Chile’s Mapuche population has long struggled for greater rights. So many warmly greeted President Sebastián Piñera’s recent promise to give “top priority and urgency” to finding a constitutional solution that will recognize Chile’s Indigenous Mapuche people, a 700,000-person strong minority group that constitutes 6 percent of Chile’s population. His reaction comes after a month of increased tension in the southern Araucanía region, where the majority of the Mapuche live.
After a mid-January summit was held in Temuco, Araucanía’s main city, Piñera has promised to set up a council for Indigenous peoples that is “truly representative of the community’s history, tradition and culture.” This is a positive first step in trying to integrate the Mapuche into the political process since they currently do not have any representation in Congress. At the same time, demands by the Mapuche for an independent state were ignored. The Indigenous group’s main struggle is for the return of what its members claim are their ancestral lands.
It is a positive sign that Piñera and the Chilean government seem to be trying hard to quell violence within the Araucanía region and are beginning to open up dialogue and negotiations with the Mapuche.
But efforts toward reconciliation are being viewed in an increasingly cynical manner by both sides.
The dismissal of Walter Ramirez, a policeman who killed Mapuche leader Matias Catrileo in January 2008, has been called tactical by Ramirez’ lawyer Gaspar Calderon. Calderon told CNN Chile that his client is a victim of "popular justice” and suggested that the decision was made merely to give Chilean Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick something to offer the Mapuche ahead of the Temuco summit.
Mapuche leaders are also suspicious of Piñera’s declaration for a constitutional resolution at the end of January, a justice that the president himself has admitted to being “long overdue.” Lonko Juan Carlos Huenchullán, Mapuche chief of the Lautaro area, told Cooperativa, “I’ll accept [constitutional recognition] when we have the document. If there were no problems in [the area], I believe that the president would still be sleeping.”
Last October, AFP reported plans to create a 40,000-hectare Indigenous Development Area to benefit around 1,000 families—but many within the Mapuche community see this concept as a means of dividing their unity. They say that some families or tribes tend to receive recurring government benefits while others are ignored, creating disagreement over how proactive a role the government should play among the Mapuche.
At the same time, in attempting to introduce positive initiatives for the Mapuche, the Chilean government is sending a mixed message by increasing police deployment in Mapuche-heavy areas. The most recent surge in special-forces presence in the Araucanía region comes following a spate of arson attacks in January, the most serious of which occurred when wealthy landowner and forestry businessman Werner Luchsinger and his wife Vivian Mackay were killed defending their property on January 4. Three suspects were arrested in connection with the murders.
As the deaths became a catalyst for further tension, the Chilean government declared the act a terrorist attack. Mapuche are regularly branded terrorists or even imprisoned under a dictatorship-era “anti-terrorist” law. Piñera also announced that he would reactivate the so called Hinzpeter Bill—a controversial public order to protect government and private property—which has been strongly criticized by students, journalists and lawyers.
James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and other Chilean human rights specialists denounce the disproportionate use of police violence and what many have termed the “militarization” of the areas inhabited by the Mapuche. In response, many imprisoned Mapuches have regularly taken part in life-threatening hunger strikes to draw attention to their fight for equal rights and their below average life conditions. The Mapuche poverty rate, for example, is double the national average.
But after many years, the Mapuche demand for an apology for “500 years of oppression” seems to be gleaning some response as Piñera prepares to recognize the Indigenous group within Chile’s constitution. At the same time, data show an increase in the number of reported crimes in Araucanía linked to the Mapuche conflict from 169 in 2011 to 300 last year, according to Chile’s Attorney General Office.
Still, demands from some Mapuche for “dialogue guarantees” including the withdrawal of police in Mapuche communities will complicate meaningful progress on reconciliation. After years of struggle, many Mapuche will refuse to believe that any promise made by a Chilean state will actually be realized.