How Chile voted Pinochet out of office… but kept most everything the same

NoNO (Chile 2012 directed by Pablo Larrain) is reviewed by Dave Kellaway.

‘Happiness is coming’ was the main campaign slogan and jingle of the anti-Pinochet campaign in the 1988 plebiscite. At the beginning it was vehemently opposed by senior opposition leaders, who had personal experience of torture, murdered comrades and exile. They wanted explicit, strong condemnation of Pinochet’s crimes in the political campaign. This film is the story of that political discussion and is absolutely riveting, particularly for anyone political or interested in what happened 15 years after the terrible 1973 US orchestrated coup that brought Pinochet to power against Allende’s democratically elected Unidad Popular government and killed up to 30,000 people.  Even today I still remember where I was when the TV pictures showed the air force bombing the Presidential palace where Allende died resisting the attack.

After the coup’s vicious repression which effectively decapitated the entire organised leadership and vanguard of the workers movement Pinochet was able to install a model neo-liberal regime advised by Milton Friedman’s Chicago economists.  Strong capitalist growth was achieved at a terrible price in terms of super-exploitation,   increased poverty and the worsening health of the majority. It is also ushered in a period of dictatorships throughout Latin America even including a repressive coordinating committee called Condor that was actively sponsored by the USA.

However by 1988 there was concern among the more far-sighted national ruling class and from the US political leadership that there needed to be a controlled transition to civilian rule because of the risks of an explosive break-up of the regime which might threaten their interests. Already by that time the Cold War was ending with a victory for the West and so both the non-capitalist model and material Soviet support for the Latin American  opposition was much diminished. Given the undeniable material development that benefited perhaps a third or more of the population Pinochet’s team thought they would win a plebiscite which would give Pinochet another eight years in power.  Of course they were not taking any chances. The opposition would only be allowed 15 minutes TV time in the middle of the night whilst as the minister of communications laconically states in the film, “we have all the rest of the time anyway”. The printed media was also largely in the regime’s hands.

The pro-Pinochet campaign focused on the great achievements of the father of the nation and stoked fears of a return to the disruption of the Unidad Popular government years. One image shown in the film is of a big steam roller first squashing consumer goods and then moving on to approach a small child in the middle of the road.

Democracy as a product

An astute opposition leader wants to check how effective the initial No campaign messages are. He calls up an old contact, Rene Saavedra, who had gone into exile but was now a highly successful, slightly left-field advertising creative who is played by Gael Garcia Bernal who readers may remember was in Babel and the film about Che, Motorcycle Diaries.  Rene is not really involved in politics nowadays and spends his days working and looking after his young son.  His wife, Veronica,  is a strong character and is in and out of jail for her political activity.  She is much more political and her role in the film is to hint at the social and political struggles in the workplaces, communities and the streets. Like a large part of the radical left she saw the plebiscite as a huge con by the regime which would end up further legitimising the dictatorship and weakening the resistance. Like most people she thought Pinochet would win and would fix the count if he looked like losing.  Despite her perhaps ultra-left take on the opportunities opening up by the plebiscite, I would have liked a lot more from her character because we would have got a different view of the whole process and of that debate.

Rene stirs up the old dinosaurs of the opposition by defining their initial propaganda as just ‘ugly’ and boring because of its images of repression, torture and exile. He uses a key phrase which is repeated in the film a number of times: the ‘current social context’.  He recognises a political truth without this being very well explained – it had been nearly a generation since the coup, a significant minority had experienced better living standards and there was a fear of disorder identified with the opposition.  Indeed organised political opposition on the ground, in the workplaces or demonstrations was not very strong at the time. Instead Rene’s plan was to connect the No campaign – like any capitalist consumer product – with newness, modernity and well-being or happiness.  It was all about going beyond confrontation and proclaiming the unity of a new Chile where the opposition would be integrated into the political system. There is an impressive clip which Rene produces where film of a riot policeman hitting a demonstrator over the head is played and replayed but with overprinted annotations saying this man (the demonstrator) is a Chilean who believes in certain things, this man (the cop) is a Chilean who believes  in certain things….with the No campaign they will be able to talk and live together again.

Ambiguous and subtle

In some ways it is a re-working of the old Marxist maxim of the capitalists creating their own gravediggers. The development of a modern advertising industry under Pinochet provided the tools and the ammunition to bring him down.  Once the Yes campaign falters and Rene’s boss is brought in to change tack by responding directly to the No campaign’s themes then the writing is on the wall for the regime. When the regime removes Pinochet from the films and directly copies the jokes and humour of the No campaign we know that the opposition will win.

The handheld documentary style of the film puts you right into the middle of the debates among the opposition and the regime. Despite it being a very political film it is fast paced and never boring. Rene’s character is cleverly conceived too since he is not given a conventional Hollywood- type heroic status – he is shown to really believe in and enjoy the rewards of the advertising industry. His personal life is strained. There is a moving scene where he is taking his son to his wife’s flat in a working class area because of the regime’s intimidation against him. He arrives and his wife’s comrade (partner?) comes to the door and invites him in for breakfast.  The comrade is wearing a NO campaign teeshirt complete with the rainbow motif that was initially criticised by the left. Rene leaves, creative leader of the NO campaign but personally crushed.

You might read the film as a cheerleader for the entire line taken by Rene but is much more ambiguous and subtle than that.  Firstly the regime’s repressive techniques are shown right through the campaign and even at the final rallies. Secondly you are at least given a hint of the more radical left through the role of Rene’s estranged wife. Thirdly both the Yes and No campaigns are run finally by colleagues from the same advertising agency!  Finally there is a brilliant final scene where you have an advertising pitch for a TV soap opera led by Rene who introduces himself as the successful leader of the No campaign. The film leaves us with the advertising clip of elegantly dressed but empty actresses on top of an office skyscraper with a helicopter carrying the soap opera male lead as a James Bond figure.  The transition is safe for capitalism.

Real life history since then has reinforced the sense of the ending. There have been Christian Democrat or Socialist Party led coalitions which have further amended the constitution in progressive ways and some limited social reforms have been made but the winners of the Pinochet regime are still in the saddle. It was a good result for the USA.  A few military torturers were prosecuted and even Pinochet was charged. The mildly radical (CP) and the more radical (MAPU) left parties score around 5% in national elections.  One hope for a recomposition of the left is the huge upsurge of the student movement in recent years but we are at the early stages of this.  Pinochet remained commander and chief for another ten years after the plebiscite and died peacefully in his bed in 2006.

** NO is currently being shown at a number of ‘arthouse’ cinemas: in London at the Rio in Hackney and the Curzon in Soho. Also at the Cornerhouse in Manchester, the Showroom in Sheffield, Glasgow Film theatre, Filmhouse cinema, Edinburgh and probably anywhere else where they show the best foreign language movies.


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