TEMUCO, Chile – Mapuche leaders and an ally ended their 62-day hunger strike May 16 after gaining some promises from the Chilean government regarding their imprisonment and the Augusto Pinochet-era terrorism law used to prosecute them. The activists were also quick to point out that they would resume with their hunger strike if the authorities did not follow through with their part of the agreement.
With the help of Alejandro Navarro and Jaime Naranjo, Socialist Party senators, the Chilean government agreed to put new legislation on a fast track that would modify the counterterrorism law used to indict the group for terrorist arson in 2001 and to give the Mapuches the option of being out on parole on the condition of not engaging in any violent activity. This “Navarro law” is to be addressed by the Chilean Congress in May.
The end of the strike came after 48 hours of intense negotiations between the prisoners and representatives of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s government, who arrived May 12, at the Temuco prison holding the activists. The deal was brokered by Mapuche leaders Navarro, Naranjo and Bishop Manuel Camilo Vial, of Temuco.
Mapuche leaders Juan Huenulao and Patricio and Jaime Marileo, who are brothers, along with indigenous activist Patricia Troncoso Robles, had been on a hunger strike since March 13 to protest their imprisonment and to assert their innocence. The medical condition of the group became a matter of great concern to their families and Mapuche supporters.
In an impassioned attempt to save the life of his daughter and her colleagues, Robles’ father, Roberto Troncoso Millar, sent out an international call for help in early May that reached Indian country in the United States.
Activists in the Cheyenne River Sioux community of Eagle Butte, S.D., and elsewhere received the e-mail alerts, describing the precarious conditions of the strikers.
In the May 3 letter, Millar, a member of the Mapuche Nation, sought international support for the freeing of his daughter and the three other Mapuche leaders.
“I am very concerned about the situation because the prisoners have now been on a hunger strike for 51 days and their state of health is worsening,” Millar wrote.
On May 3, the Mapuche International Link also issued a statement regarding the prisoners, including the following description: “Their health is now seriously deteriorating, they are experiencing considerable weight loss, their basic bodily functions are beginning to fail, they are currently falling in and out of consciousness and are periodically unable to speak.”
“As a father, I ask you to help me,” Millar continued in his letter. “I am desperate because the Michelle Bachelet government and the Supreme Court in Chile have not responded to the requests made by the hunger strikers or by the numerous appeals for solidarity made nationally and internationally. If they were really terrorists they would not receive the support of so many people and social organizations.”
Another factor in the change of position by the Chilean authorities was the wave of protests and two embarrassing public moments for Bachelet during her recent European tour.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and indigenous advocates throughout Latin America had taken up the cause of the Mapuche prisoners.
Protests also were held in front of the Chilean Embassy in London and throughout Europe. Another ally of the Mapuche movement is retired Judge Juan Guzman – the first Chilean jurist to prosecute Pinochet in Chile – who hand-delivered a letter of appeal from Mapuche leader Aucan Huilcaman to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour.
The Huilcaman missive detailed many abuses inflicted on the Mapuches by the authorities and others and the letter also requests help from the international community.
In recent weeks Mapuche activists and their allies staged protests in Chile, Argentina, Peru, Spain and Austria to bring world attention to the fate of the hunger strikers and to the brutal treatment of indigenous people in Chile in general.
The demonstrations culminated with two events connected to Bachelet’s visit to the recent Latin American/European Union summit, held in Vienna, Austria.
Before going to the summit in Vienna, the president stopped in Madrid, Spain, on May 10 for an event celebrating Iberian culture.
During the festivities she encountered Nobel Prize-winning novelist Jose Saramago, of Portugal. Saramago asked Bachelet, in front of a group of reporters, “Please do me the favor of allowing me to see the Mapuches.” Saramago continued and referred to the Mapuches as “the most ancient Chileans … who have been persecuted for all of their days.”
Bachelet responded by saying, “All of the original peoples, and not only the Mapuches, have the same rights to be integrated into the country with their own diversity.” She added, “We have advanced a great deal, but even so we must advance further … because in Chile it is still too different between being a man or a woman, poor or rich, north or south.”