Your browser is out of date. Some of the content on this site will not work properly as a result.
Upgrade your browser for a faster, better, and safer web experience.

“The future of our country is at stake”

Supporters of Gabriel Boric celebrate following the official results of the runoff presidential election, in Santiago, on 19th December

Supporters of Gabriel Boric celebrate following the official results of the runoff presidential election, in Santiago, on 19th December. Photo: Mauro Pimentel / AFP via Getty Images

The shaggy hair from his student protester days has been neatly trimmed, the beard clipped, the forearm tattoo of a Patagonian lighthouse hidden under a crisp white shirt and suit jacket. But as 35-year-old Gabriel Boric takes to the stage in Santiago, Chile, on the warm night of 19th December, having just been elected the youngest president in the history of the long, slim, South American country of 17 million people, his words are implicitly radical. “Good evening, Chile!” he shouts with a grin, repeating the words in the indigenous languages of the Rapa Nui, the Aymara, and the Mapuche to deafening cheers from the crowd. “Pō nui, suma aruma, pün may!”

Across town, as Boric’s lead widened over his opponent, relieved supporters flooded Plaza Baquedano – redubbed Plaza de la Dignidad, or Dignity Square, during mass anti-inequality demonstrations in late 2019 – cheering, dancing and pogoing to anti-police chants. Others sprawled on tattered patches of grass, drinking, smoking and wearing dazed grins. Vendors pushed trolleyfuls of beers through crowds of revellers. Bikers revved their engines and drivers honked their horns. As dusk tinged the snow-capped Andes pink, an impromptu march of tens of thousands filled the capital’s main thoroughfare from end to end.

Patricia Diaz, a flame-haired, middle-aged painter, was waving a large Mapuche flag known as the Wenufoye in the square. “I’m a daughter of the dictatorship,” she told me: her father was a communist and her uncle, a rural organiser, was tortured by the agents of bloody right-wing dictator General Augusto Pinochet and died young from his injuries. “I’m happy that we’re changing things… Because this country is so beautiful, but it’s our system that is bad. This country is the worst-off economically in all Latin America,” she said, pointing to a cost of living that is not far below that of the UK, while the minimum wage is only £300 a month. “Here the poor barely eat, salaries are miserly. I want it to change.”

Boric has promised to deliver a radical shakeup of society. He has pledged that Chileans will enjoy healthcare “that doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor”, a strengthened public education system and the scrapping of student debt, more generous salaries and expanded workers’ rights, pensions that allow the retired to live with dignity, and a government that pays “special attention to the care of the environment.”

This list of priorities is nothing short of revolutionary in Chile. After the Marxist president Salvador Allende was overthrown in a military coup backed by the US in 1973 – taking his own life in the bombed-out Moneda Palace with an AK-47 given to him by Fidel Castro rather than be captured – Chile became a guinea pig for the economic school of thought named neoliberalism by its co-creator, University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. Under the rule of Pinochet (1973-90), Friedman’s precepts were enshrined in a new constitution which remains intact, with a few dozen tweaks, to this day. Chile has been the global exemplar of a business-friendly, market-driven political and social system for the 40 years since, with strong levels of economic growth and GDP per capita, but a yawning gulf between the hyper-rich and the struggling lower-middle class. According to the 2022 World Inequality Report, Chile’s richest one percent own nearly 50 percent of the country’s wealth, well above even the United States at 34.9 percent.

Gabriel Boric New president of Chile

Gabriel Boric, the new president of Chile. Photo: Cris Saavedra Vogel / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Boric, a dedicated fan of heavy rock music and Taylor Swift, who has spoken of his struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and his tendency to overeat when stressed, is a congressman of Croatian descent. He represents his home region of Magallanes in the far south, where he grew up in the Patagonian city of Punta Arenas reading Marx and Hegel and founded a high-school student union aged 14. In July 2021, he promised that “if Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave.” He ran a bruising presidential campaign against José Antonio Kast, a sandy-haired ultraconservative, whose tough talk on law and order – he promised to dig a trench along Chile’s northern desert frontier to keep out Bolivian and Venezuelan migrants – clinched a narrow win in a first-round ballot in November. Kast, whose late brother served as a cabinet minister under Pinochet, has downplayed historic human rights abuses and said that if he were still alive the dictator would vote for him. A few days before the election, it emerged that Kast’s father – who fought for the Wehrmacht in World War Two – had also voluntarily joined the Nazi party.

If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave”

In the second round, Boric defeated Kast soundly, with 56 percent of the final vote. But Kast’s promises to take a hard line on Mapuche “terrorism” – arson attacks and shootings linked to radical groups who seek the return of land and autonomy to the country’s most numerous indigenous people – appealed to many. His support peaked in the Araucanía, the southern province that is the epicentre of the three-decade conflict, with 60 percent of voters backing Kast. The burning dilemma of how to resolve this increasingly bloody dispute – and, more broadly, how to establish a firmer, more equal footing between the Chilean state and the 2.2 million long-marginalised indigenous people who live across the country – will be key to whether Boric’s wider programme succeeds or fails.

In the grounds of Chile’s former congress building in Santiago, people are gathered in knots beneath palm trees and statues, in urgent muttered conversation. Inside, the chamber is overlooked by a vast mural titled ‘The Discovery of Chile, 1536’. A Mapuche chief gestures to a green, fertile valley beneath a snow-capped mountain, as if transferring wholesale dominion to the Spanish conquistadors led by Pedro de Valdivia, resplendent in plate armour atop a white charger.

The scene below tells a different story. Among the 155 delegates are some wearing traditional indigenous dress and rainbow-striped facemasks. There are suits, shorts, flowery shirts, tattoos, broad Andean dresses, straw hats, long, dark plaits, a white, feathered headdress, and tinkling Mapuche silverwork. Empty seats are slung with the Wenufoye, an indigenous Andean flag known as the Wiphala, and the Guñelve, a Mapuche octagram.

The delegates – an assembly of left-wing social leaders, indigenous representatives, and a sprinkling of conservatives – are currently rewriting Chile’s dictatorship-era constitution. It’s a process that began in the aftermath of an explosion of anti-inequality protests in 2019 and 2020. The initiative, in large part the brainchild of the then-congressman Boric, was backed by a landslide in a referendum in October 2020, with 79 percent of voters opting for a convention of entirely fresh faces to draft the new text. The result, if confirmed in a final referendum in September 2022, could dramatically shift power away from Santiago and grant autonomy to the country’s regions and native peoples.

President of the constitutional convention Elisa Loncon and vice-president Jaime Bassa arrive at the former Chilean National Congress in Santiago, 4th January 2022

President of the constitutional convention Elisa Loncon and vice-president Jaime Bassa arrive at the former Chilean National Congress in Santiago, 4th January 2022. Photo: Javier Torres / AFP via Getty Images

On 4th January 2022, Mapuche linguist Elisa Loncón handed over the presidency of the constitutional convention after the first six months of deliberations. After centuries, she tells the chamber, Chile’s native peoples are no longer window-dressing, passive recipients of the paternalism or aggression of Europeans and their descendants. Indigenous people have proven that they “can take charge and direct important national issues,” she says: “Our country, in all its differences, can hold dialogue and live together democratically.”

Self-determination will allow us Mapuche to take decisions about our future”

In the first half of 2022, the convention has the onerous task of voting on over a thousand proposals – some developed by internal commissions, others submitted by online petition – to decide which will go into Chile’s newly minted constitution. The suggestions under review include banning mining and forestry on indigenous lands, legalising cannabis, ending free-trade agreements and conferring legal rights upon glaciers. The most radical musings are already being filtered out: a bid to scrap the courts and congress, replacing them with a popular assembly staffed along Soviet lines by workers’ committees and junior army officers, was rejected in February.

