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Under 30 and Angry in Chile

Riots and rap lyrics reflect disgust with a nation that youths say is frozen in the shadow of former dictator. 'We reject . . . what the political parties offer us,' one student leader says.

November 25, 1998|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTIAGO, Chile — The Guanaco is the nemesis of angry Chilean youth.

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 Augusto Pinochet in London on human rights charges, this most orderly of Latin American nations 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, say youth leaders and worried politicians.

"When democracy returned, I felt very committed," said Camilo Cintolesi, a 26-year-old 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."

Although Pinochet's fate is in the hands of a British judicial panel, which will rule today on whether to set him free or hold him for extradition, the tyrant turned senator 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. The military and its right-wing allies have blocked human rights investigations, banned divorce and abortion, limited freedom of expression and otherwise thwarted democratic reforms.

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%. The percentage of registered voters between the ages of 20 and 24 has dropped from 71% five years ago to below 50%. 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."

The motto of this troubled '90s generation was immortalized by Rios in an Orange Crush commercial. The ad showed the longhaired, sleepy-eyed tennis star channel-surfing and scoffing, "I'm not even there" at everything he saw--except an image of the soft drink.

The phrase has come to represent youthful distaste for almost everything: politicians, a coldly competitive free-market economy, and traditional religious, community and sports organizations.

While a small minority of the young is active in politics, many of the youths 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.

Working-Class Fight for Free Speech

Tiro de Gracia, Chile's most popular rap group, fuses U.S.-style sounds and swagger with commentary on issues such as abortion and drug abuse. Its name translates as coup de grace, or the more down-to-earth "kill shot."

Three of the rappers come from working-class southeast Santiago, where they grew up idolizing U.S. rappers such as Public Enemy and Cypress Hill. They joined forces with Cintolesi and another university student.

Tiro de Gracia's songs sample pop hits such as Bill Withers' "Just the Two of Us" and dialogue from Spanish-dubbed versions of "Lost in Space," the U.S. television series once popular here.

The group has not eluded the censorship--practiced by both the government and private sector--that 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 cable channel barred the group's video "Aimless Voyage" because of images of an addict preparing a heroin fix.

Nonetheless, Tiro de Gracia had the distinction of performing in the presidential palace.

President Eduardo Frei invited the group to a ceremony in August marking the repeal of a law that enabled police to stop and detain people at will. Now police must justify stops and read suspects their rights.

The rap group posed with uneasily smiling police chiefs and treated the dignitaries to a diatribe titled "Power Over Power."

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