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Posted on Sustainabilitank.info on October 16th, 2010
by Pincas Jawetz (pj@sustainabilitank.info)

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers.” For more information, please see our web page at www.coha.org; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 223-4975, fax (202) 223-4979, or email coha@coha.org.

COHA released today a study relating to the recent hunger strike by Mapuche leaders.

he IX Araucanía Region (Spanish: IX Región de La Araucanía, literally in Spanish: Region of Araucany) is one of Chile‘s 15 first order administrative divisions and comprises two provinces: Malleco in the north and Cautín in the south. Araucania capital is Temuco and other main cities include Angol and Padre las Casas.

Demography Araucania was recently settled by Chileans other than Spaniards whom were first in the 1550s but was unable to subdue the indigenous Mapuches, the Chilean government endorsed a large-scale settlement program in the 19th century. It was common for Chile to endorse land advertisement to Europans, mainly Germany, Austria or Switzerland at the time, whom fled from political upheavel and sought a new place to live in Chile.

The city of Temuco is the most explosive population growth nationwide. According to the census of 1970, near 88,000 inhabitants lived in Temuco. In the census of 2000, 30 years later, the population tripled to 250,000. The resort town of Villarrica (Lago Villarrica) sits on the lake has also experienced this demographic phenomenon become prevalent over time, next to the resort of Pucon, in one of the four tourist destinations of Chile.

The current population is mostly from national immigration from Central Zone of Chile and to a lesser extent the descendants of European settlers who arrived during and after the “pacification of Araucanía”. The Indian presence is significant, being the region with the highest Indigenous proportion of Chile (approximately 20%) a majority are Mapuche or “Araucanian” peoples.

The Mapuche are Chile’s largest indigenous group, representing approximately five percent of the countries 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.3 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.4 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 Sebastián 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.”5

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.”6

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.7

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.8 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.”9

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.10

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