Chile's support for Palestine: two-faced on indigenous rights

Chile's diplomatic outcry against Israel has been welcomed by supporters of the Palestinian cause, but its indigenous Mapuche communities continue to face discrimination, brutality and repression at the hands of the state. 

Nick MacWilliam
12 August 2014

The language may be different, but the demands are the same. Flickr/Periodico Resumen. Some rights reserved. 

The outcry over Israel’s military assault on Gaza has been led at state level by the progressive governments of Latin America. As many western leaders offer little more than empty proclamations of concern over the spiralling loss of life, while asserting Israel’s right to ‘defend’ itself, several administrations across Latin America have taken direct action in opposition to the Israeli bombardment.  

At the Mercosur regional summit in July, the governments of Venezuela (which, along with Bolivia, had cut diplomatic relations with Israel in 2009), Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay issued a joint-statement saying they “energetically condemn the disproportionate use of force by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip, which in the majority affects civilians, including children and women”. The statement also denounced “any type of violent action against civilian populations in Israel.” Earlier in July, Brazil and Ecuador had recalled their ambassadors to Tel Aviv, an action subsequently replicated by Chile, Peru and El Salvador. 

In Chile, the official protest has not only been at diplomatic levels. The government of Michelle Bachelet also broke off Free Trade Negotiations with Israel, as the Middle Eastern state finds itself increasingly ostracised by Latin America. The decision to withdraw Ambassador Jorge Montero and suspend the trade talks comes after Chilean MPs from across the political spectrum demanded government action on the issue.

A foreign ministry statement said “Chile notes with great concern and dismay that such military operations, which at this stage of development are subject to a collective punishment against the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza, do not respect fundamental rules of international humanitarian law.” Due to Chile’s historical and cultural links to the region, the establishment of a Palestinian state is a pertinent topic in the South American country.

Chile is home to one of the world’s largest Palestinian communities outside of the Middle East, with close to half a million Chilean citizens of Palestinian descent. During the late 1800s and the first half of the 20th century, a wave of Palestinian immigrants, the majority of whom were Christians, arrived in Chile. Most settled on the periphery of urban zones, where they overcame poor conditions and discrimination to become an established and even celebrated part of Chile’s social fabric. Today, there are numerous public figures of Palestinian descent in the country, while the Santiago football club Deportivo Palestino, an ex-league champion, was founded in 1920.

Earlier this year, Deportivo Palestino was fined by the Chilean football association for replacing the number one on its official shirt with a pre-Israel map of Palestine. After receiving complaints, the FA took action and released a statement saying that it prohibited “any form of political, religious, sexual, ethnic, social or racial discrimination.” How this related to the image of a map on a shirt is unclear, with the club disputing the fine and taking to Facebook to announce that “for us, free Palestine will always be historical Palestine, nothing less.”

While the government’s reaction to the crisis in Gaza has been welcomed by supporters of the Palestinian cause, there exists another minority community in Chile that continues to face discrimination and repression much closer to home. The long-running land conflict between the state and indigenous Mapuche communities in the Araucanía region of southern Chile shows little sign of resolution despite Bachelet’s recently-elected administration signalling its intentions to address the issue.

The conflict is rooted in the expropriation by wealthy landowners and logging companies of territories the Mapuche consider to be their traditional homelands. For thousands of years, they and their ancestors moved around freely and harvested the earth, unburdened by the concept of land ownership. Although urban migration has seen many Mapuches resettle in towns and cities, the ancient communities which remain in the Araucanía today find themselves confined to certain areas.

Since the 1990s, a protest movement has called for the establishment of an autonomous Mapuche state, while also demanding greater recognition for indigenous culture and identity. Successive governments have failed to adequately deal with the issue, opting for a policy of repression that has only exacerbated the conflict. State brutality can be seen in the number of deaths of Mapuche activists at the hands of security forces, while the courts are heavily weighed against activists and protestors.

