The reactionary, pro-imperialist government of Argentinian president Mauricio Macri is coming under increasing domestic and international pressure over its collusion with the Italian transnational clothing colossus Benetton in the abduction of a 27-year-old campaigner for the land rights of the indigenous Mapuche people of Patagonia, in the far south-west of the country.
Santiago Maldonado disappeared in late summer this year, and an internationally co-ordinated series of protest demonstrations took place on the same day in October to highlight his plight two months on.
Lalkar interviewed Gabriel Rodriguez, an Argentinian living in Britain and now involved with the Argentina Solidarity Campaign, at the picket organised outside his country’s London embassy.
"We are very worried," said Gabriel, "about the disappearance of an Argentinian citizen, so there are activities of support all over Europe and all over Argentina to raise awareness about this disappearance."
Invoking memories of the former military dictatorship and its ‘dirty war’ against any and all progressive Argentinians, he recalled that his country has experienced "some very deep, dark years in the 1970s, with thousands of disappearances, and we don’t want that dark history to be repeated again under this neo-liberal Macri government.
"We want a concrete response from the government, and we need to know where Santiago is.
"He disappeared when the gendarmaria [Argentina’s quasi-military national police] were trying to disperse a demonstration by members of the Mapuche nation. When these demonstrators were being forced out of the way, Santiago was there to support them and he was last seen when he was evicted by the police.
"There are witnesses, there’s a court case and there are also some strong suspicions that the government is trying to avoid telling the truth, so we want them to tell us the truth.”
The missing man’s family, said Gabriel, have clearly explained his role: "He is not affiliated to any political party; he is not a member of any organisation in particular. He is just an inhabitant of Patagonia who was worried about his brothers and sisters in the Mapuche community and he was there to support them."
"On the international front, the United Nations committee on human rights has told the Argentinian government that this situation needs to be resolved. There is Human Rights Watch, there is Amnesty International. There are several other international NGOs [non-governmental agencies] who are also taking an interest."
Why was Santiago taking part in a militant demonstration on behalf of the Mapuche in the first place? Why, indeed, have such acts of resistance become more and more widespread over the last quarter of a century?
The answer is to be found back in 1991, when Benetton bought up huge swathes of rural Patagonia to become Argentina’s largest private landowner. There are 200,000 Mapuche on the Argentinian side of the Andes mountains, with a million and a half more in neighbouring Chile. Those 200,000 people are now outmatched in numbers by the 280,000 sheep that Benetton grazes there, on 2.2 million acres of ancestral land that represent forty times the area of the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires — Latin America’s second-largest city. Let’s also note in passing Benetton’s mining concessions in the country and its pine plantations, but that’s for a possible future article.
The Mapuche people are thought to have lived in Patagonia for some 10,000 years and their priminitive communal mode of existence was only ended with a genocidal 1880s drive to capture their land by the young Argentinian state.
The survivors of this colonialist massacre became peones — landless agricultural labourers — but it was only with Benetton’s acquisition of the land that they found themselves actually being evicted in favour of sheep. This had happened much earlier in Britain, of course, with the ‘enclosures’.
Since that time, the attitude of the Argentinian state toward its indigenous citizens has varied. Their subordinate status, even within the broader ranks of proletarians and semi-proletarians, was not challenged until the accession to office of ‘left’-populist president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2007.
Unlike the current Macri regime, which proudly and overtly serves the interests of US and European imperialism, Kirchner’s administration chose to take on the foreign latifundistas [big landowners] by means of punitive taxation and to nationalise a few big overseas companies. Their two main slogans, put forward in the interests of Argentina’s aspiring national bourgeoisie, were ‘national sovereignty’ and ‘economic independence’. The third of Kirchner’s slogans was ‘social justice’, but for whom?
During Kirchner’s term in office, there was a halt to any new evictions of Mapuche workers and lip service paid to the rights of indigenous minorities but, predictably, no land was handed back to the people from whom it had been so bloodily stolen little more than a century previously.
With the election of Mauricio Macri in 2015, the comprador bourgeoisie was — and is – firmly back at the helm. As far as Patagonia is concerned, what Benetton says goes. And resistance has escalated accordingly.
The clothing giant seems to have excluded the brown skins of the Mapuche from its ‘United Colours of Benetton’ slogan, and is now complaining of Mapuche militants resorting to "squatting, arson, theft, roadblocks, and the intimidation and kidnapping of our staff."
What they mean, in translation, is: people’s occupation, destruction of illegal settlements, reappropriation, control of access to tribal land, and holding Benetton lackeys to account.
The main organiser of RAM (Mapuche Ancestral Resistance [Resistencia Ancestral Mapuche]) , Jones Huala, is currently being held as a political prisoner in Chile. He has this to say about the role of their organisation in the present period: "All human rights are violated here, which has forced us to harden our forms of resistance. We use whatever we have at hand. We use stones and sticks as self-defence against the paramilitary and military police groups."
It is against this backdrop that Santiago Maldonado has been made to disappear. It was on August 1st that he took part in the defence against police of a roadblock on Benetton land set up by militants of the RAM. He was seen being led away by gendarmes, after live ammunition had been fired over the heads of the rebels and the defenders overpowered. The police deny arresting Santiago, none of his friends has seen him since, no hospitals — on either side of the Argentina-Chile border — report having treated him, and the Argentinian regime remains silent.
As Lalkar was going to press, the Argentina Solidarity Campaign issued the following sad but not unexpected statement:
"We write this bulletin through pain, tears and anger. Since our last mailing, not only did the Macri government perform very well in last weekend’s legislative elections but the body of Santiago Maldonado … was found in the River Chabut, in extremely suspicious circumstances which are under investigation amid signs of a cover-up