Chile’s Lesser Told Story: The Mapuche Hunger Strike

Most of the news out of Chile recently has been coming from a dark hole 2200 feet below ground in Copiapó, where 33 trapped miners became an international media sensation. This week, the news from Copiapó is particularly joyful, as the long-awaited rescue mission is finally complete, 70 days after the miners’ ordeal began. For Chile and President Sebastián Piñera, the rescue is a triumph on all accounts—a triumph for human courage, modern engineering, and technical coordination on an unprecedented scale. The men’s story of survival is truly inspirational, and the images of their rescue and subsequent reunion with loved ones are most certainly newsworthy.

Some Chileans, however, may have difficulty reconciling the amount of media attention the miners have received over these past two months with the lack of attention afforded to Chile’s 38 Mapuche hunger strikers during the same time period. As Luis Campos, Director of the School of Anthropology at Chile’s Universidad Academia de Humanismo Cristiano, pointed out almost a month ago, “more buried than the miners themselves, the demands and the rights of the indigenous population continue to be flouted and unrecognized in our country.”1 Indeed, the Mapuche activists’ stand against their persecution under Chile’s antiquated anti-terrorism laws seems to have barely registered within Chile, much less in the international press.2 In contrast, public outrage over the dreadful safety conditions in the San José mine was converted into tangible—and much needed—reforms in mining regulations just one day after the miners were discovered to be alive.3 As Chile celebrates the successful rescue of the miners, it is important to remember Campos’ words, and take a moment to reflect on another group of Chileans whose struggle has not received the attention it deserves.

The Hunger Strike Revisited 

Three months ago, on July 12th, 34 jailed Mapuche activists across southern Chile initiated a hunger strike to protest their treatment by the Chilean government. The strike expanded to include a total of 38 Mapuche prisoners, all of whom were awaiting trial for crimes committed in the name of reclaiming their ancestral lands in Chile’s Araucanía region. The hunger strike initially garnered very little media attention, both in Chile and abroad; the protest only began to receive the coverage it warranted when it reached its second month and the condition of several of the strikers became critical, just as Chile was gearing up to celebrate its bicentennial. As the strike dragged into September, dozens of Chilean political and social leaders—including four members of the Chilean Congress’s Human Rights Commission—joined the protest in a high-profile show of solidarity with the Mapuche community.

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