But some major shifts are already set to go into the draft text, including the declaration that Chile will henceforth be “a regional, plurinational and intercultural state” – one made up of autonomous regions, districts and indigenous territories, although their outright secession will be prohibited. Given Kast’s fervent opposition to getting rid of Pinochet’s constitution, and outgoing president Sebastian Piñera’s barely veiled hostility to the process, Boric was treated like a rock star by delegates on a post-election visit. His support is highly welcome, says Rosa Catrileo, a Mapuche lawyer who holds one of the convention’s 17 seats reserved for indigenous people. “We need recognition that the state is plurinational,” she says. “The right of self-determination will allow us Mapuche to take decisions about our future.”

Rosa Catrileo Mapuche lawyer and member of the constitutional convention

Rosa Catrileo, Mapuche lawyer and member of the constitutional convention. Photo: Laurence Blair

Some fear that reforms to boost indigenous autonomy or speed up the return of lands could lead to mass expropriation of private property or the balkanisation of the country. The convention is also leaning towards scrapping or neutering Chile’s parliamentary upper house, responding to demands from social movements that say it blocks progressive change. “In the last 30 years, the senate has functioned like a council of stingy old bastards,” says Santiago Castillo, an organiser from Lo Hermida, a run-down housing project of 75,000 people in the southeast of the capital. Kenneth Bunker, a political scientist and founder of the Tresquintos polling website, warns that the convention could end up producing a document too radical for everyday Chileans, causing it to be rejected in the referendum, and taking the country back to square one. “It seems like they’re lost in the moment,” he says. “They have to provide something that people are willing to vote for.”

“The Latin American left are looking at Boric as the next big thing,” says Robert Funk, a political scientist at the University of Chile, contrasting the new president with the authoritarian leftists governing Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. “They’re saying, ‘is this the way forward?’” At the same time, the more radical proposals being discussed by the constitutional convention could hamper economic growth, cause voters and investors to turn against the new constitution, and torpedo Boric’s agenda. “They’re playing with fire,” says Funk. What’s more, analysts warn, if the death toll in the Araucanía continues to rise, Boric will face huge pressure to renew a military crackdown imposed by the outgoing president, Sebastian Piñera – something that could fracture his minority governing coalition and derail any hopes of rolling back Pinochet’s legacy.

At the heart of Boric’s prospectus is his promise, made on 19th December, to forge “a new relationship” between Chile and its indigenous nations: from the Andean desert cultures of the north, to remote Patagonian communities and Pacific islanders, and above all the Mapuche from the southern region of lakes, forests and snow-capped volcanoes – all of whom can also be found in Santiago and other cities across Chile. Whether his government can walk the tightrope of securing radical change for the better, without risking political chaos and major economic fallout, will be watched closely across the region and the world. “The task ahead of us is enormous,” Boric has warned. “In the coming years, the future of our country is at stake.”

Should the new constitution be voted in, it could help calm tensions in the south – but it may not be enough.

Not long after Boric’s victory, the Coordinadora Arauco Malleco (CAM) – a group seeking to reconstruct a sovereign Mapuche nation – called on its followers to “keep resisting” via “political violence” and “not to be tricked by the false promises and short-term, small-minded vision of the pseudo-left.” For them, Chile’s most progressive president since Allende is little more than the poster child for a “hippy, lefty, nice-guy” movement. Chile’s “new left”, it argues, seeks to paternalistically channel the centuries-old fight for Mapuche independence into a watered-down autonomy still under Chilean “domination”.

The number of incidents linked to the Mapuche conflict doubled in 2021, with 267 cases of arson – usually against commercial forestry trucks transporting felled, shorn trunks for pulp or timber – as well as 45 attacks on police and 11 murders. In the first three months of 2022 alone, eight people including forestry workers, truckers and landowners were shot dead by unknown assailants.

The parched field where the Battle of Curalaba was fought is marked by little more than an empty flagpole and a large rock. But this spot on the outskirts of Lumaco, a small town in the Araucanía, 800 kilometres south of Santiago, witnessed perhaps the greatest victory of a native people over Spanish forces anywhere in the Americas.

