Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

When Chileans Said “No” to Pinochet


The new film, “No”, takes place in Chile in 1988 as the nation faced a plebiscite — a vote of all citizens –on whether to keep General Augusto Pinochet in power, or not. The Army commander who seized power after a 1973 military coup against elected President Salvador Allende had ruled for more years than Hitler, and had become an old man who gained international notoriety by assassinating, disappearing,” torturing, and sending opponents into exile. But the foreign investors praised his embrace of Chicago Boys economics, a supposedly free market economy whereby proletarios (proletarians) could evolve into proprietarios (property owners), which in practice meant that capitalists could buy Chile’s forests and convert them into chopsticks and tooth picks.

After 15 years of military dictatorship and unbridled capitalism, Chileans got to vote to allow Pinochet to continue his rule. It was “Yes” or “No” — open the political game to a genuine choice. The film focuses on the “No,” campaign waged by the anti-Pinochet forces. To win voters, Chilean TV offered each side a series of 15 minute daily programs.

The old Chilean lefties, who directed the campaign had no experience in selling their side of the story on television; so they choose René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), a talented ad man, to design the campaign to convince the Chilean majority to reject Pinochet.

Rene designs the commercials in the style he perfected through making soft drink commercials  and soap opera promotions, to use the zeal shown by actors pitching a fizzy drink to deliver a message for a new, happier Chile. But Rene must spar with left-wing ideologues about the contents of the message. All recognize the fact that Pinochet had to concede to the referendum because of strong foreign pressure to legitimize a government that was inherently illegitimate—Pinochet’s coup and post-coup brutality was directed against an elected government, and the Chilean population that supported it.

The film also turns into a contest between two Chilean ad men, both adherents of the Madison Avenue alchemy of selling shit by making it smell like perfume.

Rene lives with his eight year-old son (Pascal Montero), both abandoned by his estranged wife Veronica (Antonia Zegers), a miitant leftist who thinks “No” cannot win because Pinochet will rig the results and intimidate the public. But Rene, despite the threat his involvement holds toward his career in advertising, agrees to take on the campaign.  His boss at the commercial ad agency, Lucho Guzman (Alfredo Castro),  a Pinochetista, colludes with a Cabinet Minister (Jaime Vadell) to direct the “Yes” campaign.

The audience gets a visual education in commercial production, but  this does not substitute for character building and inter-personal stories, the lack of which weakens the movie. The film also gets lost in the commercials and loses the important political context that has generated the story.

We do, however, see convincing scenes of Pinochet’s forces attacking peaceful crowds, using violence as their primary means of persuasion. Rene at one point must fear for his son’s safety, as the “Yes” advisors become anxious when they see that the “No” is gaining popularity in the polls, and begin to threaten people working for the “No.”.

The inner plot, Rene’s attempt to win back his estranged wife, becomes a welcome relief from the drumming of the ad campaign.  His wife still likes Rene, but whatever made them separate remains fixed strongly in her mind—unfortunately, we never find out what it is.  As she rejects his overtures to have sex and reunite, the film makes no attempt to illuminate the barriers to resolving their relationship.

The anti-Pinochet Chileans behind the “No” commercials get irritated by Rene’s peddling their political voice like a commodity. They insist their 15-minute nightly TV allocation should portray Pinochet’s brutality, show his goons doing their  violence and lawlessness, exposing the crimes of the regime.  Rene, the ad man, calculates that selling “No” instead requires commercial TV advertising techniques. He doesn’t belong in the world of ideas, but in the psychological domain of manipulating complacent and frightened buyers to accept his product.  In this way, the movie participates in the trivialization of actual mass mobilizations, door-to-door campaigning, and the vast amounts of literature that anti-Pinochet forces produced for this effort.

Some Chileans, despite their disgust over what Pinochet had done to their people and country, feared his ouster would bring economic chaos, unemployment, massive poverty. Rene thinks about how these factors might reduce voter turnout. He answers these perturbing issues by peddling happiness. His nightly TV spots emphasize the promise of future contentment if No wins. He attaches a rainbow backdrop to the entire ad campaign. Beautiful outdoor scenes feature gleeful dancers and jubilant children, all with their feet moving rhythmically. Oh joy!

As the historic day of the vote approaches, the film centers on the competition between the Yes and No ads, a back-dated Mad Men scenario that overstresses the making of the commercials as the center of history.

A welcome and nicely underplayed strain of humor, however, accompanies the use of contrived marketing tricks and simplistic messages to bring down a dictatorship. The film shows how silly jingles and staged cheerfulness became useful political tools.

That ad man element gets enhanced when the Yes side, aided by Guzman, modifies its campaign accordingly. The film also ends on a note of droll realism. Rene skate boards along the streets, as if to demonstrate that despite his marital woes the boy part of him remains alive and well, and to celebrate the victory of good  — happiness is skateboarding – over evil.

Bernal acknowledges his victory with quiet intensity and  skeptical facial expressions. He, and the film’s director Pablo Larrain, hint that the superficiality of Rene’s advertising schemes will endure beyond the No vote, and etch themselves deeply in Chile’s destiny. Indeed, the newly democratic Chile remained a country where consumerism prevailed, a place divided by class, wealth and power— and the succeeding governments would behave in the world of commodity production and mass consumption where desire produced by advertising acted as a control on social behavior.

Saul Landau is filming (with Jon Alpert) a documentary on Cuba’s anti homophobia campaign. His “Fidel” and “Will The Real Terroris Please stand Up” are available on dvd from

SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 26, 2016
John W. Whitehead
A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup
Anthony Tarrant
On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
Mark Weisbrot
The Most Dangerous Place in the World: US Pours in Money, as Blood Flows in Honduras
Eric Draitser
Dear Liberals: Trump is Right
Chris Welzenbach
The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann
Luke O'Brien
The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap
Sabia Rigby
In the “Jungle:” Report from the Refugee Camp in Calais, France
Linn Washington Jr.
Pot Decriminalization Yields $9-million in Savings for Philadelphia
Pepe Escobar
“America has lost” in the Philippines
Pauline Murphy
Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull
Lizzie Maldonado
The Burdens of World War III
David Swanson
Slavery Was Abolished
Thomas Mountain
Preventing Cultural Genocide with the Mother Tongue Policy in Eritrea
Colin Todhunter
Agrochemicals And The Cesspool Of Corruption: Dr. Mason Writes To The US EPA
October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future