Chile apologizes for treatment of indigenous groups but communities call for end to systemic discrimination
Just two weeks after an earthquake and tsunami devastated Chile, on Thursday, Sebastián Piñera was sworn in as the country’s new president. Maurice Bryan explains how indigenous communities facing systemic discrimination are expecting changes from the new leader, but warns that reform may be pushed to the sidelines amidst the massive reconstruction challenge Piñera faces.
SANTIAGO, Chile, March 2010 – At the end of January, outgoing Chilean president Michelle Bachelet apologised to the descendants of a group of indigenous Kawesqar who were among 11 indigenous people captured by German explorers in 1881, and shipped to Europe to be exhibited as curiosities in European cities.
The remains of five members of the group who had died abroad were discovered in Zurich, Switzerland after more than a century. Their relics were flown back to Chile and honoured in an official ceremony.
In delivering the apology at the ceremony, the president admitted that the mistreatment of the indigenous people was due to racist attitudes towards "our indigenous forefathers, whose human dignity was trampled upon."
Meanwhile, tensions have continued in Chile's indigenous Mapuche territories in the south of the country. The Mapuche are Chile's largest indigenous group making up about one million of the country's 16 million overall population.
According to a report by the media group IPS, released on 11 February 2010, some forty Mapuche – who see themselves as political prisoners – are currently serving sentences of up to 10 years for what the state has labelled as 'terrorist' crimes.
Most of the leading members of the Juan Paillalef Mapuche community, 730 kilometres south of the capital, are now in prison or subject to restraining orders, accused of defying state authority and disorderly conduct. This stems from continuing protests over collective territorial rights, militarization of Mapuche communities and claims of a historical pattern of neglect, discrimination and harsh treatment by state authorities. Some have now applied for political asylum in European countries such as Switzerland.
Faced with what they see as a strongly biased justice system and ineffective state-provided public defenders, the Mapuche have created their own autonomous social and legal defence unit, (Defensor Jurídico Social Autónomo Mapuche). The unique multidisciplinary team, which includes an anthropologist and a sociologist, will handle the legal defense of persons accused of resistance against the state.
Given the existing realities, observers conclude it may take more than an apology by the outgoing centre-left president to eliminate the root causes of conflict.
In January Chileans elected the right wing billionaire Sebastián Piñera to be their new president. Even before taking officially taking office in March, he indicated his administration will restructure public institutions devoted to indigenous affairs and pursue a land policy focused on individual subsidies rather than recognition of collective rights.
At the end of February, however, a powerful 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck the entire length of Chile causing hundreds of deaths, widespread infrastructural damage and leaving millions homeless, including in the main indigenous region of Araucanía in the south. Given the scale of the relief efforts and reconstruction that will now be needed throughout the country, it is highly unlikely that matters such as indigenous land claims will be receiving the attention of state officials any time in the near future.