The untold story of the Mapuche hunger strike

The other crisis currently under way in Chile.

In a year that has been calamitous, to say the least, for Chile, having survived an earthquake that registered 8.8 on the Richter scale and enduring the ongoing saga of the men trapped for over 40 days in the San José mine, Chileans were probably looking forward to something more light-hearted with the celebrations for the country's bicentennial of independence taking place this coming weekend. However, one further tragic story unfolding in the country, the hunger strike by 34 indigenous Mapuche prisoners, has failed to gain the same level of media attention.

Some might regard the voluntary actions of the strikers, now in the 64th day of their protest, as selfish or foolish compared with the plight of the miners. Yet the protest is not just related to the initial reason for their imprisonment -- their involvement in a dispute over ancestral land in the southern Chilean region of Araucanía -- but that they continue to be governed by anti-terrorism legislation.

President Sebastián Piñera's coalition government (Alianza por Chile) has had the misfortune of inheriting not only the legacy of both the Concertación's and Augusto Pinochet's troublesome relationship with the Mapuche population, but also the counterterrorism law enacted by Pinochet in 1984, which still allows Mapuche activists to be charged as terrorism suspects and tried in military courts today.

Despite inheriting this history of land and political disputes, the current government hasn't exactly warmed itself to the Mapuche, either. As the citizen media website Global Voices reported earlier this year, although the government was faced with the ominous task of coming into office just two weeks after the earthquake hit in February, it failed to respond adequately to the disaster's impact on Mapuche territory. Nor did the media provide sufficient coverage or support to help get the necessary aid to Mapuche communities, which make up about 5 per cent of the population in southern Chile and are one of the poorest and most marginalised parts of Chilean society.

The hunger strike was originally orchestrated in an attempt to draw international attention to their plight, and has sparked off a stream of solidarity protests across the world this summer. In Chile, however, it has been largely downplayed both by media outlets and by the authorities. That goes far to explain why such a long hunger strike by so many people simultaneously has not achieved a greater level of world press coverage.

The authorities have been repeatedly criticised by human rights groups in recent years for permitting police brutality and for failing to eradicate the anti-terrorist legislation. The journalist David Dudenhoefer estimates that some thousand Mapuche have been arrested over the past decade, with many going on hunger strikes and being injured by the police during protests, three of them fatally.

Despite continued pleas from around the world to protect the interests of the Mapuche, including statements by high-profile figures as José Saramago, there has been little improvement in recent years. There was a flicker of hope during President Michelle Bachelet's tenure in 2008 when Chile became a signatory of the International Labour Organisation's Convention 169 -- which requires governments to consult indigenous groups prior to passing laws -- but progress to this effect has yet to be seen.

So, it was to everyone's great surprise last Thursday when four left-wing congressmen (members of the opposition, incidentally) joined the hunger strike in an act of solidarity. That same evening, President Piñera introduced emergency measures to revise the legislation. Yet whether more effective and long-term reforms or a greater debate between the government and the Mapuche communities are on the cards still remains uncertain.

Certainly, as has happened time and again in Chile and many other Latin American countries during protests by indigenous communities, Piñera's haste to amend the legislation is being used as a bargaining tool to pacify the protesters. Many of the Mapuche are now in a critical state of health, some having lost up to 18 kilogrammes, and the government fears that the death of even one Mapuche would put a dampener on this weekend's celebrations.

With the threat of blood on its hands, Piñera's government has the opportunity to break with the tradition of reducing the Mapuche problem to a question of ancestral land. Otherwise, as Patricio Navia, a columnist for La Tercera, suggests, it could become a true "headache" for the party and threaten the stability of modern Chilean politics.

Flickr/Aaron Fulkerson
Show Hide image

George Osborne’s plan to use the tampon tax on women’s charities is simply crass politics

It makes us think that funds from other taxes – the government’s general pot of money not raised by a tax on tampons – is proper money. Men’s money. Money not to be channelled into women-only causes.

It is not a pretty scene. “Guys,” says a male special adviser in George Osborne’s office, as they work late into the night finishing off the Spending Review. “What about, like, women?”

“Hmm,” nods another, finishing off his Byron burger disguised in a McDonald’s bag. “You’re right. We haven’t put any women in it.”

“Maybe we should give some extra money to women’s charities? I think there are some left. How about it, lads?” moots somebody else. Probably a man.

Everyone stops what they’re doing. Someone removes his tie, and solemnly rolls his sleeves up.

“Money? Where from?”

“Obviously not man money! We need that for proper things!” laughs the kind heart who wishes to fund women’s charities. “We’ll get women to pay for it themselves.”

“How? They don’t have any money to spend because of our austerity programme hammering them disproportionately hard!” chorus some Treasury bods in the background.

“Well, they pay for those luxurious little cotton thingies. Theyre always buying those. It’s some kind of monthly tax, I think. We could spend that on them?”

“Brilliant!” cries the Chancellor. And the most ridiculous announcement in this year’s Autumn Statement is born in a wave of high-fives and fitful backroom testosterone.

Yes, to much worshipful braying, Osborne stated with glee and pride in this year’s Autumn Statement that the VAT raised from women’s sanitary products – the “tampon tax” – will be spent on women’s health and support charities:

“There are many great charities that work to support vulnerable women, indeed a point that was raised in Prime Minister’s Questions. And my honourable friend the new member for Colchester has proposed to me a brilliant way to give them more help.

“300,000 people have signed a petition arguing that no VAT should be charged on sanitary products. Now, we already charge the lowest 5 per cent rate allowable under European law, and we’re committed to getting the EU to change its rules.

“Until that happens, I’m going to use the £15m a year raised from the tampon tax to fund women’s health charities and support charities. The first £5m will be distributed to the Eve Appeal, Safe Lives, Women’s Aid and the Haven, and I invite bids from other such good causes.”

It all ended with the Colchester MP and man Will Quince being patted on the back by fellow backbenchers for having such a tidy little idea:

Now, the government can’t help it that there is VAT on women’s sanitary products. Only the EU can change that. And, of course, any money being given to charities for vulnerable women is welcome – especially in light of the financial trouble women’s refuges have been facing due to cuts.

But this idea is crass politics. The way they’ve concocted and framed it is all wrong. It suggests that only money paid by women should support women’s services; if women are suffering, then it’s just the responsibility of female taxpayers. It’s their problem, and they should pay for it.

It also makes us think that funds from other taxes – the government’s general pot of money not raised by a tax on tampons – is proper money. Men’s money. Money not to be channelled into women-only causes. Ironic, as men should probably be picking up the tab for domestic abuse if anyone’s going to.

Of course, the government does spend general money on women’s charities – tampon tax revenue is just an extra boost. But the point is, why didn’t the Chancellor say that? Why didn’t he tell us how much the government is spending on women’s charities? And how it plans to make up for how hard domestic violence refuges have been hit by cuts? Cuts that are part of his austerity programme, by the way.

A neat little channel of a few million pounds from a wildly misjudged tax (tampons are a “luxury item” apparently) to a few women’s charities shouldn’t be championed as a genius idea by the Chancellor and the male MP whose brainchild it is. As the Labour MP Jess Phillips yelled in the chamber: “You’re not paying it, George. I am!”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.