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  Number 360 | Julio 2011
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Nicaragua

How do the youth of this generation feel, think and see themselves?

What constitutes a generation? What differences are there between the youth of the nineties generation and those of today’s generation? This sociologist answers those questions based on a comparative survey done a decade apart by CINCO, a Nicaraguan research and survey group.

Leonor Zúniga

The Research Center for Communication (CINCO), where I work, has developed a line of research on national actors we identify as most relevant to social change; among them women and young people. Ten years ago CINCO did a survey on the political culture of the nineties generation. It was the first investigation to look at how they perceived themselves, how they participated in politics, their religious beliefs, how they understood democracy and viewed the country’s political system. I didn’t take part in that survey, because of my age. I belong to the generation of young people between 18 and 26 years old, which we studied recently, a decade later, with very similar questions.

We did this survey in 2008, just before the municipal elections that year. We used a sample of 800 young people from all over the country, including the Caribbean Coast, which the previous survey hadn’t covered. We asked more than 100 questions and complemented the investigation with 10 focus groups and around 20 individual interviews. We focused the study on this generation’s organization and participation level. The survey’s margin of error is 3.5%.

The reflection of a
generation’s cosmovision

Even though nearly three years have passed since we did this study, we don’t think it should be seen only as a snapshot of a moment in flux, but rather as the reflection of a generation’s cosmovision. We’re aware that some of the answers, for example on the legitimacy of some institutions, might have changed over the years, but most of the questions were aimed at more general concepts and we believe they still reveal the nature of this generation, how it sees itself, how it feels and thinks.

We do these studies because we want to provide a more complex view of our youth. We want to get past the image that abounds in many speeches that young people are always heroic and are the ones who can change things. We also want to move beyond the equally stereotypical and oft-spouted view that today’s youth is apathetic and won’t change anything. Those who situate themselves at either end of those two extremes miss a much more complex reality.

Conceptually, we differentiate the concept of generation from that of contemporaries. Contemporaries are people who are the same biological age and share the same life space. This group becomes a “generation” when it also shares a cosmovision (beliefs, customs, attitudes, perceptions and political practices) acquired during its socialization process. For a “generation” to become a “political generation” involves still other dynamics.

The nineties generation vs today’s:
An overview of views and attitudes:

The generation we investigated ten years ago consisted of young people who were between 16 and 26 at the time; the oldest of whom voted for the first time in 1990. That generation was characterized by pessimism and skepticism. It appreciated the newly installed democratic regime in the country but was very removed from politics, especially national politics. Those surveyed had an abstract concept of politics, in that they recognized politics as important to bringing about changes, but had a negative perception of traditional politicians. They displayed very low self-esteem, didn’t see themselves as socially committed, were unhappy and were unfair to their parents. They were definable as a generation because they shared these ideas but never as a political generation because they went no further: they didn’t build a political project different from the generation before them and weren’t central to affecting the course of Nicaraguan society. It was a generation that had the subjective and objective conditions to become a political generation, but lacked the social and cultural conditions for channeling its discontent, undoubtedly because it was the first postwar generation, so withdrew into private spaces, and because society was experiencing an ebb in social movements at that time.

The current generation is the first in Nicaragua’s entire history to have been socialized in a formal democracy. While this democracy has more than its share of limitations, no other generation ever lived in a comparable political atmosphere. This one was born knowing there were elections and that elections can change the authorities in government. They grew up knowing they could occupy arenas of civil and political participation. They’ve lived without suffering extreme expressions of political violence. All this is very new in Nicaragua. This generation is the first to experience it.

Nevertheless, both this generation and the nineties generation grew up after an armed conflict and have thus experienced a phenomenon common in postwar societies in transition. What happens is a period of looking for sense in things, during which people withdraw into their private spaces, mainly the family. When the war ended in Nicaragua, electricity and telecommunications weren’t the only things that were privatized, people also privatized their political life. It’s logical: so many people gave their lives for the revolutionary project and that project came to an end, failed in some ways, so many people reacted by retreating into family, marriage, children, religion, and concentrating all their effort and sacrifices there, distancing themselves from politics. In Nicaragua not only young people but adults as well have lived through this process. Nor is it a process unique to Nicaragua. It happens in all countries that have suffered wars. This is the context in which we must place many of the answers we collected from the young people we surveyed.

I’d like to share with you the main questions and most significant answers on the questionnaire.

Are young people happy?

