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’Machi’ Celestino: A 107-Day Hunger-strike That Shook the World

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By William Alexander Yankes

On August 11, 2020, a CNN-Chile TV caption announced an indigenous healer’s farewell to life: “Machi Celestino Envió Mensaje de Despedida: Será un orgullo dar la vida por mi pueblo.”

In a moving audio message cited by the news report, imprisoned indigenous spiritual leader Celestino Córdova Tránsito made clear a resolve to lay down his life in an effort to highlight the tragic plight of Chile’s embattled and historically disenfranchised native Mapuche community. Revered among the Mapuche people as their chosen “machi,” or principle healer and spiritual guide, Córdova bid the world, his cherished Mapuche nation and humanity itself a solemn farewell just hours before the 100th day of a hunger strike he began on March 4, 2020.

From a bed in the hospital where his rapidly declining health was being closely monitored, Machi Celestino Córdova Tránsito directed his somber goodbye address to the “Mapuche Nation, indigenous First Nation peoples and all non-indigenous people of the world.” Halting and frail, his voice was transmitted instantaneously via a digital recording uploaded to the internet.“I lament very much that I must bring my last messages to all of you, over the final few days I have before my sacrifice becomes definite and real and I’ll just say that I’ll be proud to give my life for my people,” Machi Celestino decried.

The hunger strike, intended—in part, to protest and underscore substandard, unsanitary, overcrowded and life-threatening (since COVID-19) conditions faced by Mapuche political prisoners confined in a number of other federal detention centers throughout the southern region of Chile commonly known as La Araucanía—was soon joined by an additional 26 Mapuche inmates at various prisons. He spoke candidly of his decision to sacrifice himself and in the process draw attention to the urgency of Mapuche struggles for sovereignty, reparations, the return of ancestral lands, equal protection and treatment under the law, and cultural preservation. The blame for his death, he went on to say, would rest squarely upon President Sebastián Piñera and his increasingly authoritarian neo-liberal administration.

According to Chilean press reports in early March, Machi Celestino began his strike after his request for a temporary release to carry out an important traditional Mapuche ceremony of renewal was rejected. In keeping with the Mapuche cosmovision, the ceremonial tradition which requires that a “machi” return to the site of the sacred shrine or altar (rewe) is critical because it fortifies the link—optimal with proximity—through which both “machi” (healer and guardian of the rewe) and his or her “rewe” are able to reciprocally replenish both space where the sacred dynamic is enshrined and the “machi” are “recharged” and “reunite” in a manner of speaking.

Veteran Chilean journalist Sebastián Saá, co-director of the progressive and popular Chilean print and online news portal describes the essential tenor of dynamic between a “machi” and his “rewe as one of mutual interdependence. “[A ‘machi’] and his ‘rewe’ (sacred altar) maintain a vital reciprocal relationship, in which the ‘machi’ needs his ‘rewe’ as much as much as the ‘rewe’ needs him. While the ‘machi’ protects and maintains the physical and spiritual aspects of the space, the ‘rewe’ provides him with the tools he needs to perform his role,” Saá wrote in the introduction to an interview with Jorge Guzmán.

 In what he believed would be his last contact, spoken or otherwise, with those among the living, Machi Celestino alluded to the government and business elites opposed to recognition of the Mapuche as a sovereign and autonomous nation. Their callous disregard for the 2,500 year cultural and spiritual heritage of the largest indigenous community in Chile had obligated him, he said, to pursue the hunger strike to its most dire conclusion. It was necessary to inform those who supported the Mapuche cause what had propelled him to sacrifice himself because he had, earlier on the same day, issued an ultimatum to the presiding government functionaries.If the denial of a petition to have the remainder of his prison sentence commuted to house arrest on Mapuche ancestral land were not reversed within 24 hours, he warned, he was prepared to reject the emergency fluids being administered by medical staff desperate to delay the general organ failure his hunger strike, if continued, would inevitably precipitate. Literally on the threshold between life and death, he expressed a sincere hope that his demise would trigger an awareness among all peoples with respect to the fragility of planetary ecosystems and the danger posed by rampant exploitation of the earth’s natural resources for the sake of profit.

In 2013, Machi Celestino Córdova was the only one of 11 alleged Mapuche suspects charged and prosecuted for an incidence of arson fire that destroyed a home and claimed the lives of its elderly residents, Verner Luchsinger and his wife Vivian Mackay family. Their ranch house, located on a property comprised of several thousand acres Luchinger by his father, who had acquired the vast tract in 1936 from the Chilean government, which had occupied  ter had assumed possession of the entire Araucanía region in the late 19th Century during an aggressive and unforgiving pacification campaign and subsequent military occupation that displaced and decimated over half its original Mapuche inhabitants.

Machi Celestino was found a few miles from where the blaze occurred, quickly tried and declared guilty despite the purely circumstantial nature of the evidence against him. The prosecution maintained from the start that the arson was an act of terrorism in order to prosecute the defendant under an Anti-Terrorism law enacted by military dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet to discourage any dissension or organized opposition to his brutal regime.Tried as a terrorist, Machi Celestino was found guilty and faced an automatic life sentence without possibility of parole because the commission of the crime had incurred loss of life. However, right before the sentencing the judge repudiated designation of the arson as an act of terrorism, informing the prosecution that they had never produced a valid legal basis for the decision to prosecute the case as an act of domestic terrorism. Machi Celestino was sentenced to 18-years.

