“The central character and hero of ‘No’,” The New York Times reports, “is the fictional René Saavedra, a hip young advertising executive recently returned from exile in Mexico, played by Gael García Bernal (left). Hired to produce the ad campaign for the underdog No side, Saavedra faces resistance from stodgily doctrinaire politicians on the left, but he creates a hopeful rainbow logo and a slogan, ‘Chile, happiness is on its way,’ that turn the tide.”
But leading activists from the campaign are highly critical of the film, directed by Pablo Larraín.
“The film is a gross oversimplification that has nothing to do with reality,” Genaro Arriagada (below), director of the No campaign, tells The New York Times. “The idea that, after 15 years of dictatorship in a politically sophisticated country with strong union and student movements, solid political parties and an active human rights movement, all of a sudden this Mexican advertising guy arrives on his skateboard and says, ‘Gentlemen, this is what you have to do,’ that is a caricature.”
The film has been criticized for notable omissions, The Times notes:
The numerous books and academic theses that have been written on the plebiscite over the last quarter-century uniformly credit the anti-Pinochet forces’ grass-roots effort to register 7.5 million Chileans as pivotal to their success at the polls, but that is a subject that Mr. Larraín does not address.
With assistance from international pro-democracy NGOs, “the opposition camp succeeded in building a parallel tallying system for the plebiscite,” according to David Altman, Sergio Toro and Rafael Piñeiro, analysts from the Institute of Political Science at Chile’s Catholic University.
“Most notable among these were the National Endowment for Democracy and the German Stiftungen.”
“Congress budgeted $1 million for use by the endowment to support advocates of Chilean democracy. The Democratic group, which had a long working relationship with several Chilean opposition leaders, was asked by the endowment to administer half of the money,” The New York Times reported at the time:
The balance, said Carl Gershman, president of the endowment, was funneled to community groups in Chile working on getting voters in poor neighborhoods to register. It would help the groups publish instruction manuals for poll watchers and would pay for photographs for voter registration cards for those who could not afford them.
The endowment has been working for three years in Chile to help bring about a peaceful and stable transition to democracy, Mr. Gershman said. ”We wanted to lessen polarization and work to strengthen the center,” he said.
”Sixteen Chilean political parties of diverse ideologies, ranging from the left to the right, worked together,” said the National Democratic Institute’s Ken Wollack. ”That is what brought victory. The consultants who went down didn’t run the campaign. They didn’t produce the TV ads or do the polling or run the computer operations, but they were able to bring technical expertise and share some of the modern techniques that have been developed in other countries these last 15 years, It was a perfect marriage of their leadership and our experience.”
José Miguel Vivanco, the Chilean director of the Americas for Human Rights Watch Americas, who served as a poll monitor in 1988, described the film as “a good effort to show a pretty accurate picture of Chile in the ‘80s,” but also stressed the importance of the opposition’s long-term ground game, The Times reports:
“The campaign for the No contained a huge component that was the electoral registry….Voters “had to be educated about participating in a process that was perceived by many as not legitimate. How do you persuade people to take this seriously” when many were convinced that the Pinochet side “will engage in fraud, will use me, will never allow themselves to lose?”
“All of that was obviously a big component, and it’s true it is not part of the film at all,” Mr. Vivanco added. “But I went to see a movie, not a PBS piece.”
The referendum in Chile also played a significant part in changing misconceptions about democracy assistance and highlighting challenges to democratic transitions.
“During the 1980s, an important lesson was learned about political transformations in countries like the Philippines and Chile—that political forces on the far left and far right enjoy a mutually reinforcing relationship, drawing strength from each other and, in the process, marginalizing the democratic center,” said Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute.
“Mr. Arriagada’s concerns are different,” The Times reports:
Because the No campaign triumphed, he has been in demand ever since as an adviser to societies trying to effect a peaceful transition to democracy from dictatorship, first in Latin America and then in Arab countries. He worries that because “No” is being released around the world, its simplified message will be taken as real.
“That’s not the way that it happens,” Mr. Arriagada said of the process depicted in the film. “If it were, it would be great, and we would open offices in Washington or New York and overthrow dictators everywhere. This is too good to be true.”