In December 1598, mounted Mapuche warriors ambushed an army commanded by colonial Chile’s governor, massacring the conquistadors in their tents. The Mapuche then destroyed seven Spanish outposts across the region, pushing back the frontier of European rule for another 250 years. When Chilean troops finally conquered the Mapuche heartland between 1861 and 1883, Lumaco’s river, locals say, ran red with the blood of its defenders.

A demonstrator in Santiago waves a flag bearing a picture of Camilo Catrillanca during a protest to commemorate the first anniversary of the murder of the Mapuche farmer, 14th November 2019

A demonstrator in Santiago waves a flag bearing a picture of Camilo Catrillanca during a protest to commemorate the first anniversary of the murder of the Mapuche farmer, 14th November 2019. Photo: Marcelo Hernandez / Getty Images

This bloody history is seared into the collective consciousness of the 1.5 million Mapuche living in Chile today. Almost exactly four centuries after the battle of Curalaba, in December 1997, unknown perpetrators in Lumaco burned three forestry trucks and their cargoes down to their frames. This marked the beginning of an ongoing conflict that pits groups claiming to fight for Mapuche territory against the forces of law and order, farming estates and, above all, the Chilean-owned forestry companies which arrived in the area from the 1970s onwards and enjoyed close family and financial links to Pinochet.

The CAM, which has been linked to the 1997 arson attack, says it wants to restore the independent Mapuche nation, known as Wallmapu. Previous Chilean governments have said it is a terrorist organisation dedicated to growing marijuana and trafficking cocaine. Over almost 30 years, groups like the CAM have set fire to around 1,000 targets, including farms, vehicles and churches. While most say they want to avoid loss of human life, around 50 people have been killed, with deaths on both sides. In particular, the police killing of an unarmed Mapuche farmer named Camilo Catrillanca in November 2018 and the attempted cover-up that followed provoked lingering fury nationwide.

The deep sense of historical grievance – and growing sympathy for the Mapuche cause among the population as a whole – lent coherence and a romantic cause to the otherwise anarchic protests that erupted across Chile in October 2019. Demonstrations against a 30-peso rise in Santiago metro fares, with their epicentre at Plaza Baquedano, were met by official disdain and violence. One minister simply encouraged harried commuters to get up earlier to avoid rush hour fares, while the carabineros, Chile’s lunking, semi-militarised police force known for their olive-green body armour, employed vicious brutality to disperse protesters. Rioters responded by setting metro stations, petrol pumps and even churches on fire, and duked it out with the cops around Plaza Baquedano, pitting fireworks, bricks, home-made shields and slingshots against water cannon and armour-plated vehicles.

At least 34 people were killed, including six at the hands of the carabineros, who also blinded or partially blinded 400 by firing plastic pellets and tear-gas canisters into crowds at close range, and sexually assaulted many detainees. Piñera brought troops out to police the capital for only the second time since 1989. Some 1.2 million people filled the streets of Santiago on 25th October 2019, the largest march in Chilean history.

Piñera intimated that foreign subversives were at work, declaring that Chile was at war with a powerful enemy”

Demonstrators scaled neoclassical statues to unfurl the Mapuche flag, which soon acquired the status of an iconic symbol of resistance, along with Camilo Catrillanca’s black-and-white image. The symbolism was clear: the Chilean state’s repression of the Mapuche, and its violent enforcement of the economic disparity across the country were two sides of the same coin. Meanwhile, in the south, Mapuche demonstrators toppled monuments to the conquistadors and nineteenth-century generals who had occupied the region and massacred those who resisted. In Lumaco, a crowd tore down a bust of Cornelio Saavedra, who masterminded the “pacification” of the Araucanía, and chucked it into the river.

Piñera, a diminutive billionaire, intimated that foreign subversives were at work, declaring that Chile was “at war with a powerful enemy”. But demonstrators insisted that the malaise was home-grown: a crisis of social inequality and violence bequeathed by Pinochet’s dictatorship, encapsulated by a simple slogan: “It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years.”

