This week I was fortunate enough to attend the annual Mapuche March here in Santiago. This year’s march took on an even greater significance considering the situation between a group of Mapuche political prisoners and the Chilean government. A group of 34 Mapuche prisoners had been on a hunger strike for nearly 3 months and only days before had the last remaining strikers decided to call an end to their protest. The prisoners had all been charged under the Pinochet-era anti-terrorism laws, designed to facilitate the eradication of the opposition, which have remained in place and untouched by subsequent governments.
Over the last three decades, several Mapuche activists have been imprisoned as “terrorists” for acts of arson and destruction of private property in their attempts to protest the presence of the numerous natural resource extraction companies (forestry, hydroelectric) that are exploiting what the Mapuche consider to be their ancestral lands. At least five young Mapuche people have been killed in altercations with the carabineros (police) and many of the hunger strikers were feared to be near death as well.
Unfortunately, the disaster at the northern mine had the effect of overshadowing the hunger strike. Media attention that may have illuminated the Mapuche struggle was diverted to the plight of the trapped miners and the rescue operation, which had much more of an international appeal. I was unable to find any news in the mainstream conservative media about the end of the hunger strike, only in left wing and Mapuche online news sources.
I, like many, am disappointed with the outcome of the strike. The Piñera government has agreed to change the charges against the prisoners to less serious crimes of destruction of private property and endangerment, dropping the charges of terrorism, but has not agreed to revisit or alter the laws themselves. These laws allow the government to charge and hold people with limited proof and use anonymous witnesses in their trials, among other things. Apparently, these laws have just been too convenient for the government to use despite their origins in an authoritarian and oppressive regime that had no respect for human rights.
In any case, the march seemed to be a success with somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people in attendance (depending on which news source you look at). I would guess that the number was somewhere in the middle, with the ranks swelled by a number of other indigenous, communist and anarchist groups. Emotions ran high but despite a strong police presence the mood was a positive one. After the march, the group convened in a plaza for food (sopapillas-yum!), music and fundraising through sales of art, jewellery, books and movies. I bought a Mapudungun/Spanish dictionary so that I can at least say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ to my research participants (assuming they speak Mapudungun, which many Mapuche people do not).
It felt really great to be able to be part of something so large, something that seemed so powerful. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that year after year, this march attracts the same groups with diverse interests who cannot manage to work together at a higher level. But, I say that if it promotes solidarity even only for one day a year, it’s doing something.