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Manuela Royo on Chile’s Human Rights Commission, the struggle for truth and memory, and the consequences of the 2019 social uprising


A person holds up a sign with the word PEACE? during protests and clashes with police in central Santiago, Chile during the 2019 social uprising in November.  Photo: IMAGO | xClaudioxAbarcaxSandovalx

Manuela Royo knows all too well the violence of which the Chilean state is capable. Royo has been the defence attorney in a number of high-profile trials involving the indigenous Mapuche people, including for three defendants in the famous Luchsinger-Mackay case: the brothers Eliseo and Hernan Catrilaf and the “machi” Francisca Linconao (now a member of the Constitutional Convention), who faced preventive detention for a year and a half after being wrongly accused of the murder of a wealthy landowner.

Royo has also brought Chile before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for police violence against Mapuche children in the Araucanía region, and she has collaborated with the National Human Rights Institute, filing complaints for police abuses committed during the 2019 social uprising.

Manuela Royo is a human rights attorney and Convention representative for Chile’s District 23.

This article was published in cooperation with Jacobin Latin America. Translated by Nicolas Allen.

Today, Royo is a constituent for District 23 in the Convention that will replace the neoliberal Constitution imposed by Augusto Pinochet. She is also part of the Justice Commission, the articles of which were the first to be voted in the plenary of the 155-member Convention. Ten articles were included in the draft of the new document: thanks to the work of Royo and others, principles such as parity and gender perspectives, as well as plurinationality will now be part of the foundation of the new Chilean state.

Manuela spoke with Octavio Garcia Soto from Jacobin Latin America about the work taking place within the Human Rights Commission of the Convention, the struggle for truth and memory in Chile, and the consequences of the 2019 social uprising.

You coordinated the Commission on Human Rights when the creation of the general procedural rules for the Convention were still being ironed out. It was quite a controversial commission, since it brought together people like Jorge Arancibia, the former secretary of Augusto Pinochet, and also people like Machi Linconao and other victims of the dictatorship. What was it like to try to coordinate such a tense environment?

The coordination of the Human Rights commission was very difficult, because of the presence of the former advisor of Augusto Pinochet. In a commission where people were preparing a report on historical truth, there were hearings from organizations linked to human rights violations in which Arancibia took part. We were confronting the impunity enjoyed by the accomplices of the civilian-military dictatorship and — for a time — entertaining the possibility that they could hold power in a democratic institution, in light of the then-rise of Kast and the momentum of the fascist ultra-right in Chilean politics.

It was also very difficult because in the commission, on some occasions, people from the Jaime Guzman Foundation — a far-right foundation named after Pinochet’s right-hand man — attacked the coordinating committee whenever we questioned whether it was compatible for someone who was part of the dictatorship to participate in the commission.

But in the end we have done very interesting work as a commission and achieved historical truth report, formed with the participation of citizens and human rights organizations.

What is the purpose of the historical truth report?

It was a report from more than 380 hearings of organizations that participated in the Historical Truth Subcommission of the Human Rights Commission. Those organizations brought forward different historical issues, such as human rights violations during the dictatorship and genocide against native peoples.

We also discussed the violation of human rights in the post-dictatorship period: the violation of the human rights of women and dissidents, gender violence, ecocide and the violation of environmental rights and the rights of nature, and we also talked about important aspects such as racism. Following the hearings we created a volunteer team that worked with more than 150 people to codify and systematize this information and produce a historical truth report.

The work from that commission also dealt with victims of human rights violations in the context of the social uprising of 18 October 2019. These are all issues that remain open in Chile, there is still no justice.

Essentially, based on these discussions, the report proposes a series of reparation measures and guarantees for the non-repetition of rights violations.

You also have a history working in popular education. Could you tell me a little about that experience?

I have been working on popular education issues for a long time. I started in 2000, doing pre-university education among popular sectors in Santiago. In those days, you had basically had to pay to take a university selection test, and to be able to pass the test you have to have studied a lot. We organized popular pre-university courses to be able to teach young people so that they could reach the university.

After that we held workshops and organized the Cordón Popular de Educación, where there were different spaces for adult education, workshops for children, popular pre-universities, and so on. Later, we also did popular education workshops for children with an emphasis on the Mapuche language and interculturality. In Wallmapu [the historical territory of the Mapuche people] we are also working on a project with an organization called Sur Territorial, where we are creating environmentally-oriented school spaces for Mapuche children in the communities.

