Azkintuwe and the Mapuche Struggle

An interview with Pedro Cayuqueo

Justin Podur and Manuel Rozental
October 20, 2010

An interview with Pedro Cayuqueo

Justin Podur and Manuel Rozental
October 20, 2010

Pedro Cayuqueo is a Mapuche journalist who has worked for a number of newspapers and outlets. He is a founding director of Azkintuwe (, “the newspaper of Mapuche country”. The country encompasses part of Argentina and Chile: the newspaper, the important political issues affecting the Mapuche. From July until October, 38 Mapuche activists were on hunger strike in Chilean prisons demanding to be tried under civilian rather than military authority, to face civil legislation rather than Pinochet-era “anti-terrorist” legislation. The hunger strike ended after 89 days with the government acceding to the strikers’ demands. Pedro Cayuqueo was in Canada on a cross-country tour, meeting with indigenous peoples and others (including attending an event commemorating Dudley George at Ipperwash). We met him in Toronto on October 14, 2010.

Justin Podur (JP): Let’s start with a little bit about you.

Pedro Cayuqueo (PC): I am a Mapuche from the town of Temuco, which is in the 9th region of Chile according to Pinochet’s military numbering system. I studied journalism at the Universidad de la Frontera, and I studied law before that. In October 2003 I founded the Mapuche newspaper Azkintuwe. Before that I was a hardcore internet writer activist, working for the Colectivo Lientur (Lientur is the name of a famous Mapuche warrior) in “counter-information”. That wasn’t classic journalism, but more written activism.

JP: But Azkintuwe is more like classic journalism?

PC: Yes. We are trying to reach another public with Azkintuwe.

JP: And have you been successful?

PC: Over the past 7 years we have distributed a total of 500,000 copies. We are the only print media of the Mapuche. There are some bulletins, zines, and so on, but we’re the biggest one regularly in print. We distribute across the cordillera, from Buenos Aires to the south in Argentina and from Santiago to the south in Chile.

JP: Give us some context about the hunger strike. We followed the strike with a lot of concern for the lives of the political prisoners, but I think people will want to know the context that the strike took place in. What are the longer term elements of the struggle that brought these prisoners to a strike?

PC: The strike took place in a context of repression by the state against Mapuche struggling for their territory. We estimate that about 1000 have gone through Chilean jails as part of the Mapuche struggle over the past 10 years. There were 106 at the beginning of this year, 58 of whom were being tried under this Pinochet-era “antiterrorist” legislation. Ironically, the law was designed to persecute the left under Pinochet. Perversely, it was used by ostensibly left-wing governments against the Mapuche. The prison struggle had process-oriented demands, but it was completely immersed in the wider struggle.

To understand the Mapuche struggle there are two key antecedents. First, the Mapuche struggle in South America did not have very much to do with a struggle against the Spanish Crown. It had a lot more to do with a struggle against the Republic. This tells you something – the colonization is more recent than in other parts of the America. The loss of Mapuche territorial autonomy is not something that happened 400 or 500 years ago – it happened in my great-grandfather’s generation. My great-grandfather died in the war with the Chilean Republic, 3 generations ago. My grandfather was a child and remembered being expelled from their lands. The history of colonial violence is a recent history. That has influenced the character of the struggle – not that it has made it better or worse, easier or harder, but it is different from other struggles.

Perhaps because the colonial history is recent, the Mapuche feel a very strong sense of cultural unity. There is a wide diversity of political opinion among the Mapuche, a wide diversity of religious views, but the cultural affinity, the cultural identity, is wide and deep. Traditional ceremonies, rituals, the cultural elements are shared even among people who would come to blows over politics. The recent nature of the loss of land means that the sense of identity is very strong. That’s the first point.

The second point is that in recent decades, the conflict has focused against transnational corporations, the state, repressive forces, police, and private guards. A new generation of Mapuche, raised in a strong cultural tradition, are forming a political, national identity which is under construction. This has been the case since the dictatorship in 1973.

The development model imposed by the dictatorship, the political and social model, was one designed to benefit the elite and it was one in which the Mapuche were an obstacle. It’s important to note the distinction here, between an elite model and a right-wing one. This was an elite model, not a right wing model. So when the right-wing dictatorship left, and democracy was instituted, the model didn’t change, it was now an elite democracy. So we could say that the dictatorship worked – it strengthened the elite and allowed the impoverishment of the majority. Chile is now a very unequal society – that doesn’t just affect the Mapuche, doesn’t just affect the indigenous, but everyone.

JP: Can you go back over this with a timeline? And take us to today’s conflict?

PC: The first phase was between 1900-1935, when the territory of the Mapuche was being invaded by force. This phase was about taking Mapuche land and sharing it out to outsiders, Chileans, Germans, Swiss, other Europeans, colonizing the Mapuche zone. My grandfather lived this.

In the 1960s, there was an agrarian reform, which gave the Mapuches back some land – not as Mapuche, but as peasants. Chile’s left, including Allende, didn’t recognize or understand indigenous rights or claims. Indigenous people could make demands as peasants, but not as indigenous. One of the effects of this agrarian reform though was to lower pressure on the land and reduce the strain on the Mapuche.

In the 1970s, though, the seeds of today’s conflict were created. Among the first acts of the dictatorship in 1974 was to reverse the agricultural reform. The counter-reform had the clear intention of transforming southern Chile from an agricultural zone to a wood production zone. In 1974, Canadian, Australian, and US capital joined Chilean capital to turn Mapuche territory into a forest production zone. The Mapuche lands were quickly surrounded by pine and eucalyptus plantations taken by multinational corporations.

