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.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage