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.