people than the government. Criminal jobs are available even to children and teenagers who are hired to deliver drugs, to watch police patrols, or at times to carry out the mafia’s death sentences. According to the Mexican parliament, around a million of Mexicans aged 18-24 serve as cannon fodder for criminal groups.

The “Maras” youth gangs are notorious in Central American countries. They terrorize urban and rural populations, bounce money out of businessmen and vendors, and oftentimes act as parallel administrations on the local level. Maras even proliferated to the cities in the southern part of the US where much of the population is Spanish-speaking. Predictably, their main partner in the area is the Los Zetas drug cartel. In fact, it is hard to blame those who have no chance to make a living legally for joining the criminal underworld.

CEPAL, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, estimates rather approximately that at least 7.5 million young people in the region neither work nor study. As a result, they are regarded as a burden by the society. It is an illusion that the majority of these people are socially inactive – the young underclass with nonexistent sense of social belonging and diluted moral standards actually carries a serious protest potential. The young people openly hate the unfair society they live in and their successful peers who owe their upscale living to being born in affluent families, educated in elite schools, or well-connected.

Sooner or later the protest potential will explode, and the outraged people will be staging street rallies and overthrowing the regimes which – despite the alarming signals from all socioeconomic barometers – pursue neoliberal reforms, launch predatory privatization campaigns, and increasingly deregulate the markets.

In Columbia and Peru, some of the young people take to active resistance and join guerrilla groups hiding in mountain areas. Others secretly provide support for the guerrillas by operating hideouts or providing transportation, help the insurgents financially, and assist in their propaganda activities. Several Mexican students were killed when the Columbian special forces cracked down on a FARC camp not far from the Ecuadoran border. There was information that the students were collecting materials for their research, but it seems more likely that they were involved with the guerrillas. The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and Mexico’s National Polytechnic Institute are traditional sources of manpower for guerrilla groups. The separatist movement in Mexico is largely sustained by the two school’ leftist factions.

At the moment the youth and student organizations in Honduras draw a lot of support from the populations of various Latin American countries. The agenda is topped by the task of reinstating former president of Honduras M. Zelaya ousted in a CIA-backed military coup. The National Front of Youth in Resistance is among the most dynamic branches of the National Front of Peaceful Resistance. Its members say they will never forget who betrayed the nation of Honduras and pledge to make the people pay for the deaths and the humiliations. The group does not recognize P. Lobo and his government and says all those who took part in the coup and helped Lobo’s government stay afloat should face justice in international court.

Chili is perceived as an island of stability among the Latin American countries run by neoliberal regimes. A. Pinochet is long dead but his system built on the principle of dozed democracy lives on. The Chilean left parties never recovered after the debacle of the 1970-ies – early 1980ies, and dissenters in Chili continue to endure police surveillance. Chileans are forced to struggle for survival on a daily basis and many of them, mindful of the risks that expressions of discontent used to entail in the dictatorship epoch, are unreceptive to calls for collective struggle over the people’s rights.

Changes are nevertheless brewing as a new generation is entering the stage. The so-called Revolt of the Penguins was the first indication of mass discontent in Chili. A campaign for access to education for all launched by high school students in 2006 marked an unprecedented tide of social activity of the young in the country. So far, students from wealthy Chilean families have access to world-class education, while residents of destitute neighborhoods have to suffice with an imitation of training in overcrowded municipal schools, thus getting disadvantaged for life. Contrary to the official claims that the society in Chili is free from class conflicts, actually it is a country where social barriers are impenetrable. One sometimes gets an impression that Pinochet is still there. The Chilean constitution, slightly tailored and adjusted, essentially remains a code authored by the dictator. Chili’s current elite, nominal socialists who are in fact akin to the right Christian Democrats, are perfectly happy about the situation. Truly speaking, the Chilean elites – left and right – are members of the same privileged community, and the left simply pretend to uphold populist views.

The Penguins triggered a chain reaction of protests – shortly they were joined by university students, by the academic community, and, of course, by the parents of students across the country. M. Bachelet’s ostensibly left-centrist government mounted active resistance, occasionally resorting to tear gas, but eventually had to make certain concessions.

It is hard to say at the moment which of the Latin American countries run by neoliberal regimes will be the first to face an outbreak of mass youth protests, Mexico as the country burdened more than others with social problems being the likeliest candidate. On the other hand, the socioeconomic crisis provoked by the reforms implemented by the former ruling coalition and then by president S. Pinera’s ultraliberal course make Chili equally vulnerable. Considering that a tide of protests is rising even in the US, the collapse of the liberal model in Latin America is sure to have proportions of a catastrophe.

Source: Strategic Culture Foundation

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