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CHILE: Mapuche Political Party to Pursue Autonomy

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Feb 28 2006 (IPS) - The first Mapuche political party will be founded this year, to seek autonomy and self-government for the largest group of indigenous people in Chile. But a rocky road lies ahead.

“We want to form a political party in order to win elections and govern in the Wallmapu (Mapuche country), so as to improve living conditions and lift up the dignity of our people,” Pedro Gustavo Quilaqueo, “wiritufe” (political secretary) of the incipient “Wallmapuwen” (party), told IPS.

Wallmapuwen, which means “fellow citizens of the Mapuche country,” is aiming to become legally established in the second half of this year, so that it can field candidates for mayors and town councillors in the 2008 municipal elections.

The party is described by its leaders as regionalist and pro-autonomy, democratic, progressive, secular and pluralistic. They said it would “fight political battles with peaceful means.”

Twenty-five citizens of Mapuche origin are behind the initiative, together with a growing number of sympathisers, Quilaqueo explained. The members of the political committee are Quilaqueo himself, Pedro Mariman, a historian at the Liwen Centre for Mapuche Studies and Documentation, and Claudio Curihuentru.

“These are people of different backgrounds and training: most of them have a university education, live in the Wallmapu, and are experienced in social work and social struggle, through their participation in Mapuche organisations and institutions,” said Quilaqueo.

According to the Mapuche, the Wallmapu covers the ninth region of Chile, Araucania – where 23.5 percent of the population belongs to this ethnic group – together with some bordering districts in the eighth region, Bío Bío, and the tenth region, Los Lagos. This band of territory stretches from 400 to 800 kilometres south of the capital.

The group plans to “restore the Mapuche nation as a political and administrative entity, under a statute of territorial autonomy that enshrines the rights of its native people, and establishes Mapuzugun as an official language.”

Their aims for the Wallmapu include government by “an independent executive and parliament elected by the entire population of the region, as a single electoral district, with proportional representation.”

This model exists in several multi-ethnic states with a strong democratic tradition, and also in federal states, Quilaqueo pointed out.

“We need a political party so that we can discuss and promote the reforms that will be necessary along the long road towards territorial autonomy, and towards solving the social problems faced by people in this region,” the leader stated.

That means debating issues such as “decentralising the country, making regional governments more democratic, the powers of municipal governments, regional investment, tax policy and electoral and institutional reform, so that the Wallmapu may have an increasing opportunity to govern itself,” he added.

“I think it’s quite right that people should organise and take a legitimate part in the democratic life of the country, especially when the motive is to raise issues of concern to an indigenous group,” Senator Carlos Cantero, of the centre-right opposition National Renewal Party, told IPS.

As for autonomy, Cantero said it was a new topic that has not yet been debated in parliament. But he added that he “can’t conceive of any reason why the Mapuche people should be granted it,” an opinion shared by Deputy Antonio Leal of the co-governing Party For Democracy

“We are in favour of constitutionally recognising indigenous peoples and all their claims, including land rights, but we are not in favour of autonomy for any region of the country, because the state and the nation are indivisible,” Leal told IPS.

Leal felt that, in any case, it was necessary to wait for the new party to be formally constituted, because there have been similar initiatives in the past that have ended in failure.

Wallmapuwen leaders acknowledge that founding a political party has been an aspiration of the Mapuche people since 1934, but say that the amount of real support among indigenous people can only be tested in elections.

In fact, prominent leader Aucán Huilcamán, a spokesman for one of the main Mapuche organisations, the Council of All Lands, is not taking part in forming the Wallmapuwen. Last year, his plans to run for president were frustrated by legal red tape.

“There is broad consensus among Mapuche groups about the right to self-government, and among Chileans about decentralisation, and that’s why we think that the party is working along the right lines,” said Quilaqueo.

In his view, rejection of the Mapuche demand for self-government “stems from Chilean nationalists and politicians who are generally conservative, in favour of highly centralised authority, and in some cases, suspiciously racist.”

In contrast, the Mapuche cause, understood as the sum of their political, social, cultural and linguistic demands, continues to be broadly accepted by the national population.

Leal, however, believes that territorial autonomy for this ethnic group is not an aspiration shared by all indigenous people in Chile, let alone by the rest of the country.

Quilaqueo recognised that within the Mapuche people “there is a diversity of opinion, of methods, of leadership, just as there is among Chileans at large. There is not just one political party, nor a single social organisation, nor one sole creed. There is diversity and plurality.”

“Autonomy, as a proposed means of regulating coexistence in a multi-ethnic country, as a policy to promote strong democracy and decentralisation, and as an act of justice and reparation, does not run counter to the interests of Chile. This is a message we must strive to make understood,” argued the Mapuche leader.

If successful, Wallmapuwen will become the twelfth political party in Chile. Any Chileans who support the Mapuche political project are welcome to participate.

Although Quilaqueo said that the embryonic party has no international reference points, it has established links with the Republican Left of Catalonia in Spain, and enjoys the support of that party’s leader, Daniel Condeminas. However, Wallmapuwen receives no financial assistance from abroad, Quilaqueo underlined.

According to the 2002 census, almost 700,000 people, equivalent to 4.6 percent of the Chilean population, belong to indigenous communities. The Mapuche account for 87.3 percent of the country’s indigenous people.

In the municipal elections of December 2002, 17 indigenous mayors were elected out of a total of 345.

Guillermo Tripailaf Manquelafquen, of the Communist Party, was the only Mapuche to run for senator in the Dec. 11 elections last year. He stood in the Los Lagos region, but was not elected.

Six indigenous candidates running for the lower house of Congress were similarly unsuccessful. One was an independent, and the others represented the small leftwing alliance of communists and humanists, Juntos Podemos Más, and the governing centre-left Coalition of Parties for Democracy.

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