Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 28 | Octubre 1983



Young People In A Young Country: A Look At Nicaraguan Youth

Some 67.2% of the population of Nicaragua is less than 24 years old. We present here a first sketch of the past, present and future of the young men and women between 14 and 24 years of age, on whom the social transformation of the new Nicaragua in large measure depends.

Envío team

Shortly after the triumph of the revolution, Ernesto Cardenal wrote a poem dedicated to the young people who died in the liberation war:

“… 20, 22, 18, 17, 15 years old,
Young people killed for being young.
Illegal to be between 15 and 25 years old in Nicaragua,
And it seemed Nicaragua would be left without youth...."

It was an illusion produced by the poet's grief. Nicaragua was not left without youth. Despite the shedding of so much young blood, Nicaragua continues to be, like almost all countries in Latin America, a young country, or a country of young people. And now it is a country where young people are in power. They occupy high positions of responsibility in political, trade union, military, administrative and cultural fields. They are everywhere. In Nicaragua, 67.2% of the population is under 24 years of age. Although there is little data available with which to make a quantitative evaluation of the phenomena of Nicaraguan youth, we want to present this initial sketch of the past, present and future of the men and women between 14 and 24 years of age, who will be responsible to a great extent for the social transformation of the new Nicaragua.


In the Countryside: Growing Proletarianization, Short Term IdealsIn Nicaragua, there still is not enough reliable data to evaluate social phenomena; however, a look at daily experience and the recent past does permit us to describe them quite accurately.

The traditional structure of the Nicaraguan rural family concentrates power in the hands of the father. He is the one who gives orders and makes decisions, the one who receives visitors, the one who eats separately and eats better. There is no possibility for children to question that authority, nor to break away from paternal dependence in order to participate on any level in any group outside the family. This was the reality throughout the Nicaraguan countryside at the beginning of the Somocista era.

In the 1950s, a period of expansion in cotton production, thousands of campesinos were thrown off their land and pushed by the big landowners toward the "agricultural frontiers," so abundant in a sparsely populated country, or toward the periphery of the cities. This socio economic factor broke the rigid structure of the campesino lifestyle. Those who were young then did not acquire the experience needed to be able to manage a farm and preferred instead to find salaried work. In this way, a "paycheck to paycheck" mentality was developed. Receiving wages every Saturday was something new, and it became an ideal in itself.

A long history of passivity led young people including 12- and 13 year old adolescents to spend that meager but weekly salary on alcohol and gambling.

On the other hand, this generation, despite the limited opportunities provided by the dictatorship, was able to get more education than their parents. This influenced customs, especially of those young people who lived near the big cities. This phenomenon occurred especially in the rural communities surrounding the city of Managua. Among these young campesinos, displaced and faced with a situation so different from what they had known, there was a prevalent desire to change their campesino status. For economic reasons, they could not continue, nor did they wish to continue, to be campesinos. So many decided to sell their small plots of inherited land and establish themselves permanently in the city. Those who never had anything, not even a piece of land, were the ones most affected by this situation of uprootedness, and they swelled the ranks of the marginal urban sectors.

So at the moment of the revolutionary triumph, most young campesinos, whether they lived in new agricultural areas or in the poor neighborhoods surrounding the cities, belonged to a very proletarianized social strata. Love for the land was not strong, and the most important ideal was satisfying immediate needs.

In the City: Greater Independence, Greater ConsciousnessThe situation of young people in the cities especially Managua, Leon, Granada, Esteli and Matagalpa was different. In the many poor barrios, boys and girls from a very early age took on adult tasks in order to help support their families. Children would accompany their mothers when they went to sell goods in the market; little boys would risk their lives dodging in and out of traffic in order to sell newspapers or fruit; shoeshine boys or gum sellers roamed the streets; beggars were everywhere. Many young people grew up and lived in this kind of world. It was a world in which healthy play, friendships and normal development hardly had a place. Future prospects for these children were grim, and crime and prostitution abounded.

Although there were greater opportunities for study in the cities, it was very common to drop out of school even during the very first grades in order to assure survival. The daily battle to earn a few pennies encouraged individualistic and materialistic attitudes, while awakening a gut feeling of rebellion against an unjust society that seemed to provide no way out.

