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 cinemalibrestudio.com

More articles by:

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

Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South