5 July 2008

Chile Imprisons Documentary Maker

The imprisoned Chilean documentary maker, Elena Varela, has moved the Organization of American States after the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal against her detention. The lower court, which sent Varela to pre-trial custody for at least six months, had denied her lawyers entry for 15 minutes into the hearing which prevented them from arguing her arrest was illegal.

Varela was arrested on May 7 as she was filming ‘Newen Mapuche’ (Universal Energy of the Mapuches) on the conflict which has pitted the Chilean state and the timber companies against the native Mapuche people. She has been put into a new privatised prison and the detention period is likely to end up being far longer as the prosecutors have charged her with consorting with Left-wing terrorist groups and being complicit in killings and armed robberies. Her camera, video footage and notes have been seized, material many fear will be used to hound others.

The accusations against Varela are as laughable as they are sinister. These are apparently the fruit of three years of ‘Operation Patience’ conducted against her by the Chilean National Intelligence Agency, modelled on the U.S. secret services and the product of legislation redolent of the Pinochet years. Forty-two-year-old Elena Marisol Varela López is hardly terrorist material. She founded a children’s orchestra and an arts school, headed a film company, was making the documentary with finances provided by a government agency and describes herself as “essentially a liberated woman, not just free but also a libertarian”.

The persecution of Varela stems from her investigation of the Mapuche cause. The Chilean state does not deal lightly anyone shining light on the issue. A French film crew was arrested and released in March while two Italian film-makers were arrested in May for recording a Mapuche protest against a timber company, roughed up, ordered to leave Chile and escorted to the airport. A Catalan print journalist faced a similar fate some years ago.

The Mapuches constitute some 87% of Chile’s remaining native population who comprise 4.6% of the population. A third of the Mapuches now live in the ancestral Araucanía region whereas more than half of them lived there only a decade ago. Other Mapuches, as is the pattern throughout the continent now, have dispersed principally to the capital, Santiago, in search of insecure, low-paid work while the riches of their land are harvested by powerful transnational corporations with the backing of the Chilean state and the famed brutality of its armed police, the Carabineros. Like the Kawesqar and Yagan people, the Mapuches run the real risk of disappearing as a distinct community.

Mapuche activists who fight back are subjected to long imprisonment on terrorism charges. The Carabineros have not hesitated in killing demonstrators, rightly confident they will never face charges. The timber companies, activists allege, engage in the lucrative practice of damaging the forests themselves, collecting insurance and then blaming it on the Mapuches. The judiciary treats them shabbily and the corporate print and visual media, with close ties to the business groups and covertly to the military, ignores them. The Mapuches are Chile’s forgotten people.

The incarceration of Elena Varela is an attempt to silence the telling of the Mapuche story. While journalists have at least legal protection from having to reveal their sources, documentary makers in Chile confront legal ambiguity. The prosecutors trailed Varela as she interviewed a Mapuche activist on the run from the law who provided key information on how their land was being grabbed for commercial forestry and the rivers dammed. She was getting uncomfortably close to the main actors in the great forest heist.

Varela describes her own situation in a public letter: “I have faith justice will be done despite everything. I get the impression that the principal oppressor of this situation is the monster created during the dictorship… Fascism that has not died nor ended. I feel peace does not exist in Chile, that minimum rights are not respected. Fear was instilled during the dictatorship, killing, imprisoning for thinking differently, for defending important causes. Today it is almost the same… the torture is psychological, the oppression is the silencing.

“I believe in a wholesome world of respect and love… The solution is difficult, like it is difficult for many to share your plate of food with he has nothing to eat; sharing your roof with him who has none. The problem is not only economic but passes through the soul… The cement of the cities has locked up the free spirit that we bring with us inside. Today we have nothing of what we had: we are not a supportive community, open to constructing a more just world. At the top are the oppressors, below the oppressed and far, far away the liberty-seekers who fight day after day…”

[Do not be far away. Amnesty International provides an opportunity for solidarity with Elena Varela (document needs to be downloaded).]

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