Mapuche: the other Chile

Justin Vogler
19 June 2006

Chile's Michelle Bachelet shone during her week-long, three-country visit to Europe in May 2006. Europe's leaders and press hailed the president of four months as a progressive icon who leads a country seen as a model of political stability, economic dynamism and social modernity.

But there was another side to Bachelet's trip. As she touched down in Madrid, Juan Guzmán – the Chilean judge famed for his judicial siege of General Augusto Pinochet – was giving an interview to El Pais. "The police act brutally", said Guzmán, describing the persecution of Chile's indigenous Mapuche people. "They raid the villages and ransack houses. With luck they decommission a sharp knife or a machete which is often the only evidence used against suspects detained and charged under anti-terrorist laws."

The next day, the Portuguese Nobel literature laureate, José Saramago, challenged Bachelet in person. "Do me a favour", pleaded the novelist. "Look out for the Mapuches (…) the oldest of Chileans." That evening, outside Madrid's House of the Americas, Bachelet was presented with a letter. "Dear President Bachelet", it read. "It is incomprehensible that in Chile today there are over 200 law suits involving Mapuches in which irregular laws, created by the military to suppress opposition to the dictatorship, are applied."

There was good reason for these well-coordinated protests. Light years from Madrid's glitz, in a prison in the southern Chilean town of Temuco, four inmates – three Mapuche Lonkos (community leaders), Juan Marileo, Jaime Marileo, Juan Carlos Huenulao, and one non-Mapuche activist, Patricia Troncoso – were entering their sixtieth day on hunger-strike. The four had been given ten-year sentences in 2002 after fire destroyed 108 acres of a pine plantation, valued at $600,000 dollars, near the town of Angol in Chile's ninth region. No injury was caused and the convicted deny starting the blaze.

Justin Vogler works as a freelance journalist in Chile. He writes regularly in Diario Siete and the Santiago Times.

Also by Justin Vogler in openDemocracy:

"Michelle Bachelet's triumph"
(January 2006)

"Small-country power: Chile and the Iraq war" (January 2006)

"Latin America: woman's hour" (March 2006)

"Ollanta Humala: a Peruvian gamble"
(April 2006)

A version of this article was published in UpsideDownWorld
(7 June 2006)

Terrorism and protest

The use of anti-terrorist laws in Mapuche trials has been condemned by a range of concerned individuals and organisations, including Rodolfo Stavenhagen (the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights of indigenous peoples), Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

José Martinez Rios – regional head of the Chilean criminal defence service for the ninth region – told me that if the Lonkos's case had been filed under standard Chilean law then much of the prosecutions evidence, such as testimony from unidentified witnesses, would have been invalidated. Furthermore, the sentence would have been five, not ten, years, and the detainees could have applied for remission.

I asked Martinez Rios if the use of anti-terrorist laws in Chile was related to the international "war on terror". "There is an indirect connection", replied the lawyer carefully. "Obviously the Mapuche trials occurred soon after the events of 9/11 which produced a certain temptation for the Chilean authorities to use exceptional legal mechanisms."

In mid-May, the socialist senator for the ninth region, Alejandro Navarro, and the bishop of Temuco, Monsignor Camilo Vial, was able to use his presentation of a parliamentary bill paving the way for an amnesty to convince the four to suspend their hunger-strike. But when rightwing parliamentarians opposed the bill, arguing that no concessions could be made with "terrorists", the four resumed their hunger-strike. In late May, shuttle diplomacy by Navarro convinced the Lonkos to await congress's decision and the strike was once again suspended. Medical sources say the condition of the four is critical.

The hunger-strikes were accompanied in the first week of June by mass demonstrations, strikes and school occupations by Chilean secondary schoolchildren voicing a number of demands - that charges for university entrance exams be scrapped; that Pinochet-era educational laws be reformed; and that transport to and from schools be free – went on throughout the country. These impressively organised protests have rightly received enormous attention in the Chilean press and have been extensively reported in the international media. They have been widely heralded as "the first major challenge" for the Bachelet government, which hurried to meet most of the pupil's demands.

By contrast, the Mapuche hunger-strike has been largely ignored by the press; with the exception of Senator Navarro, no one in government seems regard it as a "major challenge". When justice minister Isidro Solis was quizzed on the Mapuche activists' fate, he simply said that they would not be allowed to die: the authorities would force-feed them if necessary.

A majority tyranny?

