El “No”

Gael Garcia Bernal stars in Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s film about Pinochet’s one-man presidential election..

It won the director’s prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and last week Sony Pictures Classics announced it would distribute it in North America. Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s “No” stars Gael Garcia Bernal as an advertising executive working on the campaign to defeat General Augusto Pinochet in his one man presidential plebiscite in 1988. The New York Times described it as an “aesthetically daring, intellectually invigorating work.” The Internet Movie Data Base post on the film: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2059255/

Some history: On October 5, 1988 Chilean voters were asked to cast ballots marked either “si” or “no” to extend Pinochet’s presidency for another eight years. It was the third time the regime had held a plebiscite, with the first held in 1978 to support Pinochet following a United Nations resolution condemning human rights violations in Chile, and the second in 1980 to approve a new, authoritarian constitution and to extend Pinochet’s rule for another eight years.  These plebiscites, held without voter registries, inevitably showed a majority of “yes” votes.

But this referendum would be different.  In accordance with the regime’s own constitution, an electoral registry was opened and as a small concession, fifteen minutes of television air time was granted to the opposition each night over the thirty-day run up to the vote. The Comando del No, a coalition of Christian Democrats, Socialists and other regime opponents, put together one of the cleverest political campaigns ever, with an unrelentingly upbeat message promising a bright future for Chile.  The broadcasts usually opened with the following theme

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moKI_NTqSg0 and also showed an anonymous voter marking the “no” box of a paper ballot. The last broadcast included messages from Chilean and foreign celebrities, including novelist Isabel Allende, Jane Fonda and the late Christopher Reeve.

Foreigners with at least five years’ residency in the country were also allowed to vote in the plebiscite, and this blogger duly registered and cast a ballot at a polling site held at a girls’ school in eastern Santiago.  That night, after covering the celebratory cheers at the Comando del No headquarters, I caught a cab whose driver I strongly suspect was working for the regime’s intelligence service.  He was young, had a military-style haircut and told me he was “one of those who lost tonight.” I asked him if his route had taken him around much of Santiago that evening, and whether the streets were calm.  He conceded they were.