The Pinochet Miracle: 25 Years Ago, Chile Said ‘No’ to a Brutal Dictator, and He Went Away

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Frank Greer has more than 35 years of experience as a political consultant and advocacy expert serving major foundations, public interest groups and labor organizations. In 1987, he traveled to Chile to collaborate on a grassroots campaign that helped displace military dictator Augusto Pinochet, and would 25 years later become the basis for the Participant Media film No.

In this age of cynicism, with democracy under attack around the world and with gridlock and partisanship paralyzing America, the 1988 No Campaign in Chile and the recent film about it, called No, offer a timely message of hope and inspiration. I recently saw the movie, and it was a wonderful reminder of an important event in the struggle for democracy in our world. 

In 1987, the National Democratic Institute (a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to support democratic institutions worldwide) asked me to go to Chile and work with a truly amazing opposition coalition of 17 political parties that had accepted the challenge to end the brutal dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet by participating in a plebiscite, or peaceful election.

Given that the CIA and the U.S. Government under President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were responsible for the overthrow of an elected Chilean President in 1973, I felt it was my duty to try to help.

General Pinochet, feeling the pressure of world opinion, thought he could continue his rule for another eight years by asking for a vote of “Yes” to extend his rule. The progressive forces were faced with the challenge of convincing people to vote “No” to end the dictatorship.   

The film focuses on the political advertisements from each side that were broadcast for 15 minutes each night in September 1988, but there was much more to the campaign than that final month. For the better part of a year, I and my colleague, Annie Burns, worked on a voter registration drive that strategically targeted neighborhoods likely to vote for democracy over dictatorship. We drafted a 194-page blueprint for the registration drive and traveled to Santiago several times to help train Chilean volunteers, who would travel the country and do the hard grassroots work: Convincing fearful potential voters that it would be safe to speak their mind in the privacy of the voting booth, and that their vote would be fairly counted, even under the threatening rule of the military.

The real heroes of this campaign [were] the thousands of Chileans who organized, and went door-to-door, facing threats and repression, to sign up voters and get them to the polls.

We worked with a wonderful creative team of ad makers in Chile. But it’s important to remember on this anniversary, and as you watch the film, that it was not the ad creators or filmmakers that were the real heroes of this campaign. It was the thousands of Chileans who organized, and went door-to-door, facing threats and repression, to sign up voters and get them to the polls.

In many ways, Pinochet had rigged the vote. A “Si” would have given him a façade of legitimacy for another eight years. A “No” would bring an end to his bloody regime. As political communication strategists, we faced the issue of how to define a negative “No” vote as a vote for positive change. The TV commercials needed to remind people of what was at stake with a new and fresh approach, something that could create a buzz and spark a movement that people could feel not only energized about joining, but safe and comfortable as well. 

Many of the political activists of the left passionately wanted to focus on the brutal dictatorship and the repression and suffering of the past. 

We chose to offer a positive vision of the future, with a promise that, “Chile, happiness is coming.”

We faced the same pressure in South Africa in the campaign for Nelson Mandela in 1994, where many in the ANC wanted to focus on the evils of Apartheid and the past.  Mandela won by focusing on hope and the future with a slogan, “Working Together, A Better Life for All.”   

The ads seen in the film are the actual ones we helped create to spark that movement in Chile and accomplish what, at the time, was a miracle. We used the connective power of original music, dance and humor to evoke that fresh sense of positivity. We showcased the diversity of the Chilean people, their lifestyles, and their sense of community to point to a new horizon for all. 

Those ads worked. The 15-minute slots for the “No” campaign became the most-watched show on Chilean television. After years of oppression, human rights violations and fear, the Campaign for the No helped the Chilean people envision a country free from the horrors of the Pinochet dictatorship, and empowered them to choose a new path forward.

I remember being told by a Pinochet media adviser that on the first night he saw the “No” commercials, he “knew we had lost.”

Many have said that the film No is a film for our times, and I agree. That is because the real story it depicts lives on as a reminder of the strength of a people hungry for change, even with all odds against them. The campaign and the film both remind us of the true power of popular participation and democracy, and why we as human beings must never stop fighting for it. Today, Chile and the people who struggled against dictatorship live in a stable democracy with a thriving economy. It reminds me of a recent song by Bruce Springsteen. Chile truly became “a land of hope and dreams.”

Share your “hope and dreams” for the land where you live in COMMENTS.

No is available now on DVD or Blu-Ray. Participant Media is the parent company of TakePart.

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