We wanted to know how today’s young people see themselves. Among other things, we asked if they were happy. Only 28.8% said they are. Are they committed to solving the country’s problems? Nearly 43% responded affirmatively. Are they fair to their parents? Only 32% said yes. Are they true to their principles? A mere 33% said they were. This shows a pretty critical view of themselves as a generation, but if we compare this data with that of previous generation, we can see progress. The nineties generation had an even more negative and critical idea of themselves, especially regarding commitment. Though the improvement is slight, this generation does see itself as somewhat more committed to solving the country’s problems.

Who amongst these young people consider themselves the unhappiest? This generation’s older women and young people living in rural areas. Those who consider themselves the happiest are young people from the Caribbean Coast, which was surprising given that we in the Pacific imagine them to be the unhappiest due to their exclusion and poverty. Those with a better socioeconomic level also consider themselves very happy. Those with a medium socioeconomic level are the most critical: they combine a good level of education, which makes them more aware of the country’s problems, with a very restricted sense of their possibilities of social mobility. They feel the greatest frustration because their education isn’t helping them improve on their parents’ lifestyle or even keep it up.

We asked them these same questions about their parents: if they were happy, if they were committed to the country, if they were fair with their children and if they were true to their principles. The children’s perception changed: they consider their parents happier than them, more committed, fairer and truer to their principles. They feel that their parents’ generation is better than their own: 70% consider them fair with their children, 76% see them as true to their principles, and 64% believe them to be happy.

How they compare themselves

This generation with the last: We asked them what they considered the most important difference between the nineties generation and their own. They believe theirs is more exposed to risk because there’s more crime. They also feel their generation has more freedom, both at home and in public, more access to education, more opportunities for development and is more responsible.

The Pacific with the Caribbean: We asked young people from the Pacific side of the country what they think about young people from the Caribbean Coast and those from the Caribbean what they think about young people from the Pacific. We thought the differences would be bigger between the two groups than they were. They identified minimal differences—language and some customs—but didn’t identify significant contrasts in their cosmovision and political perceptions. The most important difference identified by young Caribbean people is that those from the Pacific enjoy more and better education. In focus groups the Caribbean participants told us that those from the Pacific are more organized and fight more for their rights while Caribbean peoples are more laid back.

Gender differences: When we asked about gender perceptions I’m pleased to say my generation doesn’t consider men’s nature more positive or more valuable than women’s. They do, however, identify other differences. They believe that women have more access to education than men; that both have the same access to jobs; that men have more access to recreation and friendships and more autonomy; and that women have more access to their parents’ affection.

Poverty and unemployment:
The country’s two main problems

Asked what they consider to be the country’s main problems, they identified poverty, unemployment, the rise in the cost of living and crime, in that order of importance. There was also a gender difference, with young men identifying unemployment as the country’s main problem, while young women put poverty first, as they depend more on their families and are the bulk of those who study without working. But when asked what problems they feel affect young people the most, the order changed, with unemployment in first place and crime in second, followed by poverty and then corruption. They see corruption as a problem that affects them in the sense that they believe that when there’s corruption in a country the same people are always in power and young people can’t insert themselves in economic or political activities through their own efforts or on their own merits.

We asked if they felt proud to be Nicaraguan and 88% said they felt very proud. But at the same time 68% said they would leave Nicaragua if they could. Because men’s point of view is focused more on work, the main reason they would leave would be to look for a job. The women’s point of view is more focused on personal development so their main reason for leaving would be to study. It’s worth noting that, although young people in a good economic situation were less inclined to think about leaving, a good percentage of them said it too. The majority of them said they would leave for educational reasons, and added that the fact that they want to go doesn’t mean they won’t return. The desire to leave the country thus doesn’t have to do only with poverty or unemployment. It also has to do with concluding that they won’t be able to develop projects for their future in Nicaragua.

The research coordinator of this survey, Elvira Cuadra, concludes that Nicaragua isn’t giving its youth “ontological security”: the security to develop themselves as human beings and develop their projects. And this problem has more than just economic roots. The biggest waves of Nicaraguan migration didn’t happen during the war but in the mid-nineties, when in addition to living in poverty many people were excluded from the model being imposed in the country.

Asked about their livelihoods, 44% said they only studied, 12% said they studied and worked, 22% said they only worked and 20% said they did neither. What does this 20% do? The important discovery was that two out of every ten young people said they were doing nothing with their lives; while they might have had temporary jobs or were housewives, they didn’t consider that work… That same percentage said they weren’t interested in studying, that it isn’t worth investing in education because they don’t feel it would improve their lives. The number of young people who study without having to work increased in this generation compared to the last, and most of them are women.

Where their influences come from
and what they spend their time on

We asked them what influence different actors—family, friends, the media, partner, colleagues and the like—have on them and the answer was almost always that the family was the most influential. For the women, their mother has the most influence and for the men, their father. After family came friends, then the media, then teachers, church members and their partner... Other influences seem to be irrelevant.

