How marketing savvy helped topple a dictator

Still from Pablo Larrain’s No.

The tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq seems like as good an excuse as any to remind ourselves of another historic low point in American intervention in foreign affairs, whose 40th anniversary is coming up soon. I’m talking about our complicity in the overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected Socialist president Salvador Allende and his replacement by general Augusto Pinochet, whose right-wing dictatorship lasted for more than 15 years after the 1973 coup d’ etat and resulted in thousands of deaths and disappearances.

While the Church Commission failed to unearth a smoking gun proving US material support for that particular coup, the CIA admitted to supplying intelligence to the conspirators. This followed decades of covert US funding of various Allende opponents, an active search for a credible military leader to overthrow him and CIA involvement in the kidnapping and assassination of a key Allende supporter, general René Schneider.

By 1988, worldwide indignation over the desparecidos, suspension of the Chilean Constitution, outlawing of trade unions, mass detentions, torture, the tossing of dissidents out of airplanes and other horrors of the Pinochet regime had reached such a pitch that the military junta was forced to agree to a plebiscite with international monitors. A Yes vote meant that Pinochet would get another eight-year term, without a presidential election; a No vote meant that he would get to hold office for one more year while presidential and parliamentary elections were held.

Although opposition to the dictator was strong even within Chile, his detractors despaired that the plebiscite would be anything more than a sham, and polls at the time showed that a majority of Chileans did not plan to vote at all. So the opposition organized a huge voter registration drive, but also sought to take advantage of the niggardly quarter-hour post-prime-time slot that the No campaign was allowed daily by the government-controlled television network. A series of 15-minute infomercials featuring a rainbow logo and upbeat jingles played a key role in motivating voters, and the No campaign ended up surprising everyone, passing by a 55-44 margin.

The Chilean film No, a nominee for the 2012 Best Foreign Film Oscar, currently showing at Upstate Films, tells the story of that ad campaign – or at least one interpretation of it. Like its contemporary releases Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, No takes some liberties with the historical details in the service of cinematic art. Veterans of the actual anti-Pinochet resistance have criticized the film’s focus on the actions of a single determined individual while minimizing the opposition’s broad-based efforts to register and mobilize voters. And the fact that director Pablo Larraín’s father was a pro-Pinochet senator and his mother descended from one of Chile’s wealthiest families has made his intentions suspect among many on the left.

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