Thursday was a march in Valparaíso on the one-year anniversary of the murder of Camilo Catrillanca, a 24-year old Mapuche activist and father who was killed by the Chilean special forces on November 14, 2018. This was an international day of memory for Camilo in solidarity with the Mapuche people, with marches across Chile and Mexico, Argentina, and even the US, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Ireland, and Finland.
The Mapuche live in Wallmapu (mainly what Chileans call the Araucanía Region in the south of the country) which both Spain and then Chile colonized, renaming the territory and oppressing the people. For those of us familiar with the European invasion of North America and the resistance of native peoples, the Mapuche story is not very different. As Jorge Huenchullán, a Mapuche leader said: “The Mapuche want to be recognized as a people with territorial and political rights, not just folkloric value: we are not the property of the state, as we have been here since long before Chile was even conceived.”
Catrillanca’s murder was international news, including a New York Times article and an Amnesty International investigation, which brought increased attention to the situation facing the Mapuche. A farmer, he was riding on a tractor with another young man, returning to his house when they were confronted by a special forces branch of the Chilean military (GOPE) known as the “jungle commandos” (trained in the Colombian jungles for rural guerrilla warfare). Just months before his death, President Piñera deployed them to the area where Camilo was killed, along with tanks, armored cars, amphibious vehicles, drones, and helicopters. As Camilo drove away from the GOPE, they shot him in the back of the neck, and killed him. Police claimed there were no cameras but later admitted that his death had been filmed and the footage deleted. Four police officers are scheduled to go on trial later this month.
Camilo was the grandson of a Mapuche lonko [community leader]. When he was 15, he participated with other Mapuche youth in the occupation of the municipal building in the town of Ercilla. The thrust of their demands was against police violence. He said, “In the community of Temucuicui, to which I belong, we are having many raids, we are no longer free, we can no longer walk in the hills and take care of our animals, the repression is too strong. The State is the main repressor, the one that sends carabineros to assassinate, because we are exposed, they are throwing bullets at us at point-blank range.”
Police violence is not new to the Mapuche who were not formally “conquered” by the Chileans until the 1880s. Wallmapu is rich in natural resources, including land, timber (large corporations, Chilean and international, own and operate huge tree farms) and water, over which there have been heated battles for control, with the Chilean state approving a private company to construct the huge Ralco hydro-electric dam. Between 1860 and 1920, the Chilean government “gave” land grants (merced de tierra) to individual Mapuche to weaken the Mapuche community, culturally and materially. Mapuche do not consider land as private property, and individual land holdings ignored highland-lowland interactions, and the interrelationship of mountains, forests, valleys, and water, reducing the Mapuche holdings drastically and balkanizing their territories, like the Palestine West Bank. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Chilean state supported the development of latifundios (large plantations), a form of settler colonialism of Wallmapu, justified by the myth and rationale that there was “a southern Chile without people, and a lot of land without owners.” (Similar to the justification for settler colonialism in Palestine.) While the Allende Popular Unity government of 1970-73 began the process of returning land to the Mapuche, the 1973 Coup ended any hope of real government support.
But with centuries of colonialization comes sustained resistance. Mapuche people have struggled for their territory, land, and water rights continuously since “pacification” in 1883, when the then-Chilean president declared, “The country has with satisfaction seen the problem of the reduction of the whole Araucanía solved. This event, so important to our social and political life, and so significant for the future of the republic, has ended, happily and with costly and painful sacrifices. Today the whole Araucanía is subjugated, more than to the material forces, to the moral and civilizing force of the republic…”
Mapuche have resorted to occupations, demonstrations, hunger strikes, and other forms of struggle. In 2011, they clashed with Chilean police to protest plans for an airport on Mapuche land. Some have even burned their own land. As Héctor Llaitul, Mapuche leader said in 2018, “We burned these forests as an act of legitimate resistance against the extractive industries that have oppressed the Mapuche people. If we make their business unprofitable they move on, allowing us to recover our devastated lands and rebuild our world.” And the business is profitable. Chile exports over $6 billion dollars of wood and wood pulp annually, more than either their fish or fruit and nuts combined, and much of it comes from its south, where Wallmapu is.
