This column day-tripping memory lane has until now invariably drawn from its writer’s 1983-2017 Buenos Aires Herald newsroom experience to compare the past with the present but today’s issue (or at least its current ongoing chapter) actually falls within the span of this far less venerable journal – our Buenos Aires Times weekly was already up and running in late 2017 (although the number of editions was still in single digits) when the Patagonian land grabs headed by Mapuche militant leader Facundo Jones Huala, escalating from roadblock protests in the wake of Santiago Maldonado’s death, started to hit the national news. An issue which has returned to main headlines with a vengeance since last weekend when Argentine Ambassador to Santiago Rafael Bielsa relayed a government request to Chile for Jones Huala’s release.
Why an embattled government facing almost nationwide rejection as it struggles for survival in next month’s midterms should open up this new front of dubious mass appeal is a complete mystery to this columnist at least – bound to antagonise most people in Río Negro (which at least does not elect senators this year) as the main target of Mapuche activism, it is unlikely to create much empathy elsewhere in competition with all the other problems outside reduced progressive circles which can safely be taken for granted as ultra-Kirchnerite.
What does seem clear is that Jones Huala is the worst possible poster boy for the indigenous cause. In the first place he might not even be Mapuche at all – while the “Jones” half of his surname can totally be ruled out, the “Huala” sounds more authentic but seems to have been an adaptation of “Wallace,” which would place him as ethnically closer to the community of this newspaper’s readers than to Argentina’s original population. And even if he were genuinely Mapuche, that would not place him in Argentina’s original population either. The nomadic Tehuelches were the first inhabitants of northern Patagonia until displaced by Mapuche invasions from across the Andes in the second quarter of the 19th century – in British historical terms the Mapuches would thus be the equivalent of Anglo-Saxons rather than either Celts or Normans. This would mean that there would be Spaniards from the “usurping” races settled in Argentina for as long as a quarter millennium before any Mapuche, which would make their claims to be “first nation” at least relative.
Returning to Jones Huala himself, there is one very basic point making nonsense of the Argentine government taking up his defence quite apart from all the charges of vandalism and terrorism against him – the man has forfeited his right to that defence by denying his Argentine nationality (or any Argentine nationality for that matter since the whole land should belong to its original inhabitants). Despite the government’s crusade on his behalf, perhaps nobody has made that point more forcefully than a Kirchnerite – namely, Buenos Aires Province Security Minister Sergio Berni.
That is only one of the many government contradictions over this issue, which perhaps makes any analysis of its approach to escalating Mapuche violence writing in sand in the absence of any clear strategy. When Aníbal Fernández replaced Sabina Frederic in the Security Ministry a month ago, one small consolation for the return of this controversial bully was that at least he might take a more forceful attitude to this problem than the anthropologist’s lame faith in “dialogue” (futile since the talks are always with others than the vandals). But no, for fully a fortnight Fernández stuck to the “dialogue” mantra despite the appeals of Río Negro Governor Arabela Carreras for federal help – until last week when the national government started promising Border Guards but the mixed messages continue. At the start of this month the Tourism & Sports Ministry announced the return of student trips to Bariloche (a freebie dear to the heart of Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof) while Mapuche mayhem makes the wooded lakes like Mascardi a no-go area.
Perhaps the government believes its own 2017 propaganda when it vainly believed Santiago Maldonado’s death would be a game-changer for midterms going solidly the way of then president Mauricio Macri, projecting the same flawed logic into these elections. But over and above leftist romanticism fed by guilt, an ideology geared to undermining property rights can find few better arguments for the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s axiom “Property is theft” than these Mapuche land claims turning owners into usurpers – Macri’s 2019 running-mate Miguel Angel Pichetto (previously a three-term senator for Río Negro) has expressed suspicions of such an agenda.
Jones Huala is thus the wrong poster boy for the indigenous cause but that should not disqualify this extremely fundamental and sensitive issue. Also insoluble because where do the land claims end? The current hotspot is Villa Mascardi but some of the land around Calafate is reportedly just as sacred, which has not prevented this Santa Cruz haven of Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner from thus far remaining immune from any indigenous occupancy. But obviously the original inhabitants could in theory lay claim to the entire country, which would mean that our President Alberto Fernández would have to lead most of us back to the boats from which Argentines arrived, according to his famous gaffe last June.
Anyway people are more important than land and the plight of the indigenous population has been neglected for far too long. But this too is ultimately insoluble – their forced assimilation would be obviously brutal but respecting traditional lifestyles almost halving their life expectancies would also be more inhuman than it seems. Ever since Jean-Jacques Rousseau came up with the concept of the “noble savage” before the French Revolution, there has been a steady stream of international literature romanticising the indigenous and while it is sometimes easy to ridicule, the guilt often underlying this school of thought is not always synthetic – ranging from all the genocides of history to the 2017 Border Guard slaying of Rafael Nahuel (which has never received comparable coverage to Santiago Maldonado’s death, strangely enough). But high time to take a hard look at real lives beyond any romantic ideology.