While the whole world was watching the plight of the 33 Chilean miners and the technological prowess of the engineers in planning and executing their rescue, a virtual media blackout existed with regard to the life and death situation of 38 Mapuche political prisoners on a hunger strike.
“More buried than the miners themselves, the demands and the rights of the indigenous population continue to be flouted and unrecognized in our country,” declared Luis Campos, Director of the School of Anthropology at Chile’s Universidad Academia de Humanismo Cristiano.
The prisoners, most of whom had started their hunger strike as early as July 12, were incarcerated in seven different jails in the Southern Ninth Region of Chile, called the Araucania region. On Oct. 2 after 82 days, most of the prisoners ended their hunger strike but 10 continued from the prison of Angol until Oct. 8.
The two main demands of the political prisoners were the abolishment of a Pinochet-era Anti-Terrorism Law that denies them due process and the recognition of their right to their ancestral lands and culture.
The Mapuche people are the most numerous of the original indigenous inhabitants of Southern Chile and Argentina. Today in Chile, they are considered to be 600,000 to 1 million strong.
After centuries of struggle, by 1929, 3,078 reservations existed with a total 525,000 hectares (1,297,303 acres) that represented a mere 6 percent of the original Mapuche ancestral territory. Under the Pinochet regime (1973–1990), much of the lands, which the Mapuche had been able to recuperate during the Allende government, were taken away and sold to forestry companies and other industries.
The Mapuche continue to live on small reservations throughout the South, many times surrounded by the encroaching presence and intimidation of the white de-facto landowners.
Throughout their dispersed communities, they have maintained their autonomous social organizational structures with their Lonkos (Chiefs), Werken (Spokespersons), Machi (Spiritual Leaders) and Trawin (Councils) and have never given up their rights to their ancestral territories and autonomy.
An ongoing battle
They have been waging a battle against the forestry companies who are occupying their land and cutting down the “pehuen,” the thousand-year-old araucaria trees, and replacing them with water-hungry and soil-depleting eucalyptus and pine trees. Protests blocking road access through Mapuche lands to these company trucks have been met with police bullets, tear gas and armed vehicles.
In the last decade, several Mapuche youth have been beaten, disappeared and shot point blank by police. Alex Lemún in 2002, José Huenante in 2005, Matías Catrileo in 2008, and Jaime Mendoza Collío in 2009 were killed by police officers who have faced no legal consequences for their actions.
Yet unfounded accusations of arson against leaders has resulted in a disproportionate amount of youth and men subject to incarceration and parole restrictions.
A dictator’s legacy
The Milton Friedman Chicago School economic model that was imposed on Chile with the blessing of Augusto Pinochet — after President Salvador Allende’s assassination in 1973 — opened up unfettered access to Chile’s natural resources.
The successive governments of Patricio Aylwin, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet continued this same model. As during the Pinochet dictatorship, the post-facto owners of the lands in the South worked closely with the police force and judicial system to guarantee this access and to quell any kind of resistance.
Since 1991, and despite promises by successive post-dictatorial governments to create a constitutional framework to guarantee the indigenous people of Chile the full rights accorded under Convention 169 of the International Labor Treaty that Chile ratified in 2008, the Mapuches have experienced systematic raids into their homes by police forces, militarization of their communities and illegal encroachment onto their properties by “huincas” (Chileans of European ancestry) and hydroelectric and forestry companies.
Major industrial developments such as the Ralco hydroelectric dams that inundated Mapuche lands along the Bio Bio River, faced fierce legal and physical opposition by Mapuche leaders during the 90s, such as by the 80-year-old Quintreman sisters, who forced the Spanish energy company Endesa to spend big amounts of money and years in the courts and media to sway Chilean public opinion in favor of “progress”.
The Anti-Terrorism Law subjects the defendant to both civil and military tribunals, thereby multiplying their sentences for the same charge. Investigations are carried out in secret so the defense has no discovery rights, and witnesses’ identities are kept in secret (as “protected” witnesses behind screens) thereby not allowing the defendant the right to face and interrogate his accusers.
Carolina Dutton, of the Bay Area group Task Force on the Americas, personally witnessed this repression during a trip by a delegation of human rights activists in 2009. “As we approached a Mapuche community where we had been invited for lunch we saw armored police vehicles with mounted guns leaving on the dirt road. We arrived to find the Machi (healer) lying bruised on the ground with her hands tightly handcuffed behind her and her children sobbing. The police had just just come for no apparent reason and beaten and arrested her husband (the lonko) and her 13 year old son. The police had ransacked the house and stolen their life savings.”
