Resistance In Chile’s “State Of Exception”

Chilean authorities continue to crack down on Mapuche activists despite broad opposition to neoliberal reforms.

Social struggles against neoliberalism in Chile reached their peak in October, 2019. The unprecedented social uprising (estallido social) was triggered by a rise in subway fares in the capital of Santiago de Chile. High school students led the charge. They defied the new government-imposed fare and jumped the turnstiles. People took notice, and actions like these scaled-up and expanded. Popular and national direct-action politics soon began to encompass a broad rebellion against the entire Chilean neoliberal model of structural dispossession. In all areas of social life, from healthcare, education, pensions, land, water, sea, and highways, protesters took aim at the various privatizations invading their lives.

While thousands of peaceful marches and protests took over common spaces in the main cities and towns across the country, many subway stations, supermarkets, and commercial stores were looted and burned. The center-right-wing government of Sebastian Piñera reacted by ordering a so-called “State of Exception” of nine days. The military was tasked with retaking control and stopping the social revolt.

Due to the pandemic, on March 2020 the Piñera government ordered another State of Exception which lasted until 2021. This greatly reduced social mobility and restricted freedom in diverse spheres of social life.

The social uprising in southern Chile has been led by the Mapuche people. Their most autonomist and revolutionary communities have been struggling against forestry extractivism, settlers, and what they call the “neocolonial state” for decades. Their strategies include the occupation of forestry plantations and settlers’ estates, and sabotage—burning up forestry trucks and machinery—with the aim of forcing forestry corporations from what Mapuche claim as their ancestral territories, called Wallmapu.

This unrest also did not go unnoticed by the central government and on October 21 of 2021, Piñera decreed a State of Exception for the country’s Macrozona Sur (Southern Macrozone), which included the Biobio and Araucania regions where most Mapuche people live.

As all this was going on, the capital was embroiled in a social revolt over constitutional reform. This went on for over a year. A proposed draft for a new Constitution was delivered on July 4, 2022. The proposal was finally rejected on September 4. This meant that even when the new rules of the game were being discussed, the country was under this imposed “State of Exception,” altering legally and factually the functioning of the institutions of the state.

The State of Exception in the Mapuche territory (Biobio and Araucania regions) remains in force. It was renewed several times by former billionaire president Sebastian Piñera, and it was renewed again by the center-left-wing government of Gabriel Boric. The latter took office in March 2022, after he won the election in the second round in December 2021, in which he defeated the ultra-right-wing Jose Antonio Kast. During his campaign, Boric promised that if elected, he would derogate the State of Exception in Mapuche territory, but he didn’t. In fact, from March until November 2022, Boric’s government has requested several times to renew the State of Exception in the Biobio and Araucania regions to reinstall the State’s order and sovereignty into the rebel Mapuche territories.

In the course of the government’s attempts to quell unrest in southern Chile, a number of prominent activists have been detained by authorities. On August 24, 2022, the leader of the so-called revolutionary Mapuche movement, CAM (Coordinadora Arauco Malleco), Hector Llaitul, was taken by the Chilean police in the Province of Arauco (Biobio region). He was accused of stealing wood and violating vague national security laws. Llaitul was arrested in the Cañete Commune along with other three Mapuche persons, among them his son Ernesto Llaitul Pezoa, a former student of sociology at the University of Concepcion, the institution where I work.

Seeking assistance, Ernesto’s mother, Pamela Pezoa, contacted me so that I might visit Ernesto, Hector, and the other Mapuche rebels at the private jail in which they are imprisoned in Concepcion city. When I visited in October and November, Hector Llaitul claimed to have never stolen wood from the forestry, and insisted that the government had no evidence against him. Llaitul says that he, and the other jailed Mapuche activists, are “political prisoners,” jailed because of their political ideas and beliefs which are known to authorities as they’ve been expressed and widely disseminated in a book published by his organization, CAM. Llaitul claims that Mapuche people have the right to resist both the “neocolonial state” and “forestry extractivism.”

The ostensibly leftist government of Gabriel Boric continues to make more efficient, and renew every 60 days, Chile’s “State of Exception.” The administration’s stated objective is to improve safety, so “that people can go to the province of Arauco, that they can go to the Region of La Araucanía, [and] travel along Route 5 South.” Officials say the “presence of police and armed forces in the area” is to “guarantee security,” and that they have no plans to reverse course. The Chilean social revolt and other revolutionary movements such as the CAM Mapuche have been persecuted and imprisoned under a now “permanent” State of Exception that has been in force now for nearly three years. Instead of being an exceptional event, the current State of Exception is becoming a permanent event. In other words, the Chilean state is using its repressive apparatus in a permanent form to punish any resistance movements that put at risk the reproduction of a neoliberal and extractivist metabolic order dominated by capitalist interests operating in this South American area. It has been precisely these interests that have been contested by both Chilean society at large, and Mapuche revolutionary movements for over three years, and this resistance will probably continue into the future in various forms. Chile’s current neoliberal politics have made ample political space for a permanent State of Exception enforced by the government’s vast security apparatus. The question now is: will attempts to neutralize resistance and transformative movements succeed if such emergency measures imposed by the state inevitably fall short in the face of committed opposition?

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ROBINSON TORRES-SALINAS is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology and Faculty of Environmental Sciences at the Universidad de Concepcion, Chile.


ROBINSON TORRES-SALINAS is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology and Faculty of Environmental Sciences at the Universidad de Concepcion, Chile.

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