Another book review

It’s been four years since publication, but this blogger’s second book, The General’s Slow Retreat: Chile after Pinochet, has gotten a rather favorable review in Cambridge University’s journal, The Americas: A Quarterly Review of Latin American History. An excerpt:

In The General’s Slow Retreat, Mary Helen Spooner reconstructs the private world of conflict, negotiation, and insecurity that marked the Chilean transition. Spooner takes her readers beyond the narratives produced for public consumption into the private meetings of military and civilian leaders, where deals were struck and positions that profoundly shaped the way forward for Chilean democracy were devised. Drawing on published interviews, news accounts, and memoirs as well as her remarkable access to dozens of key players—including presidents, senators, ministers, and military officials—Spooner has crafted a detailed and sophisticated account of Chile’s fragile transition, focusing with unfailing acuity on questions of Pinochet’s influence and the legacy of human rights abuses after the 1988 plebiscite.

The triumph of “el No”

The logo of a successful campaign to defeat Pinochet in his one-man presidential plebiscite.

The logo of a successful campaign to defeat Pinochet in his one-man presidential plebiscite.

It was 25 years ago today that Chileans (and foreigners with at least five years’ legal residence in the country, including this blogger) went to the polls to cast ‘yes’ or ‘no’ votes in a one-man presidential referendum to extend General Augusto Pinochet’s rule for eight more years. The actual balloting was clean, but the regime delayed releasing the results, announcing very partial returns that suggested Pinochet was ahead. At midnight Chile’s air force commander decided to “pull out the detonators,” as he put it, and told a group of reporters that the ‘no’ vote had won.

Here is a link to a short BBC’s Spanish language interview with former air force commander and junta member Fernando Matthei recalling that moment:

In Bangkok, where he just signed a free trade agreement between Chile and Thailand, President Sebastián Piñera said that October 5, 1988 was “a great day for Chile and a great day for our democracy.”,d248fcf032881410VgnCLD2000000ec6eb0aRCRD.html

And Chile’s national television channel is preparing a miniseries based on Pablo Larrain’s Oscar-nominated film No, about the campaign to defeat Pinochet, to be aired next year:,b415fd6320481410VgnVCM10000098cceb0aRCRD.html


Midnight in Chile, 24 years ago

The October 6, 1988 edition of the Chilean government newspaper La Nacion went to press with the very partial returns predicting a Pinochet victory in the one-man presidential plebiscite.

It was a one-man presidential election in which voters were asked to cast “yes” or “no” ballots for a measure to extend General Augusto Pinochet’s rule for eight more years. The first official returns were announced at 7:30 that evening and showed that with 0.36 percent of the votes counted, Pinochet was ahead by 57 percent. Three hours later there was a second announcement with another tiny fraction of the vote counted, indicating that Pinochet was still ahead by 51.3 percent. Then, rather ominously, there were no more official returns announced.

“The GOC [government of Chile] is obviously sitting on the results and releasing them very slowly, and this has sparked concern by the opposition which continues to receive reports of a major victory from its voting table representatives,” the U.S. Embassy in Santiago wrote in a cable to Washington that evening.

But as midnight approached the commanders of Chile’s navy, air force and carabinero police arrived at the presidential palace for a meeting with Pinochet.  Air force commander General Fernando Matthei decided to “pull out the detonators,” as he later described it, and stopped to talk to a group of Chilean reporters waiting for news.

“It looks to me like the “no” vote has won,” he said. “And we are going to analyze this now.”

The rest, as they say, is Chilean history.