Popular education puts us in touch with a very powerful social reality. It is very important not to lose sight of it when we on to do political work, to be aware of the scale and dimensions of people who come from simple backgrounds and do not always have specific kinds of knowledge. Popular education rescues their knowledge, which is very important for political work.

What do you think of the argument, made by some, that it was the organization and discipline of social movements that turned the 2019 uprising into an opening for a new Constitution? Or that their organization was part of why Boric won the presidency?

I’m not sure about that. I think the majority of people took part in the uprising out of anger and discontent. But even then, unfortunately, in the first round of the presidential elections an openly fascist right wing was in the lead, which shows that there are many people who still believe in the dictatorship and Pinochetism. These people are totally alienated from politics and the values it represents. Although for the second round there were spaces of self-organization behind the Boric campaign, in the end his victory was a reaction against the rise of fascism. I actually believe that today there is a lack of organization.

While I do feel that in the Convention we have been gradually motivating and encouraging participation, I believe there is a lack of popular and social organization in Chile. Perhaps in Santiago there is more organization, or in the cities, but at least where I live, Araucanía, the level of organization is very, very low, except among indigenous peoples.

Your connection with the Mapuche people is both personal — your daughter is Mapuche — and professional: you were the defence attorney for those accused in the Luchsinger-Mackay case. What does that trial symbolize in terms of the relationship between the Chilean state and the Mapuche people?

I think the Luchsinger case was an important demonstration of how a people — Mapuche ancestral authorities — can be criminalized based on political motives. Although some were acquitted, there are those who are still on trial for testimonies obtained without any guarantee of due process — the kind of testimonies that would be unsustainable in any other trial. This tells us about the pain that exists today in Araucanía: the violence, lack of solutions, deficiencies, and conflicts.

You have also brought violations of the rights of Mapuche children before the National Institute of Human Rights. What is life like for a Mapuche child today?

Some parts are very hard, while others are actually quite nice. As you said, there is a lot of violence in Araucanía: the children have seen state repression close to their schools many times. They regularly see the violence the Chilean military brings. But on the other hand, there is a dignity and pride in being Mapuche, independently of the fact that today there is a recognition by the state that did not exist before.

There have also been important advances in terms of reinforcing identity and historical memory among families. So I think that today, even while the conflict in Mapuche territory is becoming more acute, there is also a construction of identity based on pride and dignity, a sense that the communities are becoming stronger.

Of course, there is the demand for territorial autonomy for indigenous peoples. What does that mean in your eyes in a new constitution?

Autonomy is a demand for many people, not just indigenous peoples. People around the world have seen how a state, be it colonial or imperialist, can usurp their territories and impose one culture on another. In the case of indigenous peoples, autonomy is actually about collective autonomy: it means to have the power of decision and control over the economy, the relationship with nature, territorial organization, and forms of social and community regulation.

You are also on the Legal System Commission in the Constituent Assembly. How are the political forces arranged in that commission? Is the entire left united?

In general there is a lot of unity, especially among those of us who are not on the right or do not belong to the parties that have been in government. There is a lot of dialogue among the social movements, independents, the Communist Party, even Frente Amplio. We have been able to generate consensus around an important perspective: to overcome an authoritarian, patriarchal, and colonial justice system and guarantee access to justice for Chilean women and native peoples.

As a member of the National Human Rights Institute, you were quite busy during the 2019 uprising. Could you tell me about what you experienced during those days?

It was very intense. The other day I went to Temuco to walk those streets and I remembered everything we saw those days. In fact, I lived right there in the centre of Temuco, so it was horrible because my daughter was very young and all the time you could hear the military and the police shooting. All that time, I had to be in the street with my colleagues from the National Institute of Human Rights, observing police violence and helping the wounded to get to the hospital, taking photos, and so on. We were hit by pellets. A prosecutor friend of mine sent me a report from the carabineros in which it came to light that they were taking pictures of us and following us the whole time.

It was crazy. It was like being on a battlefield in the streets of Temuco. Every day we had to go to the police station, write reports, and go to the Forensic Medical Service. But it was also a very important experience, because we were able to confirm and record what was happening in Chile — to go out and say that there were systematic violations of human rights and that in Chile the government of Sebastián Piñera was responsible for human rights violations.