THIS IS A gripping and at times amusing account of surely one of the strangest of missions: Amaranta Wright’s journey round Latin America to discover its ‘teenage wisdom’, the hopes and the fears of its youth – all in order to refine the advertising for Levi’s jeans and improve their sales.

The half-dozen countries, each visited by the author for roughly a month, present a stark picture of societies riven by depression and exploitation, by extreme wealth and extreme poverty, by class and ethnic conflict. The author, who is young, bright and intrepid, seems to mix effortlessly on both sides of the social divide and describes her adventures with a real talent for depicting atmosphere and character.

At one moment she is in Larcomar, a shopping mall on the cliffs outside Lima in Peru, fraternising over a Burger King tea with privileged teenagers who complain about the ubiquity of the cholos. These are the Indians, who form the majority of the Peruvian population. The fact that a few of them have become wealthy enough to frequent the same shops and restaurants is a source of grievance. Cholos should be confined to traditional roles such as maids, say these young people, whose main aspirations appear to be eating fast food, drinking cola and wearing jeans.

Then we are whisked away by the author to a shanty town on the outskirts of Lima where about a million cholos live, uprooted from their traditional communities through civil war and scratching out an existence. But it is night-time, and salsa music rings out from people’s homes “as families are dancing away their sorrows to its happy beat, while crying to the reality in the lyrics”.

And, although there are variations from country to country, the divisions are similar. In Panama, Wright goes from the luxury buildings of Punta Paitilla, home to the elite known as the rabiblancos (‘white-tails’), to El Chorrillo, the slum district inhabited by the descendants of the canal-construction workers brought over from the West Indies a hundred years ago. Here the young are no longer attracted by the sentimentality of salsa music: the violent and sexually explicit lyrics of reggaetón are what appeals to this disillusioned generation. Thousands of these people were killed and injured when the US stormed the Canal Zone in 1964 and again in 1989 during Operation ‘Just Cause’ when General Noriega was forcibly removed from the country. The rabiblancos, who have lost some of their political power in recent decades, watched the bombs pounding down on El Chorrillo and celebrated the US invasion with champagne.

And so to Colombia, which has the reputation of being the most violent society in the world. As some measure of order has been restored in recent times, at least in the urban areas, Levi’s apparently consider the time is right to start marketing jeans in towns like Medellin, once controlled by the narco-barons for whom, Wright finds, many of the poor are still nostalgic. She visits a jeans factory there. The workforce is tightly controlled: nine hours a day of robotic movements, hunched over a sewing machine for fifty-one cents an hour. Workers dare not talk of wage negotiation or working conditions in case the omnipresent paramilitaries accuse them of being terrorists. Over the last decade 1,500 trade unionists have been assassinated in Colombia, another tragic world record.

Violence is frequent too in Venezuela, especially in Petare, on the outskirts of Caracas and allegedly Latin America’s largest slum. It is a far cry from the Eurobuilding where Wright is staying: the metallic indoor world of the rich who invariably wear the uniform of Levi’s jeans, Tommy Hilfiger shirts and Timberland boots. These are los pavos (‘the turkeys’) who drive the right cars, date the right girls, know the right discos. But Wright wants to visit Petare in spite of its sinister reputation, and there, in her usual easy fashion, she gets to chat with boys caught up in a basketball match: a government initiative to keep them off drugs, she learns. These underprivileged youths pin their hopes on Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez. As Freddy says, “People hate him because they are scared of losing what they have. But we have nothing to lose and things can only get better.” Rodolfo adds: “Similar sentiments, now being freely expressed in Venezuela, can also be heard from young people in the other countries visited by Wright, although more cautiously. Referring to the then Peruvian president Fujimoro, El Flaco complains: “Our government only helps foreign interests, not our own … And if the International Monetary Fund really wanted to help us become competitive they would make our government encourage business initiatives here, give subsidies, give incentives and training, help build our industries, not just give them loans which they spend on political campaigns.” And in the sad, apparently hopeless Chile of today, José complains: “We have become a nation of robots forced to obey orders. Everybody talks about Chile’s progress, but it’s a lie because we let foreign companies destroy our environment. The tax system is worked out to subsidise the big corporations. Poor people work their asses off, pay more and more tax, and we don’t even get free education and health for it.”

During her journey Wright comes to feel she is on the wrong side of the fence, helping Levi’s to market jeans and dreams to the privileged youth of Latin America, whereas her sympathy goes out to those of the ‘real world’, struggling to live in dignity, who so often demonstrate a strong sense of solidarity among themselves.

She ends up by not wanting to help sell the US materialistic worldview to spoilt rich kids or to divert the poor ones from pursuing appropriate solutions for genuine problems. Will the political parties who are trying to do this receive enough public support in the elections scheduled to be held next year in many Latin American countries? And, if they succeed, will they be allowed by their powerful Northern neighbour to put their policies into practice?

Victoria Bawtree is co-editor, with Majid Rahnema, of the Post-Development Reader (Zed Books, 1997).