Among the middle and upper classes, the situation was different. The bulk of the student movement in Nicaragua came out of these groups. The tastes of these young people were heavily influenced by U.S. cultural penetration, which was evident in their music, dance and entertainment. For many the only goal was to improve their material well being. Their values emphasized personal success, the profit motive and individualism. Many were educated abroad as professionals and returned to Nicaragua even more culturally alienated and removed from the realities of their own country.

However, many young revolutionaries also emerged. From their position of privilege, they became dissatisfied with the oppression of their compatriots and were able to see that there was a possibility for profound social change. They came to form the student organizations that made such an important contribution to the liberation war against Somoza.


These are some of the general characteristics that urban and rural youth evidenced within the framework of a poor and dependent society in upheaval due to the profound transformations taking place within capitalism.

The cities of the Pacific Managua, Esteli, Matagalpa, Leon, and Chinandega – absorbed the majority of the campesinos who had their land expropriated and were displaced. These cities also housed most of the workers in the service sector, which in Nicaragua developed parallel to the process of industrialization begun in the 1950s. Schools, universities, services, roads and ports were developed in these cities.

Another factor was the development of the construction industry after the 1972 earthquake in Managua. This gave rise to the most important sector of the urban proletariat in Managua, which blended in with a broader sector that included urban merchants and service sector employees.

In such a situation, a unique phenomenon occurred: whereas between 1963 and 1978 the urban population only grew from 4.1% to 4.8% a year, the student population grew by 16.8% annually. The rapid growth in the number of students and teachers and, simultaneously, in the number of unemployed or underemployed urban poor made the cities the most obvious places from which to challenge the dictatorship. This also helps to understand the strategic importance of the development of the struggle against Somoza, as the FSLN moved from the periphery in concentric circles toward Managua.

The participants in the war and in the insurrection had an average age of 20 years. Young people, alongside the poor in the cities and the enlarged service sector, constituted a third social force, which in fact was the social base of the insurrection and had a much greater impact than the proletarian or campesino sectors.

The ideology of the Sandinistas idealist, nationalist, and pro social justice sparked enormous energies, repressed for so long, among the young people. This subjective factor, as well as the socio economic factors they saw all around them, politicized young people and caused them to reject the values of a corrupt capitalist system.

These young people participated not only in demonstrations, in attacks against the National Guard, in logistic support for the guerrillas, but also in organizing their co workers, fellow students, and people in their neighborhoods.

The youth were the real organizers of the insurrection in the neighborhoods of Managua, as well as the most active members of the Civil Defense Committees. They also joined the ranks of brigades and guerrilla combat units in the cities and the countryside. Without this youthful enthusiasm, it would have been impossible to sustain such an unequal battle. Their youthful idealism helped many to see a way out of the overwhelming situation of oppression and repression. That same idealism continues to provide the impulse needed to meet the challenges of the revolution.


When the hour of triumph arrived, the tasks were enormous and complex. Starting practically from scratch, it was necessary to organize the nation and its institutions, to reconstruct what was destroyed in the war, to give new meaning to the new history. The urgency of the work made it impossible to pause in order to give adequate preparation to those who would take on such enormous responsibilities. The enthusiasm of young people has been put to the test much more during the reconstruction period than during the insurrection.

The Literacy Crusade: A Great Learning Experience
Faced with a population unable to read and write, or only barely literate, it would not have been possible to carry out the profound social and political transformations proposed by the revolution. The Literacy Crusade was launched in March, 1980, and was the first challenge set before the young people of Nicaragua.

Approximately 100,000 young people from all social classes formed literacy brigades that were sent out all over the country. For six months, young people from the cities lived with the campesino youth, and both groups learned from each other. For many it was their first contact with rural life. The Crusade was one great school for many young people and a social event that raised consciousness on a mass level.

The work of the Crusade enabled young campesinos to be recognized for the first time in their communities as people with their own social role. They were the ones who could best cooperate with the literacy teachers who came from the cities. They became leaders because they knew the terrain. The Crusade not only forged a new relationship between the city and the countryside, between young campesinos and urban youth, but it also meant the beginning of a new role for the young campesinos within their own rural communities.

