If you’re like most of us typical North Americans, you don’t know much about the history of Chile, even the political developments that have occurred in our lifetimes.
In order to understand the dynamics of the film “No,” a small history lesson is in order: In September 1973, the government of President Salvador Allende was overthrown by a military coup, led by the commander-in-chief of the Army, Augusto Pinochet. The military junta gave way to Pinochet appointing himself president. During this time there were many allegations of the detention, torture, abuse and disappearance of political enemies, suppressed by the near-dictatorial regime. In 1980 Pinochet declared a plebiscite that would elect him to another eight-year term, an election widely accused of fraud, and fraught with the fear of the populace to register their dissatisfaction. Then, in 1988, Pinochet called for another plebiscite, and this time, though the opposition was still fearful and disorganized and fractious, they took seriously the challenge to somehow win voter approval for a long-awaited change in government.
In the movie “No,” Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal, who is actually Mexican) is a veteran of Chilean television advertising, and when he is asked to lend his expertise to the protest movement, he is appalled at how deadly serious they all are. They want to use their equal television time to parade their long list of allegations of abuse of power, which Rene finds negative and boring. He even argues that concentrating on past atrocities like this would actually help make the president’s case, because it would reinforce people’s fear of protest. Rene says the campaign needs to be happy and emphasize that now Chile can find its happiness (some other translators render “alegria” as “joy,” but you get the idea). Rene argued for a snappy jingle, pictures of happy citizens of all ages and social stations, and even converting the internal negativism of needing to encourage people to vote “No” to Pinochet’s referendum: say “no” to political oppression, say “no” to economic inequality, say “no” to censorship. (Also, there were interesting cameos from then-political activists Christopher Reeve, Richard Dreyfuss and Jane Fonda). Rene had many a battle with the production team about the tone of the campaign, but they had strong allies in the whole artistic community, who obviously were eager to help overthrow censorship, which also meant that Pinochet’s campaign workers had a very difficult time recruiting any professionals. Accordingly, their campaign came across as clunky, heavy-handed and hollow, which of course played into the opposition’s hands. In addition, Pinochet’s bureaucrats were so arrogantly confident about the outcome that they didn’t feel any real effort was necessary.
The high point of the film is the success of the plebiscite, and the near-delirious reaction from the beleaguered opposition coalition. So the movie ends on a high note. Unfortunately, historically, Pinochet, though handing over the presidency, remained commander-in-chief (in our form of government the two are inseparable), and then was senator-for-life. The majority coalition which was formed consisted of many of his supporters, and though Pinochet was later arrested in Great Britain and extradited to Chile, he died of natural causes while under house arrest, and never stood trial for the many charges of embezzlement, human rights violation and tax evasion.
Still, in the movie, it’s great to see the underdogs win. It’s also an object lesson for those of us who are activists in Christendom that a little positive PR could go a long way.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.