Chile: Mapuches React to Rejection of the “Pluri-National”

The Mapuche leader Maria Hueichaqeo in front of the ruca (Mapuche circular house) installed on the Antu Mapu campus, which serves as the headquarters for the work of the Tain Adkimn Mapuche Indigenous Association, aimed at raising awareness in Chilean society of the reality of indigenous peoples and how the Chilean state has mistreated them up to now. Photo: Orlando Milesi / IPS

By Orlando Milesi (IPS)

HAVANA TIMES – Mapuche leaders are troubled by what they see as a collective defeat: September 2022’s plebiscite vote to reject a proposed pluri-national and intercultural Constitution for Chile. The document had been drafted in an unprecedented Constitutional Assembly, with full gender parity and vocal indigenous representation.

“We were all knocked flat; some of the leaders wept. The possibility of such a defeat had never entered our minds, because we thought things were going to change,” Nelly Hueichan told IPS. Hueichan is, president of the Mapuche “Trepeiñ Community”, a women’s collective in the municipality of Lo Hermida, south of Santiago.

“There’ve never been any easy solutions for our people (…) it’s not the first time we’ve been defeated,” the 64-year-old leader added. “[Drafting the Constitution] was a tremendous challenge and an opportunity to change this society that has discriminated against us so greatly. Now, we must get back on our feet and take up the struggle once again. We continue organizing and preparing ourselves,” she stressed.

Hueichan was 17 when she came to Santiago from San Juan de la Costa, a community in the province of Osorno, 578 miles south of the capital. Her first job was as a domestic worker.

On September 4, 2022, Chile held a plebiscite in which more than 13 million Chileans voted, out of a population of 19.5 million. The option to Reject the proposed constitution received 7,882,238 votes, 61.86% of the total, while the Approve vote only garnered 38.14%, or 4,859,039 votes.  The rejected proposal had been approved by a two-thirds margin of the 154 delegates who made up the Constitutional Assembly. These delegates wanted to reimagine Chile as a pluri-national and intercultural State, in recognition that the nation is an amalgam of different peoples and cultures.

According to the last census, 1.8 million Chileans belong to one of the aboriginal nations. The largest group (80%) is the Mapuche, who originally inhabited the south of the country, although today half of them have left for other areas of the country, particularly Santiago. After them in size are the Aymara (7.1%) and the Diguita (4%), plus far lesser numbers of Atacama, Quechua, Rapa Nui, Colla Chango, Kawesquar and Yagan peoples.

The rejected Constitution was imbued with “the dreams of those who weren’t, nor have ever been, in power. It proposed a new road for Chileans, a path that the citizens didn’t want to walk down,” summarized Mapuche leader Elisa Loncon, who presided over the first half of the Constitutional Assembly.

Mapuche professor Salvador Millalea, who teaches at the University of Chile, told IPS: “Without a doubt, the original peoples are the ones most hurt by the fact that the proposal was rejected, because it had the most complete framework of rights that has ever been proposed.”

The campaign for the “Reject;” vote trumpeted that the document would give excessive rights to the indigenous peoples, converting them into a privileged class, above the rest of Chileans. In that way, the campaign exploited the racist sentiments nestled within this long and narrow South American country.

The Trepeiñ Community, chaired by Nelly Hueichan, brings together 35 Mapuche members who live in the municipality of Lo Hermida, mainly women with similar histories of labor and social discrimination. Their activities and meetings are carried out in a ruca (Mapuche house) that they also provide to the neighbors for activities of social benefit. Photo: Orlando Milesi / IPS

Racism and Repression

That latent racism has fed the repressive policies applied against the indigenous peoples by a succession of governments, especially during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, from 1973 – 1990). At that time, the conflicts over land rights were declared null, and the land the indigenous peoples were claiming passed into private hands, especially those of logging export companies. Mapuches who took part in actions to demand their lands were tried and sentenced as terrorists.

Indigenous leaders continue demanding reparations for the violations of the Mapuche people’s human

rights during the repressive actions of that time. They insist that priority should be given to the indigenous group’s right to the land that was usurped from them.

The poor attention given to the Mapuche population translates into the fact that the southern regions where they live are the poorest of Chile, with scant job prospects and elevated unemployment, in addition to great deficiencies in education, infrastructure and health.

“A very transverse climate has been generated among the political elites who are against- or simply don’t prioritize – the rights of the indigenous peoples,” Professor Millaleo stated.

That environment is in direct contrast to the ideas that prevailed in 2019, during Chile’s social explosion under the government of right-leaning leader Sebastian Piñera (2018-2022). During the multitudinous demonstrations of that year, the Mapuche banners were raised in protest for their situation.

“At that time, we were all very happy. But unfortunately, the leaders lacked awareness of our need to secure that good will, design strategies, seek support from organizations in the indigenous world, and maintain the territories united and informed,” Millaleo reflected.

The resounding victory of the Reject vote was the other face of the majority vote in May 2021 for independent delegates to the Constitutional Assembly. Two months later, that election culminated with the installation of the Assembly presided over by Elisa Loncon.

The Ceremonial Center of Indigenous Peoples, located on Jose Arrieta avenue in the municipality of Peñalolen, was inaugurated in May 2022. In 4.2 hectares it gathers expressions of the Mapuche, Aymara and Rapa Nui cultures present in the municipality. The traditions and customs of these three native peoples are promoted on the premises. Photo: Orlando Milesi / IPS

False threats

Maria Hueichaqueo presides over one of the 130 Mapuche organizations in Santiago: the “Tain Adkimn Mapuche Indigenous Association.” The Association is based in the municipality of La Pintana, where 16% of the population Is indigenous.

