Chile’s largest indigenous group sees opportunity in a new constitution

By John Bartlett

Hunger strikes. The occupation of a municipal building. Arson attacks against trucks traveling through southern Chile.

The long-simmering conflict between the Mapuche, Chile’s largest Indigenous group, and the government over land rights and cultural recognition has escalated and spilled into violence in recent weeks, stoked by the economic pain that followed the pandemic.

The clashes were condemned by the government. But the strife amplified public support for the Mapuche’s demands and pushed their cause to the top of the political agenda just weeks before Chileans decide whether to overhaul their constitution, potentially creating the first opportunity in decades for official recognition of Chile’s Indigenous communities.

Nearly 13% of Chileans — roughly 2 million people — identified as Indigenous in the 2017 census. But Chile, unlike some of its neighbors in South America, does not acknowledge its Indigenous peoples in its constitution, said Felipe Agüero, a political scientist at the University of Chile.

“They are not recognized or even mentioned,” he said of the Mapuche.

For Gerela Ramírez Lepin, a university student from Curarrehue, a Mapuche community near Chile’s Andean border with Argentina, the journey toward drafting a new constitution that could remedy that exclusion cannot begin soon enough.

“This is a historic opportunity to make sure nobody is left behind,” she said. “I may never get this chance again.”

The interior minister of Chile has said that the government is willing to negotiate with the Mapuche and has condemned the strife in the Araucanía, the country’s poorest region, as the actions of a violent minority.

But a growing number of Chileans are sympathetic to the Mapuche and see the conflicts of recent weeks as the latest flashpoint in a decadeslong struggle against the state over land rights, recognition of their culture and the often brutal tactics of security forces.

“The Mapuche conflict has become a pressure cooker,” said Verónica Figueroa Huencho, a visiting scholar at Harvard University who is Mapuche.

Last week, the government announced it had created a committee, chaired by President Sebastian Piñera, to discuss territorial conflicts and social development in the Araucanía.

Rising support for the Mapuche cause was evident during last year’s anti-government protests in Santiago, the capital, and other cities, which were harshly curbed by a militarized police force.

The Mapuche’s Wenufoye flag was ubiquitous, and protesters installed a rewe, a type of altar used in Mapuche ceremonies, in Santiago’s Plaza Italia. Plastered on walls were images of Camilo Catrillanca, a Mapuche whose death at the hands of security forces in 2018 sparked nationwide outrage.

The demonstrations, which were set off by an increase in subway fares in October, grew into a broader denunciation of Chile’s entrenched inequality and eventually paved the way for the constitutional reform process that is scheduled to start next month with a plebiscite vote.

“It was emotional,” said Ramírez Lepin, who participated in the protests. “For the first time in my life there was a palpable sense that we aren’t alone, that the subjugation of the Mapuche had gone on for too long.”

For decades, the government has tended to quash Indigenous demands in the Araucanía with an iron fist, Mapuche leaders said, prosecuting suspected militants under a counterterrorism law that dates to the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

The truck drivers targeted in the recent arson attacks have said the government must do more to stop Mapuche assailants threatening their vehicles and livelihoods.

But Mapuche leaders say their ancestral land, known as Wallmapu and stretching from Chile’s Pacific seaboard across the Andes and over to the Argentine Atlantic coast, is being exploited by outsiders and by extractive industries while the government fails to protect it. They accuse the state of resorting to draconian means to punish the deeds of the few who have lately resorted to violence, while brushing aside the peaceful demands of the majority.

Now, as Chile prepares to vote Oct. 25 on whether to replace the constitution created 40 years ago, during the Pinochet regime, the Mapuche see an opportunity.

“Chile is a long way behind the rest of Latin America as the only place where monoculturalism is enshrined constitutionally,” Agüero said.

Activists are also pressing political leaders to create legislative quotas for Indigenous people, and the Senate is considering setting aside seats for Indigenous people in the constitutional assembly.

After assuming the presidency for a second time in March 2018, Piñera, a Harvard-educated billionaire, announced a plan to develop the Araucanía, arguing that economic growth would bring peace and prosperity to the region.

But that vision never materialized as the government stumbled from crisis to crisis in the past year. Chile has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which paralyzed much of the economy.

Amid the country’s lockdown came a hunger strike by several Mapuche prisoners, including Celestino Córdova, a spiritual leader who is serving an 18-year sentence for murder.

Córdova convened the hunger strike to decry Chile’s “monocultural” judicial system, which does not consider Indigenous beliefs. He ended the strike in mid-August, after 107 days, when the government agreed to allow him to briefly visit a site of spiritual importance once he recovers his health.

The hunger strike drew visceral reactions. Among the most striking was a confrontation in early August at a municipal building in the town of Curacautín, which Mapuche civilians were occupying in solidarity with the hunger strikers.

As police officers moved in to evict the Mapuche, a mob of local residents backed the security forces, brandishing metal bars and chanting racist taunts. Some local residents torched vehicles belonging to the Mapuche.

The scene was “soul-destroying,” said Ramírez Lepin, and a reminder of past violence and discrimination.

“I am Mapuche, not Chilean, and have been a victim of racism and discrimination all my life, but to hear those chants meant that our conflict has turned a corner,” she said.

A new constitution could go a long way toward giving the Mapuche the rights to land and the respect for their culture they have demanded for decades. But it would be only the first step toward real inclusion, Ramírez Lepin said.

“The state simply doesn’t understand what we want,” Ramírez Lepin said. “You can’t solve the conflict by throwing money at us. There’s no drive to import, export or trade — just to be happy with what you have and live in peace.”

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