I have spent the last few weeks traveling with a group of friends in Chile and talking with folks about the Mapuche struggle here. There are many communities in resistance- this article reflects the individual perspectives offered to me from members of different Mapuche communities, as well as my own analysis.
Thirty-four Mapuche political prisoners are currently in the 77th day of a hunger strike which they will continue ‘to the ultimate consequences’ or until the state stops using the terrorist law to persecute the Mapuche struggle. They want the state to do away with its system of double jeopardy and are demanding civil, not military, court process for all Mapuche political prisoners. General demands also include the demilitarization of Mapuche communities under long standing occupation at the hands of the Chilean police and freedom for all Mapuche political prisoners. Two of the Mapuche prisoners were released on conditional bail. Though they are continuing their fast they took some time to sit down and talk with us about the Mapuche struggle. We were also able to visit the prison in Temuco to talk with some of the prisoners on hunger strike inside.
Since 1999 the Chilean state has made a habit of prosecuting Mapuche political prisoners under the anti-terrorist law. Previously, Mapuche were prosecuted under a domestic security law. Mapuche political prisoners currently suffer a system of double jeopardy – they are frequently processed concurrently in military and civil trials. The military courts usually incur longer sentences. There exists little illusion of judicial impartiality in prosecuting Mapuches – evidence is frequently manufactured and secret anonymous witnesses make a generous living regurgitating police fabrications. Under the anti-terrorist law witnesses are allowed to give secret testimony in the Chilean courts, and because their identity is protected it is much harder for the defense to cross-examine them and much easier for them to give false testimony. One of the prisoners we spoke with has been in prison for 2 years under pretrial detention.
The Chilean government recently passed a new version of the terrorist law that combines some of the worst of the civil and military process – charges that include injured police still garner the heavier sentences of the military courts, and police can now offer protected anonymous testimony. International financing is further penalized with some small concessionary changes to the Mapuche like lighter sentencing for arson. Overall, we are told the new modifications to the anti-terrorist law are even worse for communities in resistance.
The Chilean parliament seems to be hoping that no one will read the contents of the new law. No doubt the Chilean president, Piñera hopes that press articles glossing over the specifics and talking about general ‘modifications’ to the law will position the government in a beneficial light. The government has taken great pains to use the media and the recent bicentennial celebrations to create and propagate a false sense of national unity for the future of Chile. Piñera has stated that now is the time to leave all criticisms of the Chilean state in the past, and the hunger strike of the Mapuche prisoners is a fissure in that crystal ball.
The government wants to put on a good face, offering “dialogue” with Mapuche communities to end both the hunger strike and the general resistance, but it has not responded directly to the clear demands of the hunger strikers. The government has offered to not apply the terrorist law to the current hunger strikers’ cases but will make no concessions on future applications of the law. The government has also put forth the Aracaunia plan which it is spinning as a development initiative in the Southern territories. It’s supposedly funded to the tune of 4 billion dollars, though the government won’t actually tell the Mapuche representatives what the plan concretely involves.
Mapuche communities have good reason to fear more money flowing into the municipal coffers of the Southern territories. The police are an occupying force put in place by the state to protect the interests of the multinational corporations in the region. State funds help train the elite police units that kill with precision. Mapuche communities exist under a veritable state of siege. Police come into Mapuche communities, beat, shoot and kill without consequence. Although they use militarized police in place of the military, make no mistake, there is a war being waged in Southern Chile.
The Mapuche fight on multiple fronts using a wide array of tactics against police and transnational business occupation of their land. Timber logging, electro-hydro interests, and increasingly mining companies frequently feel the force of Mapuche strikes against the machinery of resource extraction. Timber company claims are felled or burned, the land retaken. Tourist cabañas, hotels and other rural development projects end up in smoke. Retaking territorial lands from transnational companies is an important part of growing the community holdings for use by the next generation. Mapuche resistance is strong and its inheritance in each subsequent generation is evident. The violence, torture and imprisonment which Mapuche youth experience at the hands of the state guarantees a continued legacy of community struggle.
No deaths have resulted from these actions, only property damage. This property damage is demonized in the media and prosecuted as terrorism. The soft glove and the iron fist still go hand in hand in Chile. Those the state can’t bring to the table will continue to be criminalized in the media and imprisioned by the courts. The creation of the “Mapuche terrorist” as a prime figure in the public eye is important for the construction of a stacked judiciary designed to send Mapuche resisters to prison for longer and longer stints. Many Mapuche targeted under the terrorist law choose to go into clandestinity rather than gamble their freedom in such a hostile judicial climate.
There is a certain sick irony in the Chilean state using the label terrorist for Mapuche warriors. The tactics of the state actually come closest to creating the widespread feelings of fear that normatively define ‘terrorism.’ The vicious and arbitrary way police lash out at Mapuche communities can only be accurately described as a form of state terrorism. Within this context, soothing offers of government dialogue only ring false.
The discourse of offering to talk, while concretely offering very little, gives the government the illusion of fair play. Any parliamentary democracy using the kinds of horrendous violence the Chilean police have made a habit of, needs to make such disingenuous efforts to maintain the illusion of public peace. The good will the government wants to represent in the press by suggesting a dialogue was notably absent last week when the parliament passed the new modifications to the anti-terrorist law. If the government really wants dialogue they would do well to temper the unspeakable levels of violence that currently resonate loud and clear in Mapuche communities.
The Mapuche struggle has been characterized by many of the folks I’ve spoken with as a struggle for independence from Chile. It is important to understand – the Mapuche are not the “indigenous of Chile.” Many Mapuche communities consider themselves a separate nation, one that has been resisting incursion into their territory since the failed Spanish invasion, and don’t identify with the Chilean state or any other government. The territorial lands now under occupation by the militarized wing of the Chilean police were once known as “the Spanish graveyards”.
The anti-terrorist law continues the unbroken line of repression that can be traced back to Spanish colonialism, and has not stopped under the democracy. The first prosecutions of the Mapuche as terrorists happened under the Socialists in the late 90’s. Changes of the Chilean government have changed some specific experiences of repression for the Mapuche, but not the basic parameters of the state of war. None of the legal tinkering of the modified law or the debate in the press get to the root of the issue: tactical government repression safe guards transnational business interests.
The Chilean state needs the territorial lands of the Mapuche so that it can continue to create the illusion of a healthy neo-liberal economic boom; an economic boom which is heavily based on unsustainable resource extraction. The north has been tapped while mineral speculation in many parts of the south is just beginning. In many ways the Chilean state needs the Mapuche, or at least their lands, but the Mapuche do not need the Chilean state. There is no way to fit the Mapuche nation into the Chilean state.
The Mapuche will not so easily be brought to their knees by false multicultural delusions of the Chilean state. That identity holds no currency for the Mapuche. The democratic state has offered only a hollow second class citizenship to the Mapuche – not taking into account the level of territorial independence needed in order to maintain their way of life.
The Chilean state has made an honest assessment of the situation and understands Mapuche resistance to assimilation. The continued hardening of the terrorist law, the consolidation of the military sentencing guidelines into the civil code, and the empty gestures of dialogue are tactical steps which allow the continued occupation and criminalization of Mapuche communities to be more palatable to a wider social democracy. Mapuche repression on the part of the Chilean state happens at the behest of capitalist interests and no amount of social democratic discourse about dialogue can obscure that. The Mapuche will continue to resist any attempts to recuperate their struggle within the discourse of the Chilean state and they will continue the fight for the survival of their people. The hunger strike continues…