The Anti-Terrorism Law of 1984, which allowed the government to detain dissidents indefinitely without evidence, was one of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s preferred political tools. Current president Michelle Bachelet is greatly acclaimed for her achievements in gender equality and human rights, yet a strand of continuity from the decades of dictatorship can be found in her use of the Anti-Terrorism Law, amongst other draconian measures, against indigenous Mapuche protesters.
Political dissent is the expression of opposition to government actions from within the society it claims to represent, a means of renegotiating the contract between state and society. This paradigm is complicated significantly in the case of indigenous peoples, who do not have their own contract with the state, but are instead a footnote to the broader relationship between state and society, a relationship that they have no official means of influencing. The complexities of how the state is to be held responsible for the needs of indigenous people, and how these people can express demands without resorting to violent dissent, is being felt particularly strongly in Chile at present, but is a dilemma that applies to governments across the world.
The relationship between the Chilean government and Mapuche people is a particularly uneasy one. Mapuche ancestral lands, mostly located within the southern region of Araucanía, were never conquered by the Spanish, but rather by the newly-independent Chileans in the early nineteenth century. When Mapuche protesters speak of decolonisation, they mean it in the literal historical sense. Protest groups like Coordinadora Arauco-Malleco even today challenge the Chilean state’s authority over them, fighting for national liberation. The possibility of a broader Mapuche separatist movement is complicated by the fact that they are a minority even within Araucanía, but there is widespread support in the Mapuche community for greater autonomy, allowing them ownership of their land at the very least.
Bachelet is no tyrant, and she long pledged not to use anti-terrorist legislation against Mapuche dissidents, but an escalation of protests since the start of 2016 saw her pressured into doing so, most notably by former president Sebastián Piñera, the favourite to win re-election in November 2017. Mapuche dissent has been carried out most prominently through arson attacks on trucks belonging to the companies occupying their land, with 60 such attacks in 2016, and 89 in the first eight months of 2017. This is what prompted the arrest of eight Mapuche leaders on 23rd September 2017, under the anti-terrorism legislation Bachelet long promised not to abuse. Tensions rapidly escalated, and on 9th October a 5000-strong Mapuche rights march was put down in Santiago by armed police. International organisations have also weighed in, with UN experts condemning the ‘stigmatization of the indigenous community’, asserting that the context of ‘social protests by Mapuche peoples seeking to claim their rights’ was in no way tantamount to terrorism.
This forced Bachelet to rescind the terrorism charges, but a resolution to the state’s inability to fulfil its responsibilities to indigenous people is no closer. The paradox of the government’s joint responsibility to broader Chilean society, whose interests they claim are best served by the exploitation of native land and resources, and Mapuche society, who fundamentally dispute the state’s authority over them and their ancestral property, is deeply entrenched. This scenario is not unique to Chile, and while violent Mapuche dissent has brought this particular case into the spotlight, the broader question of how governments can meet the needs of indigenous peoples is one that the international community must urgently address.
It is just possible, however, that we need not look too far from Chile to find the first step towards a potential solution. Just to the north lies Bolivia, where 41% of the population trace their origins to one of the country’s 36 indigenous groups. It is therefore unsurprising that they have been pioneers in the fair treatment of indigenous communities. In 2005, Evo Morales became Bolivia’s first indigenous president, and the 2009 Constitution saw the country take the official name ‘Plurinational State of Bolivia’. This was not merely symbolic, but set in motion a process of cultural, legal, and institutional reform intended to allow multiple societies to coexist and cooperate within a single state.
Morales has condemned ‘post-nationalism’, often the preferred solution of liberal internationalists, as the continuation of a neoliberal ideology that, in practice, serves only to erase indigenous culture by imposing a homogenous identity based overwhelmingly on white, Western norms. Plurinationalism recognises the differences between communities, but creates a system whereby indigenous rights can be demanded through constitutional channels, without need for violent dissent. It responds to the paradox of contradictory interests by encouraging co-operation between peoples, with the state no longer merely the servant of the majority, but an impartial arbiter of its plural societies.
The common goal behind these reforms has been the creation of spaces for indigenous politics, allowing people to assert a positive vision for their future. The system for allocating land to indigenous communities has been decentralised to eliminate interference from the private sector; ‘plural justice’ recognises the equal standing of community and state justice systems; in January 2017 the Guaraní people formed Bolivia’s first autonomous indigenous government, with others set to follow this example. Indigenous dissent in Bolivia has not been eliminated, and is often still violent: what has changed is that the state is now obliged to listen to this dissent. The plurinational reforms mean that the indigenous peoples of Bolivia can express dissent in a constructive manner, through legal mechanisms and political representatives.
Chile remains at the opposite end of the spectrum, as the only country in Latin America yet to constitutionally recognise the specific rights of indigenous people. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, a human rights NGO, have described how indigenous rights have been ‘gravely threatened’ by state-sponsored extractive and industrial projects, while the ‘criminalization of Mapuche social protest’ remains an essential part of this strategy for economic development. However, there is growing consensus even in Chilean mainstream politics on the need to address these constitutional deficiencies, and already one presidential candidate, Beatríz Sanchez, has emphasised the need to apply the logic of plurinationalism to this process. The creation of official channels for negotiation between the Chilean state and Mapuche society would facilitate a more constructive form of dissent, while a formal system for allocating land ownership might lessen the need for such dissent in the first place.
Plurinationalism is a concept in its infancy, and is no panacea to the struggles of the world’s indigenous peoples. In countries like Chile, where indigenous populations are far more of a minority than in Bolivia, it will be more difficult for the state to take up this role as arbiter of plural societies. The diversity of states and societies around the world means that meeting indigenous needs will require specific, situational solutions. And yet, the paradox of a state that can only serve its primary society by rejecting its responsibility to other societies is a near universal problem. Plurinationalism offers a basic framework through which complex solutions can be built. It is a paradigm that might just defy the paradox.