Q&A: Arenas on the failure of government to solve the Mapuche conflict

By Sam Edwards
Published On : Sun, Apr 27th, 2014

Ex-UDI deputy condemns political exploitation of fears of terrorism and calls for a radical change in policy before the situation spirals out of control.

Gonzalo Arenas

Gonzalo Arenas lays much of the blame for greater radicalization of the Mapuche conflict with the ‘systematic negligence’ of successive administrations since the 1990s to deal with the issue. Photo by Violette Le Gall / The Santiago Times

One day after taking office, Araucanía Governor Francisco Huenchumilla took the unprecedented step of apologizing to the Mapuche community — the country’s largest indigenous minority — on behalf of the Chilean state for its hand in creating the division and recrimination that has plagued the southern region since it was officially annexed in the late 19th century.

Huenchumilla, himself Mapuche, apologized to the formerly autonomous indigenous nation for the government’s conquest of their lands, but also to the landowners whom he said were brought to an “inadequate” place at an “inopportune” time in his historic speech last month.

Former deputy for the Araucanía Region for the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) Gonzalo Arenas party praised the gesture, but on one very important condition: that the apology be accompanied by serious policy to resolve the historical debt and avoid an escalation of the violence of recent years.

You said that any kind of official apology on behalf of the state toward the Mapuche people must be accompanied by specific measures. What did you have in mind?

Any apology to the indigenous population only makes sense if made with a specific political end in mind. [For example] when it’s used with the aim to mark a break in policy and to establish a new deal between indigenous communities and the dominant culture.

I criticized Huenchumilla because he is simply asking for forgiveness for sentimental reasons, or perhaps just in order to be well received or to smooth over problems. But state apologies are much more profound than this. If this isn’t accompanied by important changes in indigenous policy, the only thing it can do is build false expectations and further complicate any future dialogue. This is something with Mapuche communities in the south have often complained about: unfulfilled promises and frustrated expectations. For this reason, we said that if he is going to apologize he should do so seriously, meaning a much more complete approach of specific policies.

Firstly, we need to re-analyze the [dominant version of] national history. In Chile the official narrative of relations between the Mapuche people is what is called the “Pacification of the Araucanía” and the events which followed. Here, I think there is an obligation for the Chilean state to establish a reading of history closer to the reality of the period and with greater respect to the Mapuche people than the current narrative prescribes.

Secondly, [an apology] must be accompanied by constitutional recognition of both indigenous peoples themselves as well as certain important collective rights.

Thirdly, we need policy which isn’t subsidy based but rather one which gives value to Mapuche culture and Mapuche territory, by which I mean making these commercially viable. The current strategy is focused exclusively in giving [communities] land and making them farmers, something which has shown itself to solve absolutely nothing. Therefore, we should endeavour to enact a true policy, including developing ethno-tourism or making agriculture [in indigenous communities] more technologically advanced and with greater value added. A real policy of radical and productive development in Mapuche regions.

The fourth point would be a radical change in the education currently being provided today in Mapuche communities. Currently, the state schools in these areas are among the worst performing in the country. Why? Firstly, because they are in some of the poorest communities in Chile and as a result there is not sufficient management to ensure that these schools are of reasonable quality.

Finally, we need to look for alternative forms of compensation for lost territory. Mapuche communities have lost land to the Chilean state. In some cases this can be resolved by purchasing land but this is not always a viable solution. That’s why we have to establish through law, and in agreement with the Mapuche people, alternative forms of compensation so that, ultimately, the historical debt can be paid and paid in the best way possible.

These are the steps that have worked in other countries and they could work here.

Is a lack of political will to deal with this issue responsible for the profound problems facing the region now?

Absolutely. A large part of the problems in the indigenous conflict can be traced to the governments of the 90s up to the current administration. All governments have dealt with indigenous populations and [specifically] the Mapuche as a marginal issue or exclusively as a security problem. The most they have done is adopt a welfare based system for the poorest communities. But to adopt a state policy is something no administration has done since the 1990s and the return to democracy, so a large part of the responsibility for the increase of violence, for the growing numbers resorting to this tactic and for the greater radicalization we have seen lies with the systematic negligence of governments to deal with the Mapuche problem.

In the last year, the UN and the US State Department have been among those to criticize the traditional government approach to the issue. Could this spur greater political will to enact some of the changes you have suggested?

I still don’t see a serious will to do so. President [Michelle] Bachelet’s creation of the Indigenous Affairs Ministry — this is certainly a positive, a first step. [But] it’s just a shell, we need to see content, and so far this has been sorely lacking. We still haven’t broken with the typical logic of citizen security and providing welfare which the Chilean government has traditionally followed in its dealing with the Mapuches.

Your position seems out of step with much of the traditional right which has historically shied away from recommending an apology. Was fear of opening the way to large-scale compensation a factor in eschewing this step previously?

The center left has always had a greater affinity with the Mapuche issue. Historically, and in Chile, at least. This has not been the case for the right. Therefore, it is natural that the right will be several steps behind the left on this subject. The center left has always seen the Mapuche as another trench from which to propagate their ideological position and argue for further left principles.

They have never been able to see the Mapuche subject as a separate issue, outside of their political stance. The center-left has used the Mapuche to win elections as they did in the 90s and ever since. Today the Mapuche don’t feel part of the Concertación [the former incarnation of the governing Nueva Mayoría pact] or the wider center left, they are tired of being used as a means to re-election. That’s why their demands are more ethnic than in previous years.