As I walk across the battlefield in Lumaco in mid-January 2022, a military helicopter with a gunner sitting in the doorway passes directly overhead and disappears behind a forested ridge. In October 2021, following the fatal shooting of a police officer and arson attacks on several churches, Piñera imposed a 15-day state of emergency on four provinces in the Araucanía and the neighbouring region of Biobío – allowing troops to patrol the region’s roads, shoreline and skies in support of the carabineros – in order to combat the “terrorism, narcotrafficking and organised crime” that, he said, had “taken root” in the area.

This ‘state of exception’ has since been extended eight times; the outgoing defence minister says that violence is down by 40 percent, acts of trespass are down by 76 percent, and that the authorities have seized over 900 weapons and 1.5 tonnes of drugs. But on the morning of my visit to Lumaco, a local truck driver had been shot and wounded by hooded, armed men, while similar attacks had killed three others across the region that week alone.

Around half of Lumaco’s inhabitants live in poverty, one of the highest rates nationwide. One in four families lack reliable access to safe drinking water. Climate change and the forestry estates are making things worse, suggests Gonzalo Garcés, a 30-year-old anthropologist working for Lumaco’s local government. The area has been experiencing three years of drought; 2021 was the driest on record, and 2019 the hottest. In a microcosm of the picture across the region, some 90 percent of the district’s native forests have been cut down since 1870, with several traditional species, like the luma tree which gives the area its name, now at risk of extinction. The timber and pulp plantations, mostly in the hands of two Chilean conglomerates, have gone from covering under a quarter of the district’s surface in 1991 to almost two thirds in 2021.

The new tree cover is largely pine and eucalyptus, originally from North America and Australia, and genetically modified to grow faster. The companies provide jobs, but chainsaw work is seasonal, often badly paid and dangerous. And these tightly packed, non-native species, studies suggest, can degrade the soil and dry up springs. Lumaco was once famed for its swamps and rivers: the Mapuche even diverted them to flush out the Spanish from their forts. But now, says Garcés, “there’s no longer water in places where it always used to be.”

Mapuche people as a whole aren’t violent, insists Ana Alcamán Curín, a local teaching assistant. “We don’t have the money to spend on weapons. We’re working families, people have wives, kids to look after,” she says. But many share the resentment of more radical actors towards the forestry companies, who they blame for tearing up roads in the area with their heavily laden trucks, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill, and for water shortages. Where Alcamán Curín’s family once  fetched drinking water from local springs, they are now dependent on irregular, tightly rationed deliveries by truck. A local slogan captures the anger: no es sequía, es saqueo. “It’s not drought, but looting”.

Only a tiny minority of Mapuche engage in firebombing timber trucks, or burning down rural estates. Even fewer support violent attacks on people, be it police, farmers or forestry employees. But these are the groups that Boric will have to reckon with if he wants to stop rural unrest boiling over into an outright insurgency – and a growing death toll in the south from forestalling his social agenda. In his first televised interview post-election, with CNN Chile, Boric said he would not renew Piñera’s state of emergency, but instead engage in dialogue. But in order to negotiate, the other side has to be willing to talk to you.

Temuco, the regional capital of the Araucanía, is around three hours’ drive from Lumaco. Keeping the Andes on your left, you pass hillsides stubbled with recently felled eucalyptus, military checkpoints and a large Korean-owned sawmill. The city is squat and unglamorous; Pablo Neruda wrote his first poems here but didn’t stick around for long. There is an empty plinth that used to house a statue of Diego de Almagro, another conquistador vanquished by the Mapuche, both past and present: in October 2019, local demonstrators looped a lasso around his effigy’s neck and heaved it to the ground, hammering the broken bust with wooden staves.

