The Mapuche Hunger Strike: Chile’s Lesser Told Story

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Most of the news out of Chile recently has been coming from a dark hole 2200 feet below ground in Copiapó, where 33 trapped miners became an international media sensation. This week, the news from Copiapó is particularly joyful, as the long-awaited rescue mission is finally complete, 70 days after the miners’ ordeal began. For Chile and President Sebastián Piñera, the rescue is a triumph on all accounts—a triumph for human courage, modern engineering, and technical coordination on an unprecedented scale. The men’s story of survival is truly inspirational, and the images of their rescue and subsequent reunion with loved ones are most certainly newsworthy.

Some Chileans, however, may have difficulty reconciling the amount of media attention the miners have received over these past two months with the lack of attention afforded to Chile’s 38 Mapuche hunger strikers during the same time period. As Luis Campos, Director of the School of Anthropology at Chile’s Universidad Academia de Humanismo Cristiano, pointed out almost a month ago, “more buried than the miners themselves, the demands and the rights of the indigenous population continue to be flouted and unrecognized in our country.”1 Indeed, the Mapuche activists’ stand against their persecution under Chile’s antiquated anti-terrorism laws seems to have barely registered within Chile, much less in the international press.2 In contrast, public outrage over the dreadful safety conditions in the San José mine was converted into tangible—and much needed—reforms in mining regulations just one day after the miners were discovered to be alive.3 As Chile celebrates the successful rescue of the miners, it is important to remember Campos’ words, and take a moment to reflect on another group of Chileans whose struggle has not received the attention it deserves.

The Hunger Strike Revisited

Three months ago, on July 12th, 34 jailed Mapuche activists across southern Chile initiated a hunger strike to protest their treatment by the Chilean government. The strike expanded to include a total of 38 Mapuche prisoners, all of whom were awaiting trial for crimes committed in the name of reclaiming their ancestral lands in Chile’s Araucanía region. The hunger strike initially garnered very little media attention, both in Chile and abroad; the protest only began to receive the coverage it warranted when it reached its second month and the condition of several of the strikers became critical, just as Chile was gearing up to celebrate its bicentennial. As the strike dragged into September, dozens of Chilean political and social leaders—including four members of the Chilean Congress’s Human Rights Commission—joined the protest in a high-profile show of solidarity with the Mapuche community.

The Mapuche are Chile’s largest indigenous group, representing approximately five percent of the population. Though their struggle to defend ancestral lands in the southern Araucanía region began long before Chile became an independent state, the Chilean government itself was responsible for one of the most brutal and comprehensive campaigns waged against the Mapuche people, the Pacification of the Araucanía (1861-1883). Since then, the Mapuche people have been stripped of the majority of their ancestral lands. For just as long, Mapuche activists have remained locked in land disputes with the government in an attempt to reclaim just a portion of those territories. Frustrated with inadequate responses from those in power, some activists have given up on negotiations and turned to direct action, including arson, land occupations, road blockages, and occasionally, armed assault. Typically targeted in these attacks are private landowners and large logging companies in the south of Chile. While the victims claim otherwise, the Mapuche protestors maintain that their actions fall in the category of social protest.

Under Chile’s old anti-terrorism legislation—a relic of the brutal Pinochet regime—the government was entitled to charge Mapuche activists with acts of terrorism, making them eligible for trial in military courts, as well as unusually harsh sentences.4 In 2004, Human Rights Watch released a report condemning the application of the anti-terrorism law against the Mapuche as a violation of their basic right to due process.5 The strikers demanded that all charges brought against them under the counter-terrorism legislation be dropped, and even more importantly, they requested direct dialogue with the Chilean government regarding the Mapuche struggle for political and territorial autonomy. President Piñera initially refused to respond to the strikers’ demands and enter into negotiations on the grounds that a hunger strike was, in his words, “an illegitimate instrument of pressure in a democracy.”6

In early September, faced with increasing media coverage and pressure to address the strike, the Piñera administration was forced to supplement its strategy of delegitimizing the protest with more concrete action. Piñera took a tentative step in the right direction by pledging to reform the counter-terrorism legislation in question, but he continued to balk at the Mapuche protestors’ pleas for substantive negotiations until September 17th, the day before Chile was set to celebrate its Fiestas Patrias. Needless to say, the timing of Piñera’s agreement to enter into direct talks with Mapuche representatives seemed to have less to do with genuine concern for the strikers, and more to do with his desire to dispel the dark shadow that the hunger strike threatened to cast over Chile’s bicentennial celebrations. Even after agreeing to direct dialogue, Piñera made his opinion of the strikers’ tactics clear: “Let us not confuse the Mapuche people that are participating in this Bicentennial with the situation of the 34 who have chosen the wrong path. The country we shall construct we will build with dialogue, unity, and hard work—not with violence, nor with a hunger strike.”7