As far as Chile is concerned even this most basic level of recognition for indigenous rights seems too impossible to achieve. In 1991, agreements were reached by President Patricio Alwyn and the major indigenous organizations in Chile through the Nueva Imperial accords to constitutionally recognize the indigenous people of Chile as well “their fundamental economic, social and cultural rights”.
But after several changes throughout the following nine years only the “recognition” part remained and even then failed at the Congressional level in 2000.
Five years later, a similar proposal was presented which declared “recognition of Chile’s indigenous past, the presence of its indigenous communities and their participation rights in decisions which affect them.” This proposal was voted down by right-wing opposition in Congress, including President Sebastian Piñera’s Alianza party.
Now, the current Piñera government is attempting to pass legislation to create an Indigenous Law as a reform to Chile’s constitution without the required consultation with the affected indigenous nations within Chile. Article 6 of the Convention 169 legally requires that the Chilean government appropriately consult the indigenous people through their representatives of any laws that will affect and pertain to them.
This constitutional reform has been deemed insufficient by the indigenous people’s representatives as well as international jurists since it does not meet the most basic of all rights: Collective territorial rights over their natural resources which is key to their right of self-determination and autonomy.
Gains of a hunger strike
In the middle of October, a week after the hunger strike ended for most, the Chilean Supreme Court gave the green light to the Celco paper company to build a pipeline to the coastal waters of Mapuche land in spite of legal opposition presented by environmental and indigenous organizations regarding the court’s obligation under Convention 169 to appropriately consult the indigenous communities. It has deemed regular “citizen” consultations sufficient and has effectively legally denied the Mapuche people their consultation rights.
The hunger strike by the political prisoners in effect was a bittersweet victory because only “reforms” to the Anti-Terrorist law were promised, not its abolition. But it obliged the government of Piñera to publicly recognize its adherence to article 169, to modify the rules regarding trying civilians in military tribunals, and specifically with respect to the Mapuche prisoners, to stop qualifying the actions under which they were charged by the previous government of Michelle Bachelet as terrorist acts but rather place those actions under common criminal law.
This does not guarantee, however, that the separate judicial branch, the Ministerio Público, will respect this agreement. As these prisoners had forewarned, in latest developments, seven Mapuche prisoners who participated in the hunger strike from the El Manzano jail in Concepción will be subject to the Anti-Terrorism Law during the oral arguments on Nov. 8. Even though the government agreed not to use protected witnesses, they will continue to be used in this case.
In spite of being trapped 2,000 feet below the earth’s surface and almost 2,000 miles up north, many of the Chilean miners were not oblivious to the Mapuche struggle. On Oct. 20, the newspaper La Tercera reported that during the miners’ ordeal, several of them sent a message to the world, “Fuerza al Pueblo Mapuche” (Long Live the Mapuche People). That message was censored by the government.
Piñera’s exuberant compliment paid to Urzua, the miner’s foreman and last man to be rescued, as being a “good captain” was probably made without prior knowledge of Urzua’s past. Both his father, Luis Urzua member of the Communist Party and his stepfather, Benito Tapia, were both killed by the Pinochet government in 1973.
Even though Piñera would like to pretend that his government represents a break with the Pinochet era, Chilean society as a whole continues to suffer its long lasting economic and constitutional effects. With such intertwined and tangled histories, Chilean society cannot afford to continue denying its past, primarily because the Mapuche people will continue their 500 year-old historical struggle for their lands and autonomy, no matter who is in power.
On Saturday Oct 30 at 7 pm, there will be a closing event at Sunrise Restaurant in San Francisco, for an exhibition of artworks by Mapuche Lonko Juana Calfunao, and a celebration of the end of a hunger strike by 38 Mapuche political prisoners in Chile. Celebrate their release and learn about the ongoing struggle of the Mapuches for land and justice in the face of repression by the Chilean State. The evening’s program will include photographs by Chilean photographer Alejandro Stewart, and a report by Carolina Dutton (a Bay Area activist) about the current situation.
Featuring music by Rafael Manríquez —ex member of Grupo Raíz— and MUSA (Mentes Unidas Sembrando Acción) —a Latin rock fusion project with local Chilean singer María Loreto .
Saturday Oct 30, 7 pm, Sunrise Restaurant, 3126 24th St, SF @ Folsom St • Info: (415) 647-8126 | (415) 467-6230. Sponsors: Peña del Sur & Task Force of the Americas.