Laurence Blair, The Guardian, November 5, 2019
As peaceful protesters and rioters alike have thronged the streets of the Chilean capital of Santiago to protest against inequality and state repression, a string of no less symbolic blows has also been struck 650km (400 miles) to the south.
In the urban centre of Temuco, hooded demonstrators lassoed a statue of a 16th-century Spanish conquistador last week and yanked it to the ground.
Cheering bystanders – many wearing the traditional ponchos and headbands of the indigenous Mapuche people – stamped on the bronze effigy of Pedro de Valdivia and hammered it with wooden staffs.
In the city of Concepción – which Valdivia found in 1550 – a crowd toppled another bust of the Spanish coloniser, impaled it on a spike, and barbecued it at the feet of a statue of his historical nemesis, the Mapuche chieftain Lautaro.
In the nearby town of Collipulli, a bronze of General Cornelio Saavedra – notorious for leading the bloody 19th-century “pacification” of the Mapuche heartland – suffered a similar fate.
Most dramatically of all, a statue in Temuco of the Chilean military aviator Dagoberto Godoy (1893-1960) was decapitated, and his head hung from the arm of a statue of the Mapuche warrior Caupolicán – now also holding the Mapuche flag, or Wenufoye.
The statues have been targeted amid the worst outbreak of political unrest in Chile since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, after what began as a protest over subway fares transformed into a nationwide uprising demanding dramatic changes to the country’s economic and political system.
The attacks on symbols of Spanish colonial rule have provoked a war of words recalling debates in the US over monuments to Confederate generals, or in the UK regarding prominent statues of slavers and imperialists.
Conservative Chilean commentators have branded them acts of vandalism and the work of “professional agitators”. Others describe an organic – if over exuberant – desire to challenge established historical narratives.
“These are actions of a very potent symbolism, in rejecting an official version that has falsified and grossly airbrushed our history,” said Pedro Cayuqueo, a Mapuche writer and historian. “There’s something far deeper going on.”
The toppling of statues also reflects deep modern-day grievances felt by the Mapuche, who were absorbed into the Chilean state at gunpoint 150 years ago.
Chile’s largest native people – comprising 10% of the national population of 17 million – has chafed under a far-off central government ever since.
Unequal land ownership, deforestation, pollution and limited political representation were entrenched by the brutal 1973-90 Pinochet regime.
“We Mapuche have been questioning the economic model and social contract inherited from the dictatorship since the day after the return to democracy,” Cayuqueo added.
This discontent regularly spills over into violence. Radical Mapuche groups have firebombed more than 900 targets, often ranches and timber trucks, since 2011, claiming 20 lives.
Chile’s militarised police force, have killed about 15 Mapuche since 1990. The fatal police shooting of an unarmed Mapuche farmer named Camilo Catrillanca, a year ago – and the attempted cover-up that followed – provoked widespread, lingering fury.
Demonstrators in the capital have carried Catrillanca’s image and waved the Wenufoye, but it is unclear how much the average protester relates to indigenous issues.
“The Mapuche flag cannot only be seen as symbol in favour of the Mapuche cause,” said Kenneth Bunker, a Chilean political scientist, “but also as an anti-system emblem.”
Working-class Chileans share Mapuche scorn for a distant economic and political elite, but are mainly angered by low wages and pensions, poor public healthcare and high school fees, Bunker added.
Still, Mapuche activist groups – who marched together in Temuco last week – are hoping that near-unanimous support for rewriting Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution will provide a window of opportunity.
Chief among their objectives is for Chile to become a “plurinational state” like neighbouring Bolivia, granting native peoples greater political autonomy, and their languages and customs official status.
Such demands are shared by smaller aboriginal groups like the Diaguita, an Andean desert people with some 90,000 self-identified descendants. Protesters in the northern city of La Serena likewise felled and burned a statue of the conquistador Francisco de Aguirre in late October, replacing it with an image of “Milanka”, a Diaguita woman.