The negotiations, which began on September 24th after the bicentennial celebrations had drawn to a close, were facilitated by the Archbishop of Concepción, Ricardo Ezzati. With Archbishop Ezzati’s help, on October 1st, the majority of the protestors called off their hunger strike in exchange for the Chilean government’s agreement to withdraw the charges brought against Mapuche activists under the anti-terrorism legislation (and instead charge them under common criminal law), in addition to making permanent changes to the anti-terrorism legislation and Chile’s military justice system.8

For 14 of the 38 protesters, however, the hunger strike dragged on for another week, until they reached a more comprehensive agreement with the government on October 9th, day 89 of the strike.9 According to their spokesman, Rodrigo Curipán, the initial decision to continue the hunger strike was based on the perception that the government was dragging its feet over modifying the charges against them. Moreover, they pointed to inadequate guarantees that the Chilean prosecutors would not use the anti-terrorism law against Mapuche activists in the future. Curipán explained in an October 5th interview with online Mapuche newspaper Azkintuwe that, with respect to the government’s promises, “there is an intention, but nothing concrete. This intention, once the strike is dispelled, may not amount to anything.”10

The Piñera administration managed to convince the remaining strikers of its sincerity in an agreement reached late last week. In the October 9th agreement, the government finally made good on its pledge to withdraw the terrorism charges filed against the Mapuche prisoners. Additionally, Piñera announced his intention to begin immediate discussions regarding the long-overdue introduction of a law recognizing Chile’s indigenous peoples (pueblos originarios) in the constitution.11

Too Much Talk, Not Enough Action?

The Piñera administration’s reliance on discussions (also known as mesas de diálogo) to address the Mapuche conflict is nothing new, cautions Professor Patricia Rodriguez, an expert on Mapuche political mobilization at Ithaca College. Hundreds of these discussions between Mapuche and government representatives have been held since the 1990s, and most have amounted to nothing. In this historical context, Rodriguez explained in an interview with COHA, not only do Piñera’s repeated promises of dialogue lack substance and sincerity, but they also serve to “sideline the hunger strike and the important legal and historical justice issues that the hunger strike is meant to bring attention to.”12

When it comes to the Chilean government’s dealings with the Mapuche people, a historical precedent of superficial dialogue and empty promises certainly gives cause for skepticism. As Chile’s first elected right-wing leader in over 50 years, Piñera is perhaps subject to particular scrutiny with respect to his management of the Mapuche conflict. Piñera’s long-term response to the demands brought forward by the recent hunger strikers could represent a unique opportunity not only for Piñera to improve his own party’s record regarding the Mapuche issue, but also to outshine former president Michelle Bachelet’s center-left Concertación. Piñera has already invited such a comparison, suggesting that he inherited an exacerbated Mapuche conflict from Bachelet’s administration. All of the Mapuche activists involved in the hunger strike were, in fact, jailed as “suspected terrorists” before Piñera assumed the presidency. Bachelet and the Concertación reacted to Piñera’s claims by criticizing his administration’s delayed response to the strike, in addition to putting forth a proposal to remove arson from the list of terrorist acts covered by the Pinochet-era legislation.13 Though the Concertación’s criticisms of Piñera’s management of the strike may be legitimate—and their suggestions constructive—Rodriguez explains that given their own disappointing record with the Mapuche, it seems unlikely that the Concertación would have handled the strike very differently.

Despite her initial campaign promise to break the cycle of destructive relations between the Chilean government and its indigenous population, Bachelet, like her predecessor Ricardo Lagos, ultimately gave in to pressure to maintain the status quo by allowing Mapuche activists to be tried pursuant to the anti-terrorism legislation. Mapuche expert José Bengoa explains that the decision to apply the anti-terrorism legislation against the Mapuche activists was influenced in large part by the Chilean media’s sensationalist coverage of the Mapuche conflict. As quiet as the press has been about the strike itself, Bengoa points out that the mainstream Chilean media has played a crucial role in the conflict between the Mapuche and the government by shaping the dialogue in the years leading up to the hunger strike. According to him:

The ‘terrorism’ in the south was repeated thoughtlessly by the television channels, which constructed—in an irresponsible manner—the impression of un-governability. The Concertación administrations, always fearful of what the newspaper El Mercurio would say to them, made it clear through their actions that [the Mapuche acts] were related to terrorism, and they applied the infamous [anti-terrorist] law. And the downward spiral has continued.14

In response to Piñera’s attempts to blame previous administrations for allowing this spiral to continue, however, Bachelet pointed out that she did propose reforms to the anti-terrorism legislation as well as the military justice system, neither of which received the necessary support from Piñera’s own Alianza party in Congress.15 It seems that Bachelet’s commitment to improving the relationship between Chile’s government and its indigenous population was no match for the sustained media and public pressure to reign in the Mapuche conflict.