Mapuche people were the laboratory for the terrorism and repression tactics the Chilean state uses today against the national uprising. (Today at a cabildo in our neighborhood school, Mapuche speaker Pedro Cayuqueo pointed out that Mapuche people have been awake – in contrast to the popular slogan Chile Despertó [Chile woke up].) The Pinochet government enacted an anti-terrorism law in 1984, initially to put down resistance to the dictatorship, but it has been consistently used against the Mapuche as a powerful tool of repression. In 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism said “the [1984 Pinochet] anti-terrorism legislation has been disproportionately and unfairly applied against Mapuche defendants, and has been implemented without a coherent policy for distinguishing those cases that meet the threshold test for an act of terrorism and those that do not.”
The Mapuche story is one of colonialism, capitalism, racism, and neoliberal extractivism and privatization. The history is of stolen land, settler colonialism, war, repression—and people’s resistance. Legitimate acts of resistance to external terror become criminalized and labeled as terrorism, and the state’s legal, police, and military apparatus comes into play to attempt to quell the uprisings. There has been a long history of brutality and police murder of Mapuche activists, with Camilo Catrillanca being only one of many.
The dictatorship exacerbated centuries of dispossession, and post-dictatorship Chilean governments have continued on the same path and have done almost nothing to satisfy Mapuche claims for territorial integrity, self-determination, and resource rights. In fact, they have increased pressure. In 2013, they closed the local high school that Camilo had attended, leaving the children with no high school, and turned the school into barracks for the commandos (as another ex-student said, “We are the poorest commune in the country, and the government, instead of rescuing an educational project, goes and gives us a police base”). This is reminiscent of the Chicago School Board closing Price Elementary School in 2012 in Chicago’s Bronzeville, a Black community on the South side, and repurposing it to train police dogs.
The march to commemorate Camilo was moving and solemn. It was led by Mapuche with banners, chants, and rituals, ending in a ceremony of remembrance in Plaza Victoria in El Plan (the downtown of Valparaíso).
Although this was again a large march, we were struck by the absence of banners of solidarity from trade unions, political parties, and social movements. La Coordinadora Feminista 8M (see previous blog) put out a powerful social media tribute to Camilo, and there were many green feminista scarves on display.
At the cabildo we attended today, Pedro Cayuqueo said the current moment is an opening to reject Chile’s history of cultural and political and economic domination of the Mapuche, and to reshape the Chilean state as a plurinational state, because although many Chileans are in denial, 80% are indigenous (Mestizo).
The uprising is a flourishing of popular democracy and expanding consciousness. The cabildos are bursting with animated discussion of social problems and social justice. In this historic opening, will Chileans also create a rupture with 500 years of colonization and subjugation of the people indigenous to this place? Will they connect their rejection of Chile’s current neoliberal regime with the history of colonialism and racism on which it was founded and which remain central to Chile’s identity and political economy? Will the call to cambiar todo (change everything) include the demands of Wallmapu, including coming to terms with what is owed the Mapuche people? Will the new form of popular democracy include the Mapuche?
As we write this, news continues of the coup against the government of Evo Morales in Bolivia. Morales was Bolivia’s first indigenous president, representing 500 years of indigenous struggle in the Americas. His indigenous-led Movement for Socialism party not only reduced poverty and nationalized key industries, they restored the dignity of Bolivia’s indigenous people, their language and culture, and developed a vision of socialism for the 21st century based on values of Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the concept of Buen Vivir—to live in harmony with one another and the natural world. Before the coup, engineered by the racist Christian evangelical far right and oligarchs, Evo’s government was attempting to nationalize Boliva’s vast lithium reserves (a critical element in batteries for cell phones and electric cars) and develop them for the people. After Morales was deposed, a far-right politician assumed power; at her side was an oligarch (and leader of an extreme right-wing group) who marched to the presidential palace with a priest who declared, “Pachamama will never return to the [Presidential] Palace,” and the value of Tesla’s (the electric car maker) stock soared. The connection between racism, colonialism, subjugation of native peoples, the theft of their resources, and global capitalism could not be clearer.