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Racism against Indigenous groups, immigration at issue as Chile debates new constitution

"Chile was built upon discriminatory values that saw Indigenous people and other ethnicities ... as second-class citizens," says a political scientist.
Image: Truck drivers protest Chile
Truck drivers protest on a highway in Valparaíso, Chile, on Aug. 27.Javier Torres / AFP - Getty Images file

SANTIAGO, Chile — With an era-defining vote for a new constitution fast approaching, issues related to racial diversity have led to outbreaks of violence and political strikes up and down Chile.

Like other parts of Latin America, Chile has grappled with racism against its Indigenous groups, but political events in other countries, such as Venezuela and Haiti, have added to a recent surge in immigration, heightening debates around ethnicity.

An increasingly diverse Chile is posing challenges to the current 1980 constitution, penned during the 1973-90 military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which treats all residents as simply "Chilean." Conservatives argue that that includes Indigenous people, while opponents say it ignores Chile's history of genocide against them.

An indigenous Mapuche leader, Celestino Córdova, ended a 107-day hunger strike last month over what he and fellow prison inmates saw as inadequate handling of their requests to serve sentences at home as COVID-19 threatened prisons — while many non-Mapuche prisoners were allowed to do so. Córdova's strike was joined by 26 other Mapuche prisoners, many of who remain on strike. The U.N. sent a fact-finding team to investigate, and some protests broke out over the treatment of the Mapuche prisoners.

Some Mapuche groups showed solidarity with the prisoners, occupying municipal buildings, including one in the river-fringed town of Curacautín in the southern Araucanía region, which is home to most of the 2 million Mapuche people and is center stage in a centuries-long land dispute. The Mapuches claim ancestral rights over large territories in Araucanía.

When the national police forcibly evicted the occupiers, they were joined by a mob of townspeople breaking a coronavirus curfew, brandishing weapons and attacking Mapuche vehicles as they shouted racist slurs, which was captured on social media.

A spate of arson attacks erupted in Araucanía targeting private trucks traveling up and down the Pan-American Highway, Chile's main thoroughfare for freight. Such incidents are commonly associated with the conflict between the state and the Indigenous group. The last major string of arson attacks occurred after police in 2018 killed a young unarmed Mapuche farmer, Camilo Catrillanca, in 2018, with an attempted cover-up sparking lasting outrage.

Last month, a 9-year-old girl needed surgery after she was seriously injured by a bullet when her father's truck cabin was ambushed and set ablaze. Several truckers began a weeklong strike, which ended Sept. 2, to demand more protection from the attacks. Scores of colorful trucks with beaming headlights formed full and partial barricades up and down the Pan-American Highway and on a key road between the capital, Santiago, and its coastal port Valparaíso, over 400 miles north of Araucanía.

A new constitution and a multicultural Chile

Chilean voters will go to the polls Oct. 25 to decide whether they want a new constitution and, if so, which of two methods should be used to write it. Changes would be voted on in a second referendum expected in 2022.

Many see the plebiscite as a way to create fairer conditions for Chile's native people, as well as the rising number of immigrants, two wider groups who together make up almost 20 percent of the population.

"We are in a huge transformation as a society in Chile," said Claudio Fuentes, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina and Chile's Diego Portales University.

"The recent protests have brought about the combination of several movements, like the feminist movement to promote sexual diversity, and movements around ethnicity, all of who symbolically use the flags of the Indigenous groups during protests because they are seen as the worst affected and most discriminated," Fuentes said. "A new constitution could change the way that Chile treats its minorities."

Fuentes said Chile might become a plurinational country that recognizes the distinct nationality of its native people in its constitution, like New Zealand or Norway.

"Some are opposed to this, whereas others want a constitution with a broader recognition of its multicultural society, which is more inclusive of those who don't necessarily identify as Chilean," he said.

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But with its historical roots, it could be hard for Chile to accept diversity, Fuentes said.

"Chile was built upon discriminatory values that saw Indigenous people and other ethnicities, like darker-skinned people from Peru or Bolivia, who Chile warred with during its formation, as second-class citizens, while the elite, with their European heritage from Spain, are seen as first class," he said.

A dramatic increase in immigration

Immigration has increased massively in Chile, from just 1.8 percent of the population in 2010 to 7.8 percent, with about 1.5 million immigrants in the country, according to a 2019 estimate by the Jesuit Migrant Service.

Venezuelans make up almost a third (31 percent) of the immigrant population, and Peruvians are 13 percent. Chile has the largest number of Haitian immigrants outside the U.S.

The influx of mostly Black Haitians since 2014 has made immigration more visible, and coalition parties touted anti-immigration policies for the first time in recent history during the 2017 presidential elections. In August, #masinmigrantesmascesantia — which translates as "more immigrants more unemployment" — trended on Twitter.

"Since 2018, we have seen immigrants being used as scapegoats for unemployment, risks to the health system, housing and urban problems, low wages, unpredictability in the labor market and even COVID-19, which in Chile has obviously been caused by our insertion in global dynamics and the travel to Europe and the U.S.," said Luis Thayer, a social scientist at Silva Henríquez Catholic University in Santiago.

It's a dangerous trend for Chile, said Thayer, and an issue that should be tackled in a new constitutiion.

"As long as governments continue to promote nationalism in their responses to the recent crises we are seeing globally and in Chile, they are risking an extinction of our societies and the frameworks that support them," Thayer said. "This referendum gives us a chance to redress this, at least in this country. We haven't had a better chance to do so."

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