In late January I stood waiting for several hours with a small crowd outside Temuco’s penitentiary. Suddenly a gaunt figure with a scrappy goatee wearing jeans, a grey poncho and a blue-and-gold headband stepped into the sunshine, carrying a bundle of possessions. Facundo Jones Huala was born in Argentina, where he is wanted on terrorism charges, and is founder of the firebrand Resistencia Ancestral Mapuche (RAM) movement: present, like the Mapuche themselves, on both sides of the Andes. He did not seem cowed after two years behind bars, having been found guilty of setting fire to a farmhouse and illegally possessing a home-made gun (his supporters suggest he was framed). Instead, he vowed to continue the RAM’s campaign of “self-defence” and “sabotage” against forestry firms.

Facundo Jones Huala, founder of the Resistencia Ancestral Mapuche movement, talks to reporters after being released from prison

Facundo Jones Huala, founder of the Resistencia Ancestral Mapuche movement, talks to reporters after being released from prison. Photo: Laurence Blair

“Here, the enemy is big transnational capital, imperialism, the oligarchy and the oppressive state at the service of all the national and foreign bourgeoisie,” Jones Huala told the handful of sympathisers who had gathered to meet him on his release. “The enemy is not the poor foreigner, the enemy is not the small landowners,” he continued, raising his fist. “The enemy is the forestry, mining, petroleum and hydroelectric companies. And we have to keep advancing on that path until we liberate the Mapuche nation.”

For Jones Huala, the dramatic about-turn in Chile’s political scenario since his conviction in December 2019 had not changed anything. The agenda is still to recover Mapuche lands and independence from Chilean and foreign interests. “We’re not with the constitutional process, nor with the election of Boric, nor any of those sell-outs to the system of capitalist oppression,” he insists, to cheers. “Forward, without any negotiating, until national liberation!” With that, he is whisked away into a car by his supporters.

After Jones Huala’s departure, I linger nearby, outside the Pablo Neruda College. Three young men with long hair and rock band t-shirts appear around the corner and push me up against the gate. “A fucking cop, are you? Get your phone back out!” demands one of them, slapping me around the head. My explanation, between shoves, does little to calm the situation. “Journalist for who?” asks another other. “You’re going to call us terrorists, right? Violent?” Their friend, who seems more sober, pulls them back and tells me: “Walk away, walk”.

A few minutes later I’m picked up by Francisco Alanis, a construction magnate of Italian-Lebanese descent with a thick black beard down to his chest. He is president of the Association for Peace and Reconciliation in the Araucanía (APRA), which represents the victims of radical Mapuche groups. We sit on a sunny patio beside a petrol station, and Alanis sketches out a long-term view of the conflict, situating its origins in the Chilean state’s brutal nineteenth-century conquest of the region, its slapdash parcelling out of indigenous land to European settlers, and its efforts during the Pinochet years to stamp out Mapuche language and identity.

“There’s been a holding back of indigenous groups,” he says. “You can’t deny it. There’s been an invisibilisation and a discrimination. There’s no doubt.” But for Alanis, groups like the CAM “cloak themselves in the noble cause” of standing up for the Mapuche to disguise their involvement in narcotrafficking, gun-running, and armed robbery. “I’ve spent four decades working with indigenous people. They know their history, but none of them have that hate.” Few denounce or report the violent actors, he says, for fear of being branded yanaconas – a colonial-era term for indigenous peoples who fought for the Spanish.

Back in 2013, Alanis’s company had 12 teams of heavy vehicles, each including diggers, graders, tractors and trucks, to build and maintain roads. “They burned nine of them. I had to start from scratch.” The state has recently started to compensate firms for such losses, he says. “But the damage is not only material. People are dying.” That morning, a pair of forestry workers had been killed in a drive-by shooting 40 miles west of Temuco. “It’s escalating from sabotage to the loss of human life,” says Alanis. “What could happen next? Attacks against business leaders, perhaps, attacks in cities … This conflict still hasn’t reached its peak. I think that the violence will keep growing whatever the government does,” he predicts. “This will take two generations to solve.”