It could also be that there is significant distance between the left and the right and that means we face a greater challenge in reaching a solution. Now whether its a case that the right is afraid or the left is afraid …

If things continue as they are now, it will only get worse. In 10 or 15 years this problem will be huge and the cost to resolve it will massive because this issue is not going away; it’s going to going to grow and evolve so the intelligent way to tackle it as nation is to try to resolve it now, to discuss it now before the situation is too far gone. Yes there are serious problems of violence but we are still at the point where it can be resolved. … Everything that we don’t resolve now will cost the double in future. There will be twice the problems, twice the uncertainty and twice the violence so it’s an issue of minimum political intelligence to see what has to be done.

Furthermore, if you look, many of the world’s countries have had problems with their indigenous populations. Development is a work of theatre and its always written the same. Chile will go down the same path if we don’t do something.

Continuing with your characterization of the Mapuche issue being used as a political tool, could the recent application of the anti-terrorism law be understood in this context — a gesture to reassure the public against the threat of armed resistance?

Yes. In Chile the anti-terrorism law has been used exclusively to paper over the inefficiency of the police in this country. In the face of the lack of results from [police] investigations, they launch the anti-terrorism law in front of the press to ease public opinion but, ultimately, this has had a harmful effect because the application of the law has alienated many Mapuches who feel they are all branded as terrorists. This, of course, does not help the process of dialogue.

Is there an in-built hypocrisy in the National Indigenous Development Service (Conadi) supervised system of mainly awarding land to communities who utilize land occupations which in many cases lead to violent confrontations and clashes with police?

Yes, there are problems. From its inception Conadi accepted the process of returning land as a means to resolve the conflict. Effectively, this instilled the logic that it would only buy land for the violent communities and this has continued until today even under right-wing governments who have continued to buy land for those in conflict. This functions on perverse logic because it reduces the entire Mapuche conflict to an issue of land and it’s much greater than that. Secondly, it means claims for land will be infinite and, therefore, means there will never be an end point. This is another example of poor long-term use of restitution of territory.

Yes, one way of looking at it would be to say returning land to the communities engaged in activism is ‘rewarding the violent groups,’ but the flip-side is that government agencies are essentially ignoring those which don’t have the means to or choose not to engage in protests. Could you argue peaceful communities’ claims for more land are simply ignored?

Yes, also. This political dynamic has rewarded violence with land. Now this has diminished, it used to be much worse. Today things are more ordered and with the points-based system it’s much more difficult to jump ahead, there’s a bidding period and it’s more transparent. Initially, it was simply at the discretion of governments who simply bought land for violent communities to defuse the situation. Today things are more institutionalized, there is still this dynamic that if a group occupies land then, sooner or later, it will be given to them, and that’s a dire situation.

Do you support the government’s plans to modify the anti-terrorism law?

I’m not sure if we need to change it, but clearly it is not applicable in the majority of the cases in the Araucanía because, as I said, it is used as a political tool rather than anything else. Therefore, I wouldn’t say we shouldn’t potentially use it in future cases that may have a terrorist character because we don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but clearly we should limit its use and apply it exclusively when there is sufficient proof, otherwise there is no point.

I believe it meets international standards, although it could be improved. The law as it stands would pass by any standards you could apply, but what is a problem is its use as a political tool rather than as a tool of real penal prosecution.

But surely it’s the current broad definition of what constitutes a terrorist crime that allows the law to be misused, shouldn’t this be modified to avoid the temptation to use it as political theater?

It could be modified, yes. But I don’t agree with the argument that the law is unconstitutional or amoral in some way. It’s a law that completes standards and it was modified under [former President] Sebastián Piñera. It’s a good law. Could it be improved to avoid arbitrary application? Yes.

You’ve criticized politicking in dealing with violence in the Araucanía. What about former Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick’s outspoken stance in such cases before all the facts have been established? Is this a problem?

Sure. This is the political use of the anti-terrorism law. Without knowing who the perpetrator is, the law is applied so that people can feel assured and say: “OK, they are really going to pursue these guys.” This wouldn’t be necessary if we had an effective police that would allow us to charge and convict using penalties under common law. But while this isn’t the case, [the government] doesn’t have any victories to show in terms of police response so they throw out anti-terrorist declarations. This is a poor use of the law.

It seems like there is still a lot of resistance on the part of some landowners in the region. Do you think there would be support for the changes you are proposing?

Yes. There are lots of farmers who want to sell. There are many farms which are bankrupt as a result of being occupied for a long period by Mapuche communities who are pushing for Conadi to buy them the land. Things also haven’t been completely transparent and that’s why the purchase of lands has a limit and because of this we must look for alternative forms of compensation for the historical debt, otherwise this will have no end.

I lived in the region and there are Mapuche communities who would agree to other forms of compensation. It could be a payment or a grant … there are lots of options but clearly if the demands are purely for more land then it can never be resolved.

A major point of contention for Mapuche communities and a constant source of friction is the large police presence in the area, the so-called ‘militarization of the Araucanía.’

Firstly, I would not call it militarization. That is not correct. The forces stationed there are Carabineros [Chile’s uniformed police]. A strong police presence is necessary because what we cannot permit is that people take justice into their own hands. For example when non-Mapuches feel that there aren’t police to protect them in the face of attack, these people begin to arm themselves and look for vigilante justice and the situation becomes some kind of Wild West scenario.

When people don’t feel safe they take defense into their own hands and continue the vicious circle of violence. That’s why, although it may upset [Mapuche] communities, this presence guarantees that people feel protected and ensures that people do not retaliate because this we be the end of the rule of law.

Source: The Santiago Times

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