Attacks on Colonial Statues in Chilean Uprising

Published November 12, 2019

Attacks on Colonial Statues in Chilean Uprising

As uprisings have thronged the streets of the Chilean capital of Santiago to protest inequality and state repression, a string of 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 Mapuche people – stamped on the bronze effigy of Pedro de Valdivia and hammered it with wooden staffs.

In the city of Concepción – which Valdivia founded 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 attacks on 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 largest uprisings 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.

“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 attacks on symbols of Spanish colonial rule symbolize continued colonial practices by the current state. The toppling of statues 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 the state 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.

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.

This discontent has manifested in fighting back. Radical Mapuche groups have firebombed more than 900 targets, often ranches and timber trucks, since 2011, claiming 20 lives.

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 favor of the Mapuche cause,” said Kenneth Bunker, a Chilean political scientist, “but also as an anti-system emblem.”

Such grievances 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.

Attacks on Colonial Statues in Chilean Uprising