A truck set on fire by unknown attackers near Temuco, Araucanía region, Chile, on 6th August 2020

A truck set on fire by unknown attackers near Temuco, Araucanía region, Chile, on 6th August 2020. Photo: Mario Quilodran / AFP via Getty Images

There are signs of growing polarisation on all sides. APRA has been censured by the courts for hosting racist language on its social media, and criticised for encouraging its followers to confront Mapuche demonstrators – something Alanis chalks up to excitable young people handling the organisation’s digital channels. “Mediation is the most effective way” to end the confrontation, he suggests. “We’re trapped in a conflict that emerged 140 years ago. But there have been societies that have resolved their problems,” he says hopefully, mentioning the Balkans in recent decades. The Araucanía, despite the occasional flare-up of violence, receives the most tourists of any region in the country, drawn to its lakes, mountains, hot springs, folklore and ski lodges. “This country has marvellous things,” Alanis concludes. “We have a problem with violence but we’re working on it.”

An hour’s drive east of Temuco, I pay a visit to Juana Calfunao Paillaléf, an influential lonko – hereditary chief – and firebrand advocate of Mapuche sovereignty. By her own account, she has been arrested over 100 times, spent four and a half years in jail, and currently faces four trials, with her alleged offences including assaulting a carabinero. Her house is set back from the road behind a gate made from sticks and twisted barbed wire. I pass by slowly several times before being waved down by her daughter, Carolina. If I want to ask her about Chilean politics, Calfunao tells me, my journey has been wasted: I’m no longer in Chile, but Wallmapu. Nor is Britain particularly popular around here, she says, after establishing my nationality – my country helped provide the repeating-fire rifles, loans and railway technology that aided in Wallmapu’s conquest and the massacre of its warriors 140 years ago.

The indigenous delegates occupying reserved seats in the constitutional convention “are not representatives of the Mapuche people,” argues Calfunao, over a simple lunch of boiled potatoes in a cheese sauce. She wears a traditional black smock with pink tassels, an ornate necklace of silverwork, and a long black plait down to her waist. She believes that talk of officially branding Chile a “plurinational” state like neighbouring Bolivia is an attempt to corral her people and de-fang their material demands: “the return of land.” The constitutional convention, she argues, is the latest manoeuvre by the Chilean state in league with their yanacona lackeys to subordinate the Mapuche, “to perpetrate looting and invasion. They’ve been doing it for 450 years.”

The Chilean state is an enemy; nefarious, terrorist, genocidal, thieving, lying, usurping”

I ask what would happen to non-Mapuche, many of whose families have lived in the area for generations, in a hypothetical, newly independent Wallmapu. Mapuche would likely be in the minority, currently making up a little over a third of the Araucanía’s million residents. They are welcome to stay, says Calfunao, but “they will have to live under our juridical, social, and political rules, speak our language, respect our land, and not set up huge plantations. They have to change their way of life to live with nature.”

Juana Calfunao Paillaléf Advocate of Mapuche sovereignty

Juana Calfunao Paillaléf, advocate of Mapuche sovereignty. Photo: Laurence Blair

Killing is against traditional precepts, she adds. Many attacks attributed to armed indigenous movements – and recent viral videos of hooded figures in the forest waving automatic weapons in the air – are the work of shadowy groups trying to smear peaceful activists, she claims. But other means are on the table. Their objectives are “fixed”, she says. “The Chilean state is an enemy; nefarious, terrorist, genocidal, thieving, lying, usurping. I can’t negotiate with a state like that.”

On a Friday night two weeks after the elections, Plaza Baquedano is the scene of clashes again”

Her uncompromising stance is born out of brutal experience. Soon after the military coup in 1973, when Calfunao was a young woman, police stormed the community, arrested her mother, destroyed her home, and beat Calfunao near-senseless. She remembers blood mixing with the earth as she dragged herself along the ground. Tears come to her eyes and her voice wavers. “I remember asking Ngenechén to spare my mother,” she says, referring to the principal Mapuche deity, “and I would spend my life fighting for this land.” At Isla Teja, a feared detention centre near the city of Valdivia, Pinochet’s agents threw Calfunao off a tall bridge over a river and waited to make sure she had drowned. She only escaped, she says, by hiding underwater and breathing through a reed. Later, during the period of democracy, she miscarried a baby at four months while in detention, fought off attacks by fellow inmates, and lost 30 kilograms while on hunger strike. “And I’m the violent one,” she adds, scornfully.

