Mapuches: The Politics of Exclusion in Chile

Chile’s Michelle Bachelet shone during her presidential debut in Europe last month. Hailed by Europe’s leaders and press as a progressive icon, Bachelet 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 Pinochet – was giving an interview to El Pais. "The police act brutally," said Guzmán, describing the persecution of Chile’s Mapuche Indians. "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." (1)  

Next day, the Portuguese literary Nobel Prize winner, Jose Saramago, challenged Bachelet in person. "Do me a favor", 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."   

This 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 were given ten year sentences in 2002 after fire destroyed 108 acres of a pine plantation, valued at $600,000 USD, near the town of Angol in Chile’s ninth region. No injury was caused and the convicted deny starting the blaze.  

Terrorism and Protest

The use of anti-terrorist laws in Mapuche trials has been condemned by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Rudolf Stavehagen, by Amnesty International and by Human Rights Watch. José Martinez Rios – regional head of the Chilean criminal defense service for the ninth region – told me that if the Lonko’s case had been filed under standard Chilean law then much of the prosecution’s 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. (2, 3)

I asked Martinez Rios if the use of antiterrorist 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 7-11 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, convinced the four to suspend their hunger strike after the senator presented a parliamentary bill paving the way for an amnesty. After rightwing parliamentarians opposed the bill, arguing that no concessions could be made with terrorists, the hunger strike was resumed. In the last days of 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. (4) 

Also in May, Chilean secondary school children – demanding that charges for university entrance examines be scraped; that Pinochet era educational laws be reformed; and that transport to and from schools be free – went on strike and occupied schools throughout the country. These impressively organized 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 has now met most of the pupil’s demands.  

By contrast, the seventy day Mapuche hunger strike has been largely ignored by the press and, with the exception of Senator Navarro, no one in government seems to be regarding it as a "major challenge."  When the Justice Minister, Isidro Solis, was quizzed on the Mapuche’s fate, he simply said that they would not be allowed to die, the authorities would force feed them if necessary. (5) 

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 Mapuches 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 recognizing a Mapuche state to the south of the river Bio-Bio. The treaty was reaffirmed in 1803. (6) 

After independence, Santiago didn’t recognize the territorial settlement and following victory against Peru and Bolivia in the Pacific War in 1883 the Chilean army swept southwards incorporating 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 twentieth century Santiago encouraged "colonization" of the Araucania region by offering free land to European immigrants with the result that the Mapuche territory shrunk, from 10 million hectares in 1883, to under 500,000 today. Indeed, most of the original Mapuche State is now owned by logging companies of which 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 the Mapuches’ 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 favor 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 marginalization of Chile’s indigenous people is acute. The Chilean constitution doesn’t recognize them and, unlike other Latin American states, Chile has not ratified the International Labor Organization’s International indigenous people’s rights convention (C169 1989).  

In a bid to enter the political arena Aucán Huilcamán, from the Mapuche organization Council of All Lands, attempted to run in the 2005 presidential race. His arrival on horse back in Santiago caused a stir. However, the electoral authority refused to place his name on the ballot arguing that the 39,000 signatures he had collected in support of his nomination had not been certified by public notary. The estimated notary bill would have been 285,000 euros, 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." (7)

Constitutional Recognition and the Specter of Bobby Sands

Prompted by Huilcamán, Bachelet 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 said. "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." (8) 

In whatever shape it takes, it currently looks unlikely that a recognition bill would get the two thirds parliamentary backing needed for a constitutional amendment. Aylwin 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 with the IRA hunger strikers in the 1980s changed public perceptions of the Northern Ireland conflict. In a column written at the beginning of May entitled "Iron Lady", Cayuqueo, not unfairly, compared the apparent indifference of the Bachelet government to Thatcher’s cold-bloodedness. 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." (9)  
Justin Vogler is a correspondent for Upside Down World. 
He lives in Chile. This article was originally published in, an online magazine uncovering activism and politics in Latin America.


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