Many of these young literacy teachers along with others who joined in later are now providing continuity for the Literacy Crusade through the Adult Education Program.


For young people, defending the achievements of the revolution and defending the nation militarily have quickly become the most important ways for them to express their commitment to the revolution.

The degree of commitment among young people, viewed as a whole, varies according to a series of factors. The most important one is the level of participation they had during the insurrection. Another is the type of family in which they grew up. Their social class is less important since there are young people from the middle and upper classes, as well as from poor neighborhoods and rural areas, who participate equally in the work of the revolution. Alongside these youth, there are others who remain apathetic or uninterested.

Defending the nation militarily and keeping up economic production are tasks that fall to a great extent on the shoulders of young people. While there are no statistics on this, anyone can see that the militia units and reserve battalions, as well as the volunteer brigades to harvest coffee, cotton, and sugar cane, are made up mostly of young people between the ages of 15 and 24. In these two areas, young volunteers continue to keep alive the spirit of social commitment which began with the Literacy Crusade.

The presence of young people is also strongly felt in the various health campaigns that the government has promoted, such as the November 1981 campaign against malaria, in which an estimated 80,000 young people participated.

In the countryside, young people have come to hold important positions of community leadership. In cooperatives, for example, key administrative posts are often held by young people, since they received a better education. There are some cooperatives whose treasurers are only 15 years old. Young people also make up 80% of the membership of the campesino unions. Furthermore, rural youth have been more prompt than their city counterparts in joining the mass organizations that are centralized in the city. This factor has contributed to breaking down the walls that separated the countryside and the city.

A New Kind of Education for a New Kind of Young PeopleFor many people education in Nicaragua responded to the technical and economic needs of an elitist and individualistic society. High-school and university curricula were not planned in the best interests of the nation, which needed researchers, agronomists and inventors. The country continues to suffer from the consequences of the previous educational system, and much time will be needed to overcome the underdevelopment that this system has left behind.

The changes in the field of education are a clear demonstration of the revolution's priorities. From the time of the National Debate on Education (1980) to the present, significant developments have come about.

University enrolment increased from 23,791 in 1978 to 33,800 in the first semester of 1982. This increase in the number of students enrolled in higher education is a direct result of the attempt to transform the social composition of the university student body.

Until 1979, the university was only for privileged youth from the richest families. Campesinos and underprivileged city youth were barred from attending.

Although the new orientations have not yet produced resounding results, significant progress has been made. Perhaps the most important result to date has been the creation of what are called preparatory schools, which strive to prepare youth, especially those from rural areas, for higher education.

Once they have completed sixth grade, these youths may become boarders, free of charge, at the preparatory schools. After completing three more grades, they go on to the university. Many young people who never imagined that they would reach the university are now attending the preparatory schools. There is presently a large group of students from Rio San Juan, one of the country's most impoverished and isolated departments.

Another important transformation in educational policy has been in courses of study. Some 46% of the technical courses that now exist were created for the first semester of 1982. Some 13.4% of the 33,800 students enrolled in the first semester of 1983 have registered in technical courses, and while this is not an overwhelming figure, it is an increase of 7% with respect to 1982.

Education has also been oriented towards breaking away from the traditional separation between productive manual work and studies. The Ministry of Education has implemented the Study Work Program at all levels in order to allow for a closer interrelation between these two aspects of life. Creativity in this field is encouraged through the annual organization of Science and Production Fairs at the intermediate level and University Science Fairs at the tertiary level. In both cases, young people are given the opportunity to develop their theoretical knowledge in the different fields in which there exists a concrete link between education and production.

The last such fairs were held in October and November of 1982. Over 18,000 students displaying 2,500 projects took part in these activities, and 52 projects were awarded prizes for their excellence. Projects were presented in three different categories (social services, production, and infrastructure); examples are: protecting the port of Corinto from violent tides by building mangrove jetties and thereby allowing sand to accumulate; the extraction of eucalyptus oil and its medicinal uses; the systematic planting of cardamom (caraway), an aromatic plant that can be sold on the world market yet is also useful in providing shade for coffee plants.

Challenges Faced by the New Concept of EducationOne of the most serious problems with regard to the quantitative educational changes pertains to academic performance, especially at the university level. This problem provoked a national debate that has continued for several months.