A 2002 census found 700,000 indigenous people living in Chile, fewer than 5% of the total population. Of these, 85% are "people-of-the-land" (the literal translation of Mapu-che). The Mapuche were the only indigenous Latin Americans not conquered by the Spanish and – after decades of invasion, rout and retreat - the Conquistadores signed the treaty of Quillin in 1641 recognising a Mapuche state to the south of the river Bio-Bio. The treaty was reaffirmed in 1803.

After independence, Santiago didn't recognise this territorial settlement, and following victory against Peru and Bolivia in the Pacific war in 1883 the Chilean army swept southwards and incorporated the Mapuche territories into the Chilean state. To this day Chilean history books refer to this bloody conquest as the "pacification of the Araucania".

Throughout the 20th century, Santiago encouraged "colonisation" of the Araucania region by offering free land to European immigrants. The result is that the Mapuche territory shrunk – from 10 million hectares in 1883, to under 500,000 today. Indeed, most of the original Mapuche territory is now owned by logging companies; one, the Matte group, possesses twice as much land as all the Mapuche communities combined.

I asked Senator Navarro if promotion of the logging industry in his region was compatible with respect for Mapuche rights. "The indigenous people's right to their lands is established by Chilean law", Navarro told me. "Yet land conflicts between private interests and indigenous communities are invariably resolved in favour of the corporations with the complicity of the state."

So how could indigenous people's rights and economic interests be reconciled? "Compatibility is only possible if the indigenous people become active partners in whatever business is to be developed on their lands", replied the senator. "Being forced to sell or exchange their land results in serious economic, moral and cultural damage to the communities."

Like their economic plight, the political marginalisation of Chile's indigenous people is acute. The Chilean constitution doesn't acknowledge their existence as a distinct community, they have no representation in parliament and (unlike other Latin American states) Chile has not ratified the International Labour Organisation's international indigenous people's rights convention.

In a bid to enter the political arena Aucán Huilcamán, from the Mapuche organisation the Consejo de Todas las Tierras (Council of All Lands), attempted to run in the 2005 presidential race. His arrival on horseback in Santiago caused a stir. However, the electoral authority argued that the 39,000 signatures collected in support of his nomination had not been certified by public notary, and refused to place his name on the ballot. The estimated notary bill would have been the equivalent of $358,000, a prohibitive sum for a Mapuche smallholder.

A month earlier Huilcamán had embarrassed the Santiago government by denouncing a deal between the education ministry and Microsoft to produce a version of Windows in the Mapuche language, Mapudungún. Huilcamán complained that the Mapuche communities had not been consulted and that the written script Microsoft wanted to use did not interpret the phonetics of Mapudungún correctly. He said: "I'm not against the internet. But Mapudungún is part of our cultural heritage and it is us who should decide whether or not it appears on the internet."

The spectre of recognition

Michelle Bachelet, influenced by Huilcamán's example, pledged in her presidential campaign to afford constitutional recognition to all of Chile's indigenous peoples. Jose Aylwin Oyarzún – co-director of the Temuco-based Indigenous People's Rights Watch – praises the idea but insists it must include more than legalistic rhetoric. "If constitutional recognition is not linked to the recognition of collective rights it is not going to help Chile's indigenous people", he says. "However, if recognition is associated with land rights, control over natural resources, and the political rights to participation and autonomous decision-making; that could make a big difference."

It currently looks unlikely that a recognition bill of any kind would get the two-thirds parliamentary backing needed for a constitutional amendment. Aylwin Oyarzún attributes this to both embedded commercial interests and to reactionary nationalism in congress. "For some conservatives the only nation in Chile is the Chilean nation", he told me. "There is a real fear of cultural diversity." Parliamentary conservatism could also thwart the passage of Senator Navarro's amnesty bill, which Bachelet is now belatedly backing.

Pedro Cayuqueo is director of the Mapuche newspaper, Azkintuwue. He recalls how Margaret Thatcher's intransigence towards Irish republican hunger-strikers in 1981 changed public perceptions of the Northern Ireland conflict. In a column entitled "Iron Lady", Cayuqueo drew a comparison with the Bachelet government's apparent indifference towards the Mapuche resisters. Cayuqueo concluded on a note of cautious optimism, however. "In the end, and even if the stubborn facts appear to indicate the contrary", he wrote: "Michelle Bachelet is not Margaret Thatcher."

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