As part of their campaign for the population to vote Reject, conservatives bombarded the electorate with the false notion that the proposed Constitution would make the indigenous people the owners of the entire Chilean territory.

“Nowhere in the world have the indigenous people taken ownership of the land that belonged to their ancestors. There have only been formulas, treaties or accords that have generated some solutions to these land conflicts,” Maria asserted.

Maria Heichaqueo, 57, came to Santiago from Chol Chol, a municipality in Chile’s Araucania region, 435 miles south of the capital.

“I was born in a ruca [traditional Mapuche dwelling] and when I was seven months old, I came [to Santiago] with my mother. My father is a chief who lives in the Ionko Jose Poulef community in Chol Chol,” the indigenous leader told IPS. Maria spoke to us from the Antu Mapu (”Land of the Sun”) campus at the University of Chile, the university’s largest campus where the Agronomy and Veterinary Departments are housed.

According to Hueichaqueo: “What’s happening is that the powers that be don’t want to lose their power. They believe that if the indigenous people have rights, their power is going to collapse.”  The leader recognized that, “we weren’t capable of analyzing more deeply the reality we were living through, so as to trace a more exact profile of those who should have been our representatives to the Constitutional Assembly.”

Maria Hueichaqueo surrounded by representative figures of men and women on the Antu Mapu university campus (land of the sun, in Mapuche), in Santiago. There they receive students who attend an elective course to learn Mapudungun (Mapuche or Araucanian language) and indigenous inclusion in the history of Chile. Photo: Orlando Milesi / IPS

Indigenous movement reflects on their errors

“Unfortunately, not all our brothers and sisters from the original peoples handled the situation well in the Constitutional Assembly. Some were very extreme, when the country’s reality was different. We’re aware of the territorial vindications and the human rights violations. But that’s a matter for the State, and we were speaking about a new Constitution, about all of us coexisting together in the same territories,” she explained.

According to Maria Hueichaqueo, the indigenous representatives at the Constitutional Assembly distanced themselves from their organizations. As an example, she noted that some were elected with large margins, but later, in their own communities, the same people voted to Reject the new Constitution.

Salvador Millaleo feels that another mistake made by the indigenous representatives was “not to dare demand that the radical groups who wouldn’t support the Constitutional process put down their arms. At the same time, they needed to clearly differentiate themselves from those groups.”

Hueichaqueo commented that the Mapuches “are in a process of reflection. But we’re not just standing with our arms crossed, because we indigenous people have spent over 500 years in movements, demands, and discourse, and we’re not going to stop over a Constitutional proposal that failed.”

“If it doesn’t come in our time, it will be left to our children; and if not in their time, our grandchildren will be the ones. However, we will maintain our insistence, as long as the Chilean government fails to listen to the native peoples and doesn’t correct the things they need to put right.”

A new attempt at a Constitutional draft

Maria Hueichaqueo admits she’s “pessimistic about how much advance is possible in the new Constitution that now needs to be drafted again, because neither the State, nor the government, nor the political class are preparing the democratic and participative governance guarantees,” for this new process.

The Chilean Congress has approved a new Constitutional process, beginning with a Committee of 24 experts, half chosen by the Senate and half from the House of Representatives. These 24 will then draft a Constitutional proposal. The committee will begin work on March 6, the same day in which a Technical-Administrative Commission will be installed, with 14 specialists also appointed by Congress.

On May 7th, 50 members of a Constitutional Council will be elected, with guarantees of gender parity. This council, with a minimal indigenous presence, will have five months to propose a draft Constitutional text, based on the experts’ recommendations. That new proposal will then be accepted or rejected on the basis of a plebiscite scheduled for December 17th.

Elisa Loncon believes that this strategy seeks to continue excluding certain groups.

“Today, they’re planning to write the new constitution with a discredited political elite who will never speak the language of the indigenous peoples, because they’re not from these groups. We suspect that they’re only seeking to maintain their centers of power and their privileges,” she affirmed.

The poet’s view

To poet Elcura Chihualaf, 50, the first Mapuche member to be awarded the National Prize for Literature in 2020, it’s difficult to comprehend the defeat of the Constitutional proposal “after a moment when it seemed as if deep within Chilean consciousness, people were beginning to assimilate the fact that their race is also a legacy of the native peoples.”

“Everything that happened had to do largely with the messages in the media – that superficial and alienated group that owns the large media outlets.”

In his view: “history has been managed in a self-serving manner, by a small group I’ve dubbed the superficial or alienated Chile, that has instilled within us its own version of history.”

“It ignores what was and continues being the occupation of a territory, of a country, that was and still is called “wal mapu”, in the Mapuche language – “the meeting of all the lands.”

Chihuailaf continued: “When development is spoken of, they say that the native peoples don’t want development. Our people say: ‘We want development, but with nature and not against nature.’”

The poet adds, “the first step towards recovering the dignity of this territory is for full Chilean consciousness of their true identity, to fully accept that they are the descendants of native peoples, and that all the cultures are important.”

“The most beautiful blackness, the most beautiful yellow tones, the beautiful whites, and the beautiful brown-skins – none are either more or less than the others,” the poet concluded.

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