Statistics are alarming. Of the 11,446 students who applied for entrance to the university for the first semester of 1983, only 4.79% passed the initial entrance examination. This is an indication of their low level of preparation. About 57% of the applicants came from Managua, where the country's best educational institutions and best technically and educationally prepared teachers are supposed to be found. Only 1% of these Managua applicants passed the test. For the same semester, 80% of first year engineering students failed their mathematics courses, and 70% of second year students also failed mathematics. There is cause for concern: the country cannot make headway with mediocre or poorly trained engineers, agronomists, and technicians.

It would be a mistake simply to blame this poor academic performance on the revolution. Deficiencies in an inherited educational system cannot be overcome in four years. Material shortages also exist laboratories, books, classrooms, etc. , and there are more deeply ingrained defects related to study habits and inadequate methodology.

While the revolution must face this inherited problem and seek solutions, it must also think about what increased enrolment in higher education is going to mean. The forecast for 1984 is 15,000 additional enrolments. Given the country's economic situation, such an increase may be unrealistic. Will Nicaragua be able to absorb the flow of professionals who will be graduating from national and foreign universities in the ever nearer future? Great strides have been made in education, and although they have solved some problems, they have also created new ones.

A New CultureThe desire for change in education goes hand in hand with a similar desire for cultural change. At present, it is not easy to answer questions regarding the tastes or cultural and recreational habits of Nicaraguan youth. We are in a transitional period, and cultural transitions are very slow.

As a result of the long dictatorship, U.S. cultural penetration is clearly visible in the cities, where values and customs foreign to the real roots of the Nicaraguan people have been strongly inculcated. Contempt for and a lack of interest in their own culture still lead city dwellers to prefer "imported" music, songs, styles and customs. The creation of a new value system, expressed in the search for national identity, remains more a goal than an achievement.

The mass media are making efforts to offer programming that is coherent with new values, but progress has not been very significant. The country still does not possess the technical, economic and professional capacities needed to deal with this challenge. Good films, radio and television programs all cost a tremendous amount of money, and Nicaragua, as a poor country, cannot afford these luxuries.

The Ministry of Culture has developed a series of activities designed to promote popular culture by way of Popular Culture Centers (CPCs). While these are not intended to capture as large an audience as the mass media, they do satisfy certain needs. During the first six months of 1982, these centers produced 39 art exhibits, 40 seminars and training sessions for amateur artists and performers, 584 artistic events, and 35 festivals. The participation of young people in all these activities was notable at every level: preparation, publicity, invitations, and the presentations themselves.

The July 19 Sandinista Youth (JS 19) is supporting and promoting the Leonel Rugama Movement, named after the revolutionary poet who was killed at the age of 20. More than 4,000 youth all over the country participate in the movement. Its objective is to provide all young people with the opportunity to develop artistic talents according to their interests and potential.

For years now, the only recreation for city youth was to be found in discotheques and cinemas. In certain neighborhoods and rural areas, cockfights are the only form of entertainment. The development and implementation of alternative recreational facilities is a task that is becoming increasingly urgent, not only because of its inherent value but also because of its importance in neutralizing the tension produced by the present state of war. New recreational centers are already springing up in the cities, and ten million cordobas has been earmarked this year for setting up recreational centers in each capital city of the 17 departments. These youth centers will be equipped with swimming pools, libraries, fields for basketball, soccer and baseball, and areas for games such as chess. The greatest challenge will continue to be the isolated rural areas, where inertia compels youth to turn to alcohol, just as their parents did before them.

Sports have also received special attention. A common sight on weekends is that of young people playing baseball, soccer or other sports in the street or in open fields. During the first six months of 1982, the Nicaraguan Sports Institute (IND) sponsored 301 competitive events in which 39,296 athletes took part. The Sandinista Youth also promotes the Bosco Monge Movement (named after a prominent athlete who was killed at the age of 19), whose membership includes 13,000 young people interested in practicing sports. This movement came into existence in 1980, and in 1981 it organized the First National School Games, with the participation of 3500 young people.

Youth OrganizationsBefore the Sandinista victory in 1979, the Nicaraguan youth organizations of any importance could be classified in two categories:
(1) international: Boy Scouts and Red Cross; and
(2) national: Revolutionary Student Front (FER), High School Student Association (AES), and High School Student Movement (MES).