We asked which daily activities take up most of their time. According to their calculations, the main activity is work, to which they dedicate 7.3 hours a day. Next comes being with their partner (3.6 hours) followed by 3 hours working at home. At the bottom of the list come sports, studying, watching television… What they spend least time doing is reading. At the time of the survey they said they spent an hour and a half on the Internet, but that might have changed since then.

Although we asked them about Internet use in the survey, we didn’t specifically mention the use of social networks in Nicaragua. These networks will be an important point for the future because in the last two years their popularity among both young people and adults has grown spectacularly. Only in the last six months Facebook has grown by 200,000 Nicaraguan “friends.” They’ve reached 535,000 and are still growing. We’re witnessing new phenomena in this field, which interweave politics and communication via the networks. Two years ago young people didn’t conceive of working as communicators on the Internet, unless it was their profession. Today, little by little, more young people are using networks to communicate their ideas and positions and to organize events. Personally, I never imagined I’d be a Twitterer, that I’d be going to a demonstration to tell my followers about it from the street and interviewing politicians on my cell phone, but more and more young people are using these and other tools for political communication. None of this was included in the latest survey so we’re behind on this issue. I’m now working on digital media mapping, which could provide relevant information on that point.

Permissiveness and intolerance

We also wanted to know about their permissiveness levels; what they would reject or refuse to do as being against their principles. This is what they answered and in this order: take drugs, commit suicide, prostitute themselves, have an abortion, take part in political violence. They show the greatest permissiveness towards divorce, lying out of self-interest, evading payment on public transport, having an extramarital affair and driving someone else’s car without permission. Compared to the nineties generation, they are still least permissive towards drugs, abortion and prostitution, but more permissive of lying. We think non-permissiveness towards certain issues such as drug taking, abortion and prostitution has also been the result of efforts by many social and civil organizations to get these issues on the agenda.

We asked them what issues they were most tolerant of and what issues they most rejected and were most intolerant of. Among the social groups they most reject, 32% mentioned homosexuals, followed in this order by political fanatics, alcoholics, religious fanatics, HIV-positive people and ex-convicts. Really striking is that majority percentages said they would agree, at least in theory, that people from these groups shouldn’t be allowed into public schools, to hold public posts or appear on television. But there’s some progress from the nineties generation, with 42% of young people back then listing rejection of homosexuals first. New “rejectable” groups also emerged in this generation in that the previous generation didn’t mention political fanatics and alcoholics. We consider frowning on alcoholism as progress.

It’s also worth noting that the nineties generation ranked the military fifth among the least tolerated social groups while this generation didn’t even mention them, which must mean that two decades after the end of the war and the draft, they no are longer on young people’s minds.

To find out more about their tolerance levels, we also asked them other, more general questions, such as how they felt when talking with people who think differently. Young people from the poorest groups and the countryside were the ones who said they feel more uncomfortable with people who think differently. They were also more apprehensive about marrying someone from a different socioeconomic class or with different religious beliefs.

What do they understand by “Right” or “Left”?

We asked them how they define themselves ideologically, giving them a spectrum from Right to Left, passing through Center-right and Center-left. The results were pretty even, with 24.9% identifying themselves as Left, 5.3% as Center-left, 17.6% as Center, 6.8% as Center-right, for a total of nearly 30% relatively in the middle of the road, and 23.6% as Right. The remaining 21.8% didn’t identify themselves ideologically, compared to 40% from the nineties generation who didn’t identify with any ideology. When asked about their parents’ ideological identification, they always tended to locate them a little to the left of themselves.

We tried to get a grip on what Right or Left means to them in the interviews and focus groups and came to understand that being leftist was more or less synonymous with being Sandinista or following Sandino. And being on the right meant giving more importance to the country’s economic development and infrastructure. Obviously these ideas are fairly far from the conceptual content defined by an ideology.

We also wanted to know how much their ideological identification coincided with the political parties, which produced curious results, in that a good percentage of those who identify with the Left said they supported rightwing political parties and vice versa. Nearly 10% of those who said they supported the PLC [Arnoldo Alemán’s Constitutionalist Liberal Party] identified themselves as being on the left, 17% of those who said they supported the FSLN [Sandinista National Liberation Front] said they were rightwing, and 21% of those supporting the ALN [Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance] said they were leftists. These data may have evolved because the parties have changed a lot over the past few years. In the interviews we saw as that their affinity for a party very often had to do with liking the party’s leader, not sharing an ideology. This confusion between ideology and party isn’t found only among young people. It reflects Nicaraguan political parties’ ideological contradictions, with leaders who change party easily or ally with those who have contrary ideological values.

Views on democracy

We asked them to assess some sentences that reflect viewpoints on democracy to learn their degree of identification with some aspects of democracy. For example, 56.5% said yes to the question “Should authorities stick strictly to the law even if it means not punishing a criminal?” This shows they consider it important to respect the law. Even more pointedly, 82% said yes to the question “When serious suspicions exist regarding a person’s criminal activities, should one wait for the authorities to order an investigation?” and only 20% said yes to the question “Should the police raid that person’s house without a warrant?”

We asked similar questions about democracy. “Is it worth making exceptions to democracy in times of crisis or to resolve an economic emergency?” Close to 20% replied that exceptions are valid if the government guarantees order and economic development. Four fifths agreed that “Democracy is preferable to any other sort of government” and only one fifth agreed that “In crisis situations an authoritarian government is preferable to a democratic one.” Even fewer (18%) agreed with the statement that «For people like me, an authoritarian government is the same as a democratic one.» Nonetheless, it is a greater percentage than answered the same in the nineties generation and represents a significant group of young people who think that living in a democracy or under an authoritarian regime has no real impact on their lives.

When asked if they were satisfied with democracy, 40% said they were not at all satisfied and 33% replied between somewhat satisfied and dissatisfied. Young people today are less satisfied with democracy than the nineties generation, which we view as positive, because being dissatisfied with their reality is a first pre-condition for a generation to lead a fight for changes.

What they would make sacrifices for

We asked them what causes they would make sacrifices for and generously give their time. Similar to the nineties generation, the put sacrifices for their family first (32%), followed by completing their education, then by becoming someone in life and then their children. These were the causes to which all of them subscribed to one degree or another. If we compare these replies with those of the nineties generation, the main difference was that the former was more evenhanded: 22% said they would make sacrifices for their family. In addition, 10% mentioned their country and other social causes at that time, while ten years later, this generation is more focused on personal projects: family, education, individual development.

When asked about their interest in politics, 54.6% said they weren’t interested at all, 27% fell between somewhat and not at all, 11.6% between somewhat and a lot and only 5% said a lot. We need to look for that 5%! If we compare these data with those of the nineties generation, young people then were even less interested in politics, but the growth of interest today is slight: only 6%.

We showed them a list of political activities we had made and asked them which ones they took part in, which ones they didn’t, which ones they approved of and which ones they didn’t. The activities they would least take part in and most disapproved of were, in the following order: land occupation, building barricades, occupying institutions, tax evasion and overthrowing the government. Those in which they would participate were, also in order: voting in elections, participating in youth organizations, working for election campaigns and going on demonstrations. There’s a clear rejection of political activities that border on illegality.

State institutions they can name and trust

When we asked them to name three main Nicaraguan state institutions, they put the National Police in first place, with 22% drawing a blank about what to put in second place. After the Police was the presidency (18%), then the National Assembly, then the Army. The National Police is also the most trusted institution, followed by the Catholic Church, the Army, the media, and the Human Rights Ombudsman. NGOs appeared last, even after the Supreme Electoral Council. When we asked which institutions inspired the least trust, political parties were listed in first place and the National Assembly second. Given that this survey was done during the lead-up to the municipal elections, some of these answers might have changed since then.

When we presented the results of this questionnaire to young people in Guatemala and Mexico, they found it inconceivable that the institution enjoying the greatest trust was the National Police and that the Army appeared among the trustworthy institutions. In both countries the armed forces are among of the most repudiated institutions. In Nicaragua, the armed forces at that point enjoyed a lot of legitimacy, an indicator of their professionalization process.

Their interest in organizing

We asked them to mention three youth organizations they know, but 77.1% couldn’t think of three. Only 15% said they belonged to some organization, and of those, 36% were associated with a religious organization. At 19%, youth organizations trailed well behind religious organizations, followed by sports associations (15%), political party organizations (11%) and community organizations (7.6%). It was clear that young people aren’t very familiar with youth organizations and consequently don’t feel represented by them. The organizations they participate in most and most frequently are religious, with 20% saying they attend a religious service more than once a week, 40% once a week, and 20% once a month. There has been some migration between religious affiliations compared to what we saw in the nineties generation: Catholics have decreased by 6% and Evangelicals have increased by the same percentage. When we asked about the organizations of the political parties, those who felt most satisfied were the Sandinista Youth, because they were involved in more activities and felt they were working on tangible projects.

