Unfortunately Pablo Larrain’s film ’No’ tells nothing about the background to Chile’s 1988 plebiscite and the struggle against the regime
Tony Saunois, CWI (Committee for a Workers International)
It is 1988, Santiago, Chile, and 15 years into the vicious Pinochet dictatorship. The military regime has been compelled to call a plebiscite on the continuation of Pinochet’s presidency. The choice on the ballot is a simple yes or no.
This is the setting for Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s latest film ’No’. Released in 2012 it is the story of advertising PR man, Rene, a single parent played by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, who also played Che Guevara in the film ‘Che’.
No has been nominated for Oscar awards and reviewed as a “must” to see “an account of Chile in the 1980s”. It is presented as a “radical” film which is not a “typical political drama”.
Technically the film skilfully intertwines original news footage from the time with its story. It opens with an effective listing of the crimes of the regime. Scenes of Pinochet’s advisory council meetings and footage from the Yes campaign depict a regime wholly out of touch with Chilean society – sometimes with humorous irony. There are undoubtedly witty moments – when a government minister is unclear if the No campaign flag – a rainbow – is a gay symbol, a Mapuche [a group of indigenous inhabitants of Latin America] symbol or a gay Mapuche symbol.
However, apart from some film footage of police repression, this film is an exercise in writing out of history the real heroes of the struggle against the regime. It is part of a process in this period to try to re-write history to denigrate or wipe out the role of mass struggle and especially the workers’ movement from key historical events.
Sometimes, as in the case of No, this is then dressed in some form of radical dress to sell it to a new audience. From the skewed perspective of a slick advertising TV campaign with its main slogan, “Happiness is coming to Chile”, it appears the regime was defeated by the sole efforts of an advertising agent. This was in truth the basis of the No campaign. It was an attempt by the leaders at the time to de-politicise the movement. The No vote won, in reality, despite its campaign not because of it.
Seeing the film tells nothing about the background to the plebiscite and the struggle against the regime. Throughout the film there is not a single shot of life in the working class areas and the shanty towns which surrounded Santiago at the time and were the heartland of resistance to the military dictatorship. The entire struggle is viewed through the distorted prism of the middle class advertising world.
Pressure from below
The regime was compelled to call the plebiscite as a result of the mass protests which erupted during the 1980s. Tens of thousands took to the streets, building barricades and doing battle with the riot police and the army month after month.
In 1984 a massive demonstration of at least 250,000 took place on May Day in the O’Higgins Park in Santiago. Here the first issue of the paper of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI, the world socialist organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated). ‘Democracia Obrera’ was sold by members of the CWI wearing masks to avoid detection by the hated secret police, the CNI.
A massive battle erupted at the end of the march as tens of thousands of heroic masked youth fought the army and police. There was overwhelming support among the youth for an armed uprising.
The Chilean Communist Party adopted a “double speak policy”. It was compelled to reflect the mood of the youth and established its own armed wing – the PFMR. Chile, by the end of the 1980s, was on the brink of an insurrection. Even El Mercurio, the right-wing daily which backed the coup in 1973, warned that Chile was heading for a “Nicaraguan road”. The Sandinista victory, which overthrew the brutal Samoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979, had rekindled the idea of insurrectionary struggle among the young fighters battling against the repressive regimes of Latin America.
Communist Party betrayal
At the same time the Chilean Communist Party leadership conducted its real policy which was to join together with the ‘democratic’ capitalists and work for a controlled transition.
It was the mass movement and threat of an uprising which compelled the ruling class and then the regime to call the plebiscite. The leaders of the Communist Party and the Socialist Party in alliance with the capitalist parties like the Christian Democracy supported the plebiscite as a means of channelling the mass opposition to the military into a ‘safe’, ‘democratic’ transition to avoid an uprising and what would have followed it. None of this is even referred to in the film. It was all due to the efforts of Rene – a PR man.
The regime was convinced it would win the plebiscite but was preparing to fix the result in case it lost. This is clearly portrayed in the film. As the results came in the power was cut – as it was in real life. Yet suddenly the regime caved in and accepted the result. Why? The film does not attempt to answer this question beyond saying it was due to “international pressure”. It had had not bothered Pinochet for 15 years.
Archive material of Air Force Chief of Staff Matthei arriving at La Moneda Presidential palace declaring he accepts the No campaign’svictory is shown in the film. The Air Force had supported a controlled transition for a period of time. Yet, why the change of heart by the army and navy?
As the power was cut, a struggle opened up within the regime. Pinochet wanted to fix the result. However, reflecting the mass pressure the army generals split and the game was up. Outside the presidential palace were hundreds of thousands. Thousands of the best youth fighters had flooded to the city centre and were prepared to storm the presidential palace – among them members of the CWI Chilean section.
These youth were dispersed and sent home by leaders of the Communist Party speaking from the tops of riot police vehicles. They said the situation was “under control” and they would call them back should it be necessary. In reality, behind the scenes, agreement was being reached with the military and the opposition. Not a hint of this is reflected in No.
The film ends with the poignant archive film of Pinochet handing over power with a smile and shaking hands with Pratricio Alwyn, the newly elected president and member of the capitalist Christian Democracy which had backed the coup in 1973. A ‘controlled’ transition to a wholly undemocratic system followed, in which Pinochet remained head of the army and senator for life. It was written into law that the military would be immune from prosecution for its crimes of murder and torture.
The legacy of the “Happiness is coming to Chile” promise of the No campaign has meant greater inequality and vicious neoliberal policies today. A new generation has now taken up the struggle against these policies reflected in the tremendous student movement which has taken place during the last two years. In 2012 mass protests demanded re-nationalisation of copper and the country’s resources to pay for decent education, all privatised under Pinochet and not touched by successive governments.
No may raise awareness that Pinochet was defeated in a plebiscite. Will it enlighten people about the reality of what happened or what lessons can be drawn today? No.