The national student movements, which came into being as of 1963, played an important role in the struggles based on popular demands in the 1970s, the teachers' strikes, the mobilizations against the rise in the cost of public transportation, etc. These movements later became a determining factor in the final struggle against the Somocista dictatorship.

The war and the insurrection practically led to the dissolution of the student organizations. When the victory came, many student leaders had fallen, and the rank and file was scattered. The new social structures required new organizations. The July 19 Sandinista Youth (JS 19) was born on August 23, 1979, with the intention of bringing together in one organization the revolutionary interests of all those youth whose ideal was to prepare "a new human being for a new society."

JS 19 is a political organization, and anyone who wishes to become a member must have a clearly defined revolutionary perspective. Its current membership is 40,000 young men and women between the ages of 13 and 29 years, who are divided into regular members or active militants. 25,000 more youth may be mobilized for special tasks. The majority of members are students from different levels. In 1983, the organization has begun to expand into hospitals, factories, and other work places.

Any young person who is willing to participate in the work of the organization may become a member. Six months later, if the organization considers that the member has performed well and is ready to accept greater responsibilities, he or she may move up to the status of militant.

At the present time, national defense along the border and harvest production are the two main priorities for the JS 19. "However, we should not lose sight of the fact that our place is also in the classroom," one militant recently said. "Our goals are also to be outstanding students and an example for the others, to know how to combine work and studies, and to overcome our traditionally low performances. These are difficult goals, but they are the ones we have chosen."

Following the victory, since many of the young people who participated directly in overthrowing the dictatorship were Christians, there was an emergence of new movements designed to continue Christian thinking and the practice of the Christian faith in the revolution. In this way, the Revolutionary Christian Students (ECR), Revolutionary Christian University Students (UCR), and the Christian Base Community Youth (CJCB) all came into being. These movements continue to function, although their potential for growth has not yet been fully developed.

A Few ThoughtsThis young revolution and its youthful protagonists face many challenges. For example, those who are most involved with it are overloaded with work. It is extremely difficult to maintain the necessary balance between the diversified daily efforts required by the revolution and a certain time for recreation, even though such recreation plays an important role in surmounting the syndrome of the overpragmatic, overefficient men and women who simply become "revolutionary machines." In addition to their studies and daily work, today's young people must perform other exhausting tasks by participating in the militia, block committees, health brigades, harvests, etc. If the response to these challenges is uncontrolled activism, the end results may be very negative. Today's youth must know how to establish their priorities and need to be educated in view of these new challenges, which are a product of the revolution and its accelerated pace.

A different challenge exists for those youth who have not integrated themselves into the revolution. In many cases, they are assuming an alienation that has been extended, and in some cases convenient. In other cases, they are merely taking the easy way out and allowing their parents to determine their response. If they do not wish to be unalterably isolated from a historical process in which they could be protagonists instead of spectators, they must allow themselves to be confronted, questioned, and challenged by the new Nicaragua.

Another challenge concerns love relationships. It is absolutely necessary to implement the kind of sexual education that can respond to the new conception of relations between women and men. This is no easy task in a country where “machismo” is so strong, where restrictive moralism is deeply enrooted, and where a great number of taboos are included in the social customs. The revolution offers a new dimension to young people's emotional relationships by giving them the chance to break away from strict individualism and to project their love on a broader scale: love for their country, their people, and the lives of others. An excellent example of this new love can be seen in the following excerpts from a letter written by a member of a coffee harvest brigade to her boyfriend, who was in active military service.

"I am very tired, my love, and my hands are a wreck. I am riddled with mosquito bites, but I know that 40,000 empty coffee cans are waiting to be filled. (...) I want you to know that I am very proud of you for being a soldier. (...) It was easy to talk on the school steps while we sipped our soft drinks: we knew that we would only be going home afterwards. Now the time has come to see if what we said was true. Let's show that we are with the people!"

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


World Attention Shifts East: Tensions In Central America Persist

Nicaragua's New Army: Fighting To Achieve Peace

Young People In A Young Country: A Look At Nicaraguan Youth
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development