We expected that the young people most interested in organizing and taking part would be from Managua, but they were actually the least interested. Perhaps because political conflict and crises are just around the corner in the capital, we detected a feeling of disappointment among various young Managuans we interviewed. The most organized young people we interviewed were those in rural communities and on the Caribbean Coast, where there are many community and religious organizations. The young people from the Coast were the ones who said they were most satisfied with their organizations, especially the community ones. Surprisingly, women’s organizations weren’t mentioned among the organizations people knew, but the work these organizations have engaged in for years was revealed when we asked what causes they support most. Both males and females put the defense of women’s rights in first place.

So what is this generation’s
potential for social change?

Now, some conclusions. This generation shares a common system with the nineties generation; they have viewpoints in common and a very similar cosmovision regarding the State, society and politics. It’s a pessimistic vision of themselves with low self-esteem and a certain pride in their parents’ generation. In the interviews we heard many opinions along these lines: my parents were heroes, my parents gave up everything… and we haven’t done anything. Adults of the generation now leaving the stage have constructed a dialogue for the generation walking onstage in which they present themselves as agents of change, involved in great things, while the new generations paint themselves as individualists. We need to question this discourse because it does nothing to help young people get committed and participate. We also need to question it because it’s unfair to young people who live in post-conflict societies.

This generation is more pro-democracy than the previous one, its members value legality and institutionality—at least the institutions they can remember—and don’t question democratic politics, although they do question the actual politics they see in Nicaragua. They express this by asserting that they wouldn’t get involved in concrete politics, much less in political parties. This generation was born appreciating the vote, freedom of expression and mobilization. They see the system of formal democracy as natural. This makes them more critical of its faults and leaves them less satisfied with what democracy has given them. Their criticism of the democratic system is somewhat sharper than that of the previous generation.

Those within this generation who appear to have more potential for critique and participation are those of the middle socioeconomic classes. In general the women express more conservative positions, appear more involved in religion and participate less in civic or political organizations. Given this data, we also need to remember women’s unequal access to public arenas, specifically the streets, compared to men.

We believe this generation of young people has greater potential for change than the previous one because they were socialized in a democracy; they have more references of what it ought to be, are more critical of the political system and politics, have a clearer ideological identification and greater expectations of participation and more organizational practice. Their potential is also greater because, unlike the nineties generation, which lived its childhood at the end of or soon after the conflict of the eighties, this generation is moving away from the idea, especially marked in the previous generation, that their parents were heroes for having taken part in the revolutionary period.

This generation is more centered than the previous one on private space and on fulfilling personal educational and work expectations. Their main desire to participate in politics stems from wanting to eliminate the obstacles that get in the way of achieving their personal development if policies aren’t changed. They also fail to find the structures that might allow them to participate politically, because all social movements are still on the ebb in Nicaragua. There’s a lot of energy but it’s not being channeled through social organizations.

A personal view on the
the starting point for change

As a representative of this generation, I don’t see myself reflected in the results of this survey, because I’m passionate and I’m convinced both that we must change everything and that we can. From this conviction I’d like to end with a reflection born of my experience of participating in youth organizations in which we aspire to influence the country’s politics and this electoral process.

What should our generation offer for authentic change? Frequently the discussion we hear most in our groups centers on what project and program we should offer as a stepping stone to generating change. I think we need to step considerably further back. I think we need to start from acceptance of the other, recognizing and respecting the other’s rights. Although we think differently and may be involved in opposing projects, we must accept and respect each other. Talking with young people and adults from different parties I see how hard it is for some to accept that Somocismo was a dictatorship, or for others to recognize that neoliberalism excludes many people, or for others to admit that the revolution committed serious errors and was an authoritarian regime. Others don’t recognize the human rights violations and exclusion that exists under the current regime.

I understand that it’s always very difficult to question the projects we’ve worked for, the ones that have given us an identity. I talk about this a lot with the young men and women in my organization. Nicaragua’s history is one of exclusion, where those who have power always exclude those who lost it, never had it or have different ideas about what needs to be done. If we don’t start with that reality of continuous exclusion and seek to overcome it, we won’t be able to design truly democratic projects. It’s fine to protest about one person’s re-election, but we can’t exclude the political grouping that supports this re-election, much less believe we can exterminate it. That’s pretty basic if we aspire to create a different political culture. Democracy implies consensus and legitimacy. Whoever seeks consensus can’t exclude anybody. And from this search for consensus, legitimacy emerges. There won’t be a government program or political project to change Nicaragua if we don’t accept that we have to recognize the rights of others and learn to reach agreement.

Leonor Zuñiga is a sociologist and researcher at the Center for Communications Investigation (CINCO)

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