Chile was the laboratory of neoliberalism on the planet – it was the zone where the Chicago Boys and Milton Friedman got to try out all their theories because Pinochet opened it up absolutely – no environmental regulations, no labour rights, no protectionism. The resources of the country were open for any takers.

Pine and eucalyptus take about 20 years to reach maturity in Chile’s climate. As the trees grew, the conflict grew, and by the time the trees were ready to harvest, the conflict was ready to explode. In 1999-2000, the current phase of the struggle, with direct actions and land occupations, began.

The plantation economy brought a daily round of humiliations and problems to life. The insecticides and herbicides, like glyphosate, affected people’s health, through air and water. The private forest guards abused community members and gradually became a kind of armed paramilitary force, committing arbitrary arrests, beatings, and killing animals in the name of “protecting” plantations. Communities were totally surrounded by plantations, which were deemed private property – so people were basically trapped, having to break the law to leave their community. There were huge camps of forest workers from other parts of Chile – these workers, like the 33 rescued miners, were being exploited at low wages. The Mapuche were frustrated that they wouldn’t see even these jobs – their lands were being lost with absolutely no benefit at all. So when the struggle was launched through the Coordinadora Arauco Malleco (CAM) organization in 1998, the basic demand was for the forest companies to leave.

CAM didn’t believe in waiting for the government. Its policy was one of direct action, land occupation, and self-defence against paramilitary and police aggression. And it has been 10 years of constant struggle, first against forest capital, and recently against mining and hydroelectric projects, as well as some agribusiness and aquaculture. In all these cases, transnationals take advantage of the model and laws set up under the dictatorship to avoid regulations they might have to face in other countries.

JP: How would you summarize the model?

PC: Free trade, free markets, no regulations, no welfare rights or subsidies. The dictatorship was successful in Chile. It ended when it was no longer necessary. The criminals were never judged. It was a polite transition, not an overthrow by a rebellion. Pinochet’s 1982 Magna Carta has held. There were some modifications, but the model has carried over from the dictatorship. The ideologue of that era, Jaime Guzman, designed the electoral system to exclude any force the dominant 2 parties see as “minoritarian”.

JP: And what has been the balance of the 10 years of struggle? What have been the victories? The lessons learned?

PC: One victory has been that in Chile, there is at least some questioning about the economic model, the model of the state in Chile. We are at the bicentennial and people are asking about how Chile was constructed. This is a symbolic victory but it’s important. We are strengthening autonomy, the recognition of identity, reaching out to sympathetic Chileans and building relationships in Chile. There is a consciousness of collective rights. Where Mapuche spoke of land in the 1970s and 1980s, since the 1990s we have spoken about territory – territory implies a collective, as opposed to an individual concept. As in Ecuador and Bolivia, where they are talking about ‘buen vivir’ (“living well”), there are also these concepts of coexistence and development. It’s an ideological victory to get out from under the hand on us, the idea that even the left in Chile endorsed, that indigenous rights aren’t distinguishable from peasant or worker rights. We now have our own conception and that gives us a chance at our own political project, which is under construction. There are multiple visions for moving forward.

As for the lessons learned, I would say we have seen that the Mapuche can’t limit the struggle to a rural struggle against multinationals (forest, mines, hydro). It’s a reactive model. Now it’s necessary to react, but we also need to propose. And we need to propose along with all those who are affected by the model. We need to include all in a platform. Chile’s movements – unions, students, middle classes, politics, aren’t very strong right now. The state’s legitimacy is low and abstention is very high in elections. The future of the struggle has to recognize changes in society. Our struggles have been rural but 70% of Mapuche live in urban areas. Urban issues are Mapuche issues now. These ideas weren’t present in the 1999 movement when the demand was for the forest companies to get out of our communities. So we are reflecting. My impression is that in places like Ecuador, Bolivia, Mexico, indigenous intellectuals might be more advanced in thinking about these things. We have been in the fighting mode so long, we are not in the mode to propose, to build coalitions.

Manuel Rozental (MR): You pointed out how perverse it was that a left-wing government used Pinochet-era laws to persecute indigenous people. Other countries followed Chile into neoliberalism, and other movements followed the Mapuche in resistance. It seems like one thing that’s unique about Chile is that free trade policies and neoliberalism are built into the constitution by the dictatorship. Whereas elsewhere the global institutions try to impose the policies and people resist, in Chile it’s illegal to resist. What happened in Chile raises another issue, I think, that has been present for the past several years throughout Latin America where progressive governments have been elected: the contradictions between left governments and social movements.

PC: The strike was confusing to many in Chile at first. Why would a left government do this to indigenous people? Until last year, the government was a left government and it criminalized the Mapuche just like right wing governments had before and since. We were asked, while being criminalized, to support the left in the elections out of fear of the right. But those governments helped the right by criminalizing us.

MR: What was so powerful about the hunger strike for those watching outside Chile, in places like Colombia, was that it was a stand for dignity. It was a statement that in all the negotiations between movements and governments, among all the confusion and co-optation, here were the Mapuche who were saying that dignity was non-negotiable and they were willing to die to show it.

PC: They were in real danger of death and they were willing to die. The Mapuche in Argentina had an alliance with the progressive government of Cristina Kirchner. We wondered what they were getting out of the alliance. They argued that they were getting a progressive media law. But that media law wasn’t something won by struggle, it was an elite, internal decision. So, the government was getting more out of the deal than the Mapuche. Meanwhile in Chile, the government was criminalizing the people.

MR: It seems to come down to this decision for movements in a lot of places where progressive governments are in power – do you get in and try to get stuff, even when the government is betraying its progressive mandate, or do you resist.

PC: That is the moment we are in.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. Manuel Rozental is a Colombian surgeon and activist. Both are members of the Pueblos en Camino collective (

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.