Living under the Oppression of Democracy – The Mapuche People of Chile

The United Nations, Human Rights Watch and the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racism have condemned Chile’s Anti-Terrorism Law and its use against the Mapuche. According to Pedro Cayuqueo, editor of the Mapuche newspaper Azkintuwe, around 1000 Mapuches have been in Chilean jails in the past ten years. In the beginning of 2010, 106 people were jailed and 58 of them were tried under the Anti-Terrorism law.

In the years of Pinochet’s military dictatorship, Henry Kissinger once remarked, “The illegal we can do right now, the unconstitutional will take a little longer.” Kissinger’s quote reveals the abuse of power that comes from the ruling majority. The dynamics of democracy define another reality for the minorities in a society, who do not have the same power to challenge and protest any form of abuse against them. The minorities’ lack of political power becomes a tool within the structure of democracy. Minorities cannot substantially challenge the manipulation of laws and thus become victims of a political ideology that only seeks to protect the society that conforms to its rules.

As always, the concept of freedom within a democracy bears the shadow of obligation – a means that ensures compromise which heavily favours the institution of democracy. This compromise may remain unquestioned by a large segment of the population, which has been trained to think within the confines of its own wider territory of granted freedom and rights. When a democracy is tainted by the legacy of a right wing dictatorship, and no amendments to discriminatory laws are made, it is inevitable that minorities within societies suffer.

The Anti-Terrorism Law issued during Pinochet’s reign in 1984 was an effective tool to suppress the so-called counter-revolutionary groups which opposed the right wing dictatorship. Decades after Pinochet’s rule ended, the law is still providing authorities with the tools to prosecute the Mapuche people. Ironically, it was even used by left-wing governments against the Mapuche. Despite President Sebastian Pinera’s rhetoric of not repeating the mistakes of the past, the Anti-Terrorism law remains in force – proof that Pinochet’s legacy still provides useful outlets for the authorities and a reminder that the brutal history does not have the same meaning for everyone.
According to Pedro Cayuqueo, editor of the Mapuche newspaper Azkintuwe, around 1000 people have been in Chilean jails in the past ten years. In the beginning of 2010, 106 people were jailed and 58 of them were tried under the Anti-Terrorism law.
The United Nations, Human Rights Watch and the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racism have condemned the law and its use against the Mapuche, illustrating how remnants of Pinochet’s oppressive legacy are continued by the hands of Chilean governments. In 2009, with referral to arson attacks in the region of Araucania, Deputy Interior Secretary Patricio Rosada stated, “We’ve decided to invoke the anti-terror Law to go after these groups of people who are set on perpetrating crimes, disorder and unrest in a region seeking peace and harmony.”
So the anti-terror law is being applied to Mapuche activists who are asserting their right to their ancestral land. In 1883, Mapuche territory encompassed 10 million hectares, presently their land has been reduced to around 300,000 hectares. According to the country’s 2002 census, the Mapuche community numbered 604,349.
According to Estrella, a Chilean who studies anthropology, it is in the interests of the government to prosecute Mapuche, as their territory is rich in natural resources. The authorities and private companies have installed a hydroelectric power station on Mapuche land and the forest industry is also located on Mapuche land. The government’s concept of development – the law, the authorities in general, all protect the rights of the big companies at the expense of indigenous people.
Characteristics of trials under the Anti-Terrorism Law include the allowance of faceless witnesses, accepting the threat of crime as an action that has already taken place, and a mere insinuation can be taken as evidence against the accused.
Indicting and prosecuting Mapuche activists under the Anti-Terrorism law purposely brands them a violent people, thus legitimizing the implication of the law. However, police brutality has been pervasive in confrontations with Mapuche activists. Besides using force and maltreatment, as happened in 2009 when the police raided the house of Mapuche activist Miguel Tapia Huenulef, a report by the International Federation of Human Rights states that even children have suffered at the hands of the police. A school was raided in the Temucuicui Mapuche community and children were subjected to tear gas and pellet guns.
It is not only the Mapuche people who are subjected to the infamous Anti Terrorism law. Estrella also remarked that anthropology students who study the culture of the Mapuche may be at risk of being prosecuted by the Anti-terrorism law, even if the students are not Mapuche. Anthropologists support the Mapuche cause and the association with the subject can lead to prosecution, and the students who are most at risk are those involved with anarchist groups.
The majority of anthropology students are communist, anarchist or adhere to left wing political thought. However, anarchist students participate in actions, such as squatters, that make them more prominent in the eyes of the government and the police. Estrella commented on an incident during Bachelet’s rule, which was reported on the Chilean news, where two anarchist students were arrested in 2008 on the charge that hooded people attacked a police office situated in front of the university with Molotov bombs.
The authorities said that the hooded persons were the students they had arrested, and the caretaker of the university stated he recognised two of the hooded people and pointed out the students. The questions remains as to how the caretaker managed to recognise two hooded persons. Classmates of the students being prosecuted have stated that they were in class when the attack occurred. In the wake of such injustices, Estrella doubts the laws could be subject to change since the law provides a functional tool protecting the government’s interests.
Sebastian Pinera has spoken about change in Araucania – a Mapuche territory. These changes include development in the area, such as widespread road building and improving infrastructure, described by Sen. Alberto Espina as creating opportunities.
On the other hand, amendments to the Anti-Terrorist law and its implications for the Mapuche people seem to have become part of political rhetoric. Despite flimsy excuses and promises by the authorities to debate when faced with hunger strikes by the Mapuche activists, no real change is taking place. In a further attempt to disperse the unity of the Mapuche people, authorities differentiate between the Mapuche activists and the others who do not take part in demonstrations and protests, neglecting the fact that the community is struggling to reach identical goals.
The law leaves no avenue for the Mapuche to safely and freely challenge the government on issues concerning them, since every action or protest may be considered a criminal offence. While the concept of democracy which, for the majority does not translate into a variation of dictatorship, remains a strong term to eliminate any discussion of possible discrimination against minorities, for the Mapuche people, democracy has been the political ideology that negotiates with their dignity and natural freedom.
Fidelia, a Chilean doctor describes the government of Sebastian Pinera as a “fascist regime” that seeks to repress people’s rights and threatens their citizens, especially indigenous people. The terrorists, she declares, are those who govern us. Democracy does not exist for the Chileans, and even less for the Mapuche. “The laws that govern us are arbitrary and unfair.”
*Names in the article have been changed to protect the identities of people interviewed for the story.
 Ramona Wadi is a freelance writer living in Malta. Visit her blog at