Piñera himself certainly does have a dubious record when it comes to his policy on Chile’s indigenous population. When asked about the Mapuche conflict on the campaign trail in August of last year, Piñera responded unequivocally in favor of the application of the anti-terrorism law:

In the Araucanian region, they have committed acts of terrorism, and the government,
instead of applying the anti-terrorist law—save for two exceptions—looks the other way.
And when the government buries its head in the sand, the people think that they can continue to act with impunity.16

Piñera’s opponent, former President Eduardo Frei of the Concertación, was far more measured in his reply, explaining that the government needed to convince the Mapuche people to participate in solutions, rather than imposing solutions upon them. As president from 1994 to 2000, however, Frei seemed incapable of putting this open-minded notion into practice. While the anti-terrorism law was not applied under Frei’s administration, he did allow fast-track prosecutions of Mapuche activists under Chile’s 1958 Law of State Security. As Frei demonstrates, the Concertación has been largely unsuccessful in translating its more tolerant official position towards Chile’s indigenous peoples into serious political reform.

Fundamental Miscommunications Transcend Party Lines

Though it is one thing for the opposition to point out the current administration’s shortcomings and quite another for it to do a better job, the Concertación’s criticism of Piñera is by no means unwarranted. Indeed, Piñera’s initial attempts to skirt the issue of political rights in the strike by steering the debate toward his plans for economic development in the southern region were less than promising. Piñera’s Plan Araucanía, which lists “multiculturalism” and “appreciation for the Mapuche cultural identity” among its principal themes, is not designed to address the issues of political and territorial rights in any capacity.17 Regardless, during initial talks with spokesmen for the strikers, Piñera seemed much more interested in discussing his plans for economic development than listening to the Mapuche demands. As José Bengoa explained in a September 29th interview with IPS journalist Daniela Estrada, “two completely different languages are being spoken here…On one hand, the young Mapuche activists are talking about politics and rights, while the government, in a huge step backwards, is talking about poverty, development and building roads…these are two very different conceptions.”18

Piñera’s seemingly singular focus on development has met with harsh criticism from many in the Mapuche community and beyond, who perceive it largely as a distraction from the concrete political issues at hand. Moreover, Piñera’s development plan may not, in fact, be as beneficial to the majority of the rural indigenous community as it first appears. Rodriguez suggests that Plan Araucanía is hardly the answer to the Mapuche people’s demands:

These are policies that have been adopted in other countries, Colombia being a current example, and they are embedded in language that sounds like a magic solution, but in essence they contribute further to the destruction and displacement of communities. What the Mapuche want is redress, historical redress for years of marginalization, abuse, exclusion, [and] discrimination.19

Indeed, Piñera was unable to entirely avoid the issue of political rights in the October 9th agreement that put a definitive end to the strike. His pledges to recognize Chile’s indigenous peoples in the constitution and to amend the anti-terrorism legislation so that it may no longer be used against Mapuche activists were instrumental in ending the strike, and they are certainly steps in the right direction. However, the Mapuche people are no strangers to empty government promises, and the fundamental issue of their right to ancestral lands remains unsolved.

A Long Road Ahead

Mapuche spokesman Jorge Huenchullán pointed out to Azkintuwe just days before the agreement was signed, “This is not a strike merely for prisoners’ rights, we’re looking to put the subject of our territorial rights on the government’s agenda.”20 It remains to be seen in the months to come whether that item really is on Piñera’s agenda, and whether he will use these reforms as a springboard for more substantial changes in the way the Chilean government relates to the Mapuche as a people, not just the 38 activists in question. It may well be the case that Piñera’s most recent promises, like so many others before them, will turn out to be more symbolic than substantive for the majority of the Mapuche population. Indeed, Rodriguez suggests that Piñera’s reforms will be largely “cosmetic” in nature, as he has no sincere intent to address the Mapuche’s more fundamental demands.

In the wake of the miners’ rescue, Piñera has promised a “radical” overhaul in the way Chile regulates worker safety. While increased safety standards are sorely needed in Chile, so is profound redress for the Mapuche’s centuries-long mistreatment at the hands of the Chilean government. Piñera must do a great deal more than he has during these negotiations in order to convince skeptics such as Rodriguez of his commitment to righting the historic wrongs perpetrated against Chile’s indigenous population.

References for this article are available here