A Mapuche man arrested at a demonstration for the release of Mapuche political prisoners. Flickr/Antitezo. Some rights reserved. 

Alleged discrimination by the state against its Mapuche citizens comes in the form of the highly contentious ‘anti-terrorism’ law, drafted during the military dictatorship of General Pinochet, which has been almost uniquely applied in Mapuche cases. The ley antiterrorista permits extended pre-trial detention, anonymous witnesses and longer sentences. In June, the Bachelet administration declared to the UN, which had criticised the law in 2013, that it would not invoke the law in future prosecutions.

On 30 July, the Chilean state was heavily criticised by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Corte IDH) over its violation of the human rights of Mapuche citizens. The criticism relates to the case of Norin Catrimán and a number of other Mapuche activists found guilty of committing arson attacks on the property of logging companies. In 2002 and 2003, the men were given long prison sentences following trials in which the anti-terrorism law was applied. According to the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), which had represented the men, the state’s use of the anti-terrorism law contravened legal principle and the defendants’ right to be considered innocent until proven otherwise. 

The court also stated that sentencing had been influenced by prejudice and stereotyping, a deeply troubling finding which violates Chilean constitutional principles of equality, while prison terms were set arbitrarily rather than through considered judicial analysis. A statement read that “the FIDH welcomes the court’s confirmation that our clients’ convictions for terrorism constituted an act of racial discrimination and criminalised the social protest of indigenous Mapuche members, possibly as a means of intimidating Mapuche claims for the recovery of ancestral lands.”

Although the original trials took place over a decade ago, the issue of Mapuche discrimination continues to be strongly felt in Chile. “The decision recognises that it is illegal to criminalise the Mapuche quests for their ancestral land,” said Jimena Reyes, head of the IFDH in Latin America and who had legally represented some of the men. “It opens the path for conviction in other cases of criminalisation of social protest throughout the continent, which is unfortunately widespread.” 

The court’s ruling was welcomed by FIDH President Karim Lahidji, who called it a “momentous decision.” But Lahidji also expressed the organisation’s “concern over the extensive violations of economic, social, and cultural rights that affect communities in Latin America, in particular indigenous communities.” The ruling is a rousing vindication for the individuals unfairly prosecuted, but unless it leads to serious revision of Mapuche claims at state level, and the full abolishment of Pinochet’s dissent-stifling law, few will view it as more than a hollow victory.

In a country where the wounds of Pinochet’s seventeen years of abuses are still painfully felt, the subject of human rights remains prominent in public debate. Bachelet herself was detained and mistreated by the military regime before being exiled to Australia, while her father, General Alberto Bachelet, was tortured to death in 1974. In its statement regarding the withdrawal of the ambassador to Israel, the Chilean foreign ministry referred to ‘respect(ing) fundamental rules of humanitarian law.’ Following the court ruling on the Mapuche activists, the government must now show that this concept does not only apply to the Middle East.

The ideological similarities which underpin the Palestinian and Mapuche causes were perhaps most effectively summarised in the relatively frivolous context of a recent music video. In the song ‘Somos Sur’, Chilean hip hop star Anita Tijoux and her Palestinian counterpart Shadia Mansour paralleled the separate demands for independent statehood. In an accompanying statement, Tijoux said that “the movements of global resistance, whether in Latin America, Africa or the Middle East, are fighting against the same patrons of violence who have repeated themselves throughout history. What this means is that many of these groups share similar demands. We are asking for a free Palestine in the same way as we are asking for an independent Wallmapu (the Mapuche name for the ancestral territories) in Chile, without police control.”

By imposing diplomatic sanctions on Israel, the governments of Latin American have set a global example in their reaction to the crisis in Gaza, making a clear stand on Israeli aggression and the rights of Palestinians. In the case of Chile, however, it is a gesture that will appear dressed in symbolism rather than rooted in substance unless the same concerns are extended to the country's own indigenous citizens.

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