Friday, 21 August 2009
President Bachelet Calls Congressional Scuffle “Embarrassing”

President Michelle Bachelet and Interior Minister Edmundo Perez Yoma met Thursday with two special presidential envoys sent to southern Chile earlier this week to review the increasingly fractious “Mapuche situation.”

During a legislative assembly in parliament to discuss the government’s handling of the indigenous land dispute. UDI deputy Gonzalo Arenas (left) threw a document at Interior Minister Pérez Yoma’s (right) face because he refused to receive it.

Numerous incidents – land occupations and demonstrations – have occurred in the south in the wake of the recent fatal shooting of young Mapuche activist Jaime Mendoza Collío, and on Wednesday a rightist deputy publicly insulted Interior Minister Perez Yoma at a special Congressional hearing held in Valparaiso.

Presidential Undersecretary Edgardo Riveros and Indigenous Commissary Rodrigo Egaña reported to Bachelet on Thursday about their meetings with local authorities in the south and with Mapuche activists.

“We managed to create the conditions for a dialogue and helped generate a climate of confidence as a result of this mission arranged by the president,” Riveros insisted.

Still, there is increased bickering among Chile’s political leaders when it comes to figuring out how to deal with the Mapuche issue, and with a presidential election slated for December, it is no surprise that the issue is becoming very politicized.

Independent presidential candidate Dep. Marco Enríquez-Ominami (MEO) told an audience at Universidad del Bío-Bío in Concepción (Region VIII) this week that the Mapuche community should have guaranteed representation in Congress. MEO was responding to a question about the government’s handling of the escalating indigenous land dispute and Collío’s recent death (ST, Aug. 14).

The upstart presidential contender emphasized he had presented just such a bill while still a Socialist Party deputy, but did not get support to carry it forward.

Opposition party presidential candidate Sebastian Piñera of the rightist Alianza coalition immediately criticized MEO, saying, “Establishing congressional seats for certain groups means establishing seats not only for Mapuches, but also for other ethnic groups or foreign colonies.”

The Mapuche conflict was also at the center of political debate on Tuesday when Interior Minister Perez Yoma was summoned to a special congressional hearing in Valparaiso to give his assessment of the situation.

At the hearing rightist Dep. Gonzalo Arenas (UDI) challenged Pérez Yoma about a pardon granted Mapuche activist Víctor Ancalaf, and then insultingly threw a copy of the pardon at Perez Yoma – the second highest-ranking official in the Concertacion-led government. The two then exchanged rather impolite and very heated words.

Ancalaf, a leader of the radical Mapuche organization Coordinadora Arauco Malleco (CAM), had been sentenced to a 10-year jail term, but his term was reduced to five years as part of a settlement agreement forced on the government when Ancalaf appealed his case to international tribunals.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called the incident at the special hearing “embarrassing,” saying, “It is a pity that hearings like these are being abused for different types of interests, whether political or electoral. After all, the hearing should be used as a mechanism to strengthen democracy – a communication and information link between the executive branch and Congress.”

But rightist leaders, including presidential candidate Piñera, strongly supported Dep. Arenas’ actions, insisting the government should take a much harder stand when dealing with the Mapuches.

Government spokesperson Carolina Tohá dismissed the entire incident as campaign posturing. “This is all just tied to the presidential campaign,” said Toha. “The right wing is not interested in Mapuche issues and never has been interested.” She also called Piñera “ignorant” for comparing the Chile's indigenous groups with “foreign colonies.”

A 2002 survey found 609,000 Chileans identifying themselves as Mapuches. The same survey determined that 35 percent of the nation’s Mapuches think the biggest issue for the government to resolve relates to their ancestral properties.

The governing center-left Concertacion coalition has provided funds during the past 20 years to buy back some of the Mapuches’ ancestral properties from their current owners. Approximately 100,000 disputed hectares have been purchased by the government and turned over to Mapuche communities. Land titles to another 500,000 hectares have been
reviewed, clarified and assigned to Mapuches as a result of the government’s efforts.

(Ed. Note: Please see related Feature Story in today’s Santiago Times.)

By Silke Steiml ( editor@santiagotimes.clThis e-mail address is being
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