Behind the miner rescue headlines in Chile – a new settlement with the Mapuche

by Rhodri C. Williams

I’m grateful to the students in a course I’m currently teaching on minority rights in Stockholm for pointing out an interesting and potentially significant development that got lost behind the drama of last month’s rescue of 33 miners from the bowels of a collapsed shaft. In an earlier post that elaborated on a longer piece by David Dudenhoefer in OpenDemocracy, I discussed how the Chilean earthquake last February both obscured and highlighted the simmering tensions between the Mapuche indigenous group resident in the affected area since time immemorial and the incoming government of President Sebastian Pinera.

Mapuche protests over the land taken from them after their initial military defeat in the 19th century and in the course of a wave of malicious privatization undertaken under the Pinochet regime has often involved violence and property damage. The Chilean official response has been schizophrenic. On one hand, earlier governments both ratified ILO Convention 169 and committed themselves to a program of voluntary buy-back of confiscated Mapuche land. On the other hand, the government response to protests has been heavy-handed. Harsh police tactics, lethal use of force and dubious trials under a Pinochet-era anti-terrorism law ultimately led to a hunger-strike by Mapuche activists that  generated a good deal of negative publicity since the time of the mine collapse last August.

At the time of the successful rescue of the miners in mid-October, the Guardian noted both the elation this caused and the stark history of ethnic and political tensions that formed its backdrop:

“Hopefully this example of the miners will stay with us forever because these miners have demonstrated that when Chile unifies, and we always do it in the face of adversity, we are capable of great things,” said Piñera.

In almost any other context it would have sounded glib, not least because of a simmering, sour conflict between the state and Mapuche Indians, but here at San José mine, in the middle of a scorched desert landscape, the president’s words resonated.

The land of Pinochet has a dark history of polarisation: left against right, poor against rich, government against people. Piñera is a conservative billionaire president with perfect teeth and silver hair. The miners’ poverty is written in dark, pockmarked features. Yet there was no mistaking the warmth of the hugs between the president and the saved. Chile lives off mining – it supplies 40% of state revenues – but barely knows the poor and marginalised men who toil beneath the earth. Its accuracy was questionable but a presidential soundbite caught the mood: “Chile’s wealth is not copper: it’s miners.”

However, in the meantime the hunger strike appears to have ended as well after the government arrived at a settlement with activists. It is a bit hard to pin down exactly what has been agreed to, but the focus seems to be on the state modifying its earlier ‘militarized’ response to Mapuche claims. Whether this signals that the underlying demands will also receive more attention is somewhat unclear. The deal was described in the following terms in an article in the Valparaiso Times:

To bring the strike to an end, the government not only promised to withdraw terrorism charges against the men and prosecute them under normal criminal procedures, but also agreed to a series of other demands made by the Mapuche to make Chile’s legal system less discriminatory of Mapuches.

These include legislation lowering penalties for arson, easing measures taken against terrorism suspects, and limiting the use of anonymous witnesses. The government has also agreed to limit the scope of Chile’s military justice system so that civilians may no longer be tried by military courts.

The anti-terrorism laws were first created during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, but later employed by both the Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet governments in an effort to intimidate Mapuche activists. But Mapuche activists, bolstered by growing international support, continued in their efforts to bring attention to their campaign to reclaim ancestral lands that were sold by the government without the Mapuche’s consent.

In a recent piece for OpenDemocracy, Malcolm Coad points out the way in which Chile has historically tended to find itself in the vanguard of regional and international trends, ranging from commodity booms and busts to Pinochet’s brutal privatization and the country’s subsequent paradigmatic political transition. With its heavy-handed approach to Mapuche dissent and its reluctance to put the power of expropriation behind its response to their land claims, the Chilean state has yet to demonstrate a similar prescience in its respect for indigenous rights. Whether the new agreement represents a genuine change remains to be seen.

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2 responses to “Behind the miner rescue headlines in Chile – a new settlement with the Mapuche

  1. Chile is formally a democratic state, however in 1990; the military dictator Augusto Pinochet imposed a constitutionally compromised system on the state as a condition of his retirement and the military establishment’s withdrawal from the political scene. This was to ensure that the reformist parties would be forced to abide by the economic designs of the heirs of the dictatorial regime of Pinochet. At the last election, the Coalition for Change, which was created by Pinochet’s chief ideologue Jaime Guzman, took power under President Sebastian Piñera. Piñera is a billionaire who controls a big chunk of the mining, energy and retail industries. He made his fortune under Pinochet’s regime with the so called free-market economic experiments initialized by and from the University of Chicago. Sebastian Piñera’s brother and former business partner, Jose Piñera, was labor minister under Pinochet. He privatized mining and state pensions and destroyed the trade unions. This was encouraged by the U.S. as an economic success and a model of the free-market ideology and safeguard control of the local business community from the financial control by the north. Eg. forestry corporations have been allowed to grab land and opposition to these thefts have been met by arbitrary prosecutions under anti terrorism laws enacted by the former dictatorship, which lead to absurd trials with faceless witnesses and lengthy prison sentences of up to 20 years. The successful and intensely covered miners’ rescue does not hide the fact that in Chile today, Pinochet laws are used against the citizens of Chile to rob and steal from them what is rightfully theirs.

  2. Thanks Anders! It is pretty shocking to see Chile still applying Pinochet-era security laws against the Mapuche, but its worth recalling the irony that this policy remained in force during the entire term of Pinera’s predecessor, Michele Bachelet (who was a socialist and had herself suffered terribly under the Pinochet regime).

    While it seems that she tried to increase the carrot offered to the Mapuche protesters by initiating land transfers and ratifying ILO 169, she never took away the stick. From this perspective, it may be all the more significant that the Pinera regime has distanced itself from the punitive approach embodied in the anti-terrorist law. However, only time will tell whether this is a real change of course or a tactical retreat.

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