“I’m never going to change. The restitution of territory, today, tomorrow, always,” Calfunao concludes, emphatically. “We want the transnational companies to all go. Because they have no guarantee of profit here. We’re going to defend ourselves.”

There are already signs that Boric’s political honeymoon is unlikely to last for long. On a Friday night two weeks after the elections, Plaza Baquedano is the scene of clashes once again between the carabineros and masked, hooded protesters demanding the release of those jailed during the protests of 2019-20. As I sit in a taxi waiting at traffic lights by the square, demonstrators sprint forward to hurl rocks into the dented panelling of an armoured riot van, which douses them with chemical-laced water. The green light flashes and the driver floors it as I wind up the window to keep out a billowing cloud of tear gas.

The following week, another demonstration starts here before marching on Boric’s campaign HQ. Protesters reportedly throw stones at a police station; detectives in dark suits jog out with shotguns and start firing rubber pellets. One demonstrator peels off to talk to the Meganoticias TV programme. “We came to pressure Gabriel Boric, and show him that the popular power is still in the streets,” he says. In a radio interview, Boric’s newly-appointed interior minister – Izkia Siches, 35, a prominent critic of Piñera during the pandemic – pleads for patience and “empathy” for weary residents of the area, now entering its third year of noisy demonstrations that often turn into riots. “Nobody wants a protest at the front door,” she says. On 15th March, on her first official visit as interior minister to the Araucanía, Siches is forced to shelter in a nearby police station after unidentified gunmen fire shots in the air and block the road with trees. Mapuche authorities say the new interior minister should have secured their permission before visiting.

Scepticism about whether Boric will be able to deliver is widespread among indigenous people across the country. Christian Espíndola, a member of the Atacameño indigenous group who have lived in Chile’s northern desert and its adjoining Andean highlands for millennia, tells me that previous left-leaning presidents have promised a lot but failed to establish “respect for indigenous peoples” or deliver solutions to the problems affecting them, including heavy water use by copper and lithium mines. “I think some people trust Boric, because he could make changes. But it won’t be easy.” Espíndola predicts that his people will have to keep mobilising, using the courts, and lobbying politicians to make their voices heard. “We’re not Chileans,” he emphasises, echoing the words of Calfunao. “We’re Likanantay, we’re Mapuche, we’re Kolla. We’re apart.”

At the other end of the country, asked if she thinks the offer of plurinational status in the constitution could calm the conflict in the Mapuche heartland, Calfunao scoffs. “On the contrary. We will reject it entirely; we won’t sign it. The Mapuche people will never be free that way,” she argues, suggesting it is a move to stave off material Mapuche demands like the return of territory and relegate her people to the status of a folkloric backdrop for tourists. “I don’t believe anything they say. I’m Mapuche first, second, third and fourth; I was born to defend my territory. I will live that life until I die.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #45 of Delayed Gratification

Buy issue Subscribe

More stories...

A slower, more reflective type of journalism”
Creative Review

Jam-packed with information... a counterpoint to the speedy news feeds we've grown accustomed to”
Creative Review

A leisurely (and contrary) look backwards over the previous three months”
The Telegraph

Quality, intelligence and inspiration: the trilogy that drives the makers of Delayed Gratification”
El Mundo

Refreshing... parries the rush of 24-hour news with 'slow journalism'”
The Telegraph

A very cool magazine... It's like if Greenland Sharks made a newspaper”
Qi podcast

The UK's second-best magazine” Ian Hislop
Editor, Private Eye
Private Eye Magazine

Perhaps we could all get used to this Delayed idea...”
BBC Radio 4 - Today Programme