The Mapuche had successfully defended the Araucanía (lof mapu) against the Inca, the Spanish “conquistadores” and the Chilean republic, until—once liberated from Spain—it launched a ten year padification ble to subjugate the native inhabitants. Since then, the Chilean “criollo” (Chile-born people of non-indigenous ancestry) State has sought to mitigate and dilute Mapuche cultural identity. Despite marginalization, displacement and discrimination, Mapuche have resisted assimilation and continue to struggle for recognition, reparations, and recovery of ancestral lands stolen through recurrent State policies and local legal maneuvers, as well as preservation of their ancestral culture. They ascribe to their inherited cosmogony, social structure and spiritual belief system, which asserts that earth and man are one; that the bones of the ancestors nurture the soil and secure their survival; and that the ancestral spirits hover over all of our lives. With the end of the Pinochet regime in 1990, a string of “democratically” elected government administrations have been unable to pull the country out from underneath the shadow of the Pinochet dictatorship. Piñera, serving his second presidential term, has consistently proven himself not only incapable, but unwilling to lift his administration above the lingering specter of tyranny, torture and death.

Like his post-Pinochet era predecessors, Piñera continues to: privatize Chile’s natural resources; and sell large expanses of once sovereign territory to global conglomerates. Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán explores foreign ownership of Chile’s chief ecological patrimony in his new documentary, La Cordillera de los sueños. “Much of Chile is no longer its territorial sovereignty,” Guzmán says in a voice narration for the film. Perhap most damning, Piñera wasted no time in unleashing the military against demonstrators when the “estallido” (upheaval) broke out in October of 2019 and almost a million people took to the streets of Santiago to protest ongoing governmental abuses, corruption and unjust economic policies.

Piñera’s response to the massive, spontaneous protests was mercilessly swift; thousands of demonstrators were injured as a result, some fatally, in clashes with government troops and federal police. Countless more were arrested and detained indefinitely—without charges or due process—as “preventive imprisonment.” Yet it was the Coronavirus pandemic—not the heavy-handed military crackdown—that ultimately curtailed the civil unrest. Unfortunately, while the street protests had ended, Chilean prisons had become overcrowded as protesters were lumped together with serious offenders and Mapuche political prisoners, an obvious COVID-19 nightmare in the making. Machi Celestino petitioned for the release of all protestors and along with Mapuche. 

Citing the United Nations Accord 169 reached during the 1989 Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, a declaration upon which the United Nations Charter for Human and Indigenous Rights was based—formally acknowledged by Chile as a signatory in 2009—supporters of Córdova initiated a global human rights campaign on behalf of the ailing “machi.” P rominent indigenous leaders offered to meet with Piñera to discuss the case and reach a peaceful resolution. Despite mounting international pressure, an amended petition for the commutation of his sentence which would remand the mapuche spiritual leader to house arrest on ancestral land fell upon deaf ears with the nation’s highest judicial body refusing to even meet with the Mapuche delegation to consider their appeal. In a stunning about-face, however, the Piñera administration reversed its position just two days after Machi Celestino’s farewell message went viral on the internet.

The Chilean Supreme Court was convened and voted unanimously to approve Machi Celestino’s amended petition. It is likely that the Piñera administration, still reeling from the mass protests of a year ago and cornered politically, may have determined the death of Machi Celestino due to a hunger strike would have negatively impacted its already dwindling popularity within and without Chile. President Piñera’s regime has consistently trampled over the human rights of non-indigenous Chileans and Mapuche alike, opposing public funding for education, health care, elderly sustenance and pensions, work pay equality for women, legal recognition of gay marriage and protection for transgender citizens against hate crimes. Corporate news media is subjected to editorial and financial control, and censorship.

In regards to Chile’s still-magnificent natural environment, millennial forests in indigenous territory are ceaselessly ground down to lumber for export. Waters flowing from the Andes Mountain range have been privatized, depriving human and animal consumption, curtailing agricultural irrigation. Rapids’ water-sourced electricity for giant hydroelectric dams is the monopoly of corporate interests, as is the case of the four-thousand-mile Pacific Ocean shore slated for industrial-net fishing threatening endangered species. Indigenous and working-class Chileans alike are doomed to founder in indigence. Piñera refuses to acknowledge the urgency of ecological measures intended to protect the environment.

The Mapuche revere nature. When plucking a leaf from a tree, they utter a “rogativa,” prayerful words, requesting the tree’s permission. Entire indigenous towns shudder with sorrow, bird songs go silent, the deer scurry away at the sight and thundering sound of giant lumber company saws felling two-thousand-year-old Araucaria trees amidst their natural sanctuaries. Only those whose minds set on ravenous profiteering can see value in such mindless destruction of natural habitats.

Hyperconsumerism, the monstrous child of hypercapitalism, a market ideology, is being pitted against the gentler millennia-enduring cosmovision, “kulmapu,” of the indigenous. We face a wasteland. “What are we to do?” has become a rhetorical question but also an urgent moral challenge.

By committing to a hunger strike risking death, Machi Celestino Córdova was willing to become a peace martyr for all Chileans, as well as for the protection of his people and his culture. On the verge of a history-making National Convention in Chile to draft a new Constitution in Chile, striking Pinochet’s ignominious 1980 version from the country’s collective memory, a humanitarian crusade enabled Machi Celestino to survive. The legacy of his example should teach us that we must all do as the Mapuche by adopting a stance of reverence to the stars, the wind, the waters, the earth—because as the “newen,” the life force emanating from nature, the sovereignty of the living, manifests itself in us, we are reminded that all life forms matter.

William Alexander Yankes, PhD, a freelance journalist, is preparing to publish a work underscoring Sovereignty of the Self, the average law-abiding person’s rights under a dictatorship. Yankes resides in Hollywood, California


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