Voting ‘no’ – Chile 1988, UK 2016

I’m off to Chile for two weeks next week, and I’ve been casting my mind back to 1973, when Allende was overthrown by Pinochet, and to 1975 when I backpacked on my own down from California to Bolivia, then across to Rio and Buenos Aires – but I never made it back across the Andes to Chile, or saw what Santiago was like, two years into the Pinochet regime.

Pinochet wanted legitimacy, and in 1988 held a plebiscite: ‘Yes’ and he would stay in power for another eight years, ‘No’ and there would be a full presidential election the following year. This is the subject of Pablo Larrain’s Oscar-nominated movie, simply entitled ‘No’, which I watched last night.

The No campaign had all the media and institutions of the state ranged against them, but were allowed 15-minute of TV time each night in the weeks running up to the vote to get over their message. Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, a creative guy brought in by the No team fashion their message. The team instinctively wants to focus on the horrors perpetrated by the regime, the murders, torture, incarcerations, the simple brutality of the army. Rene suggests a radically different tack, a future agenda – what a No vote might ultimately achieve by way of escape from the repressive and still brutal Pinochet regime – he argues for ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’ as the primary theme, depending on how you translate ‘alegria’. (‘La alegría ya viene’ was the slogan.) The message is to be upbeat. With music and dance, street life and country picnics – life with the shackles removed.

Bernal portrays a broody, introspective guy sharing custody of his son with his estranged wife. The ads may sing, but he never smiles. Rene himself may be a fiction, but the wider story is hard fact.

They won, of course. The message – never allow an insurgency gain too much momentum. Chile was all the more remarkable because it was a military dictatorship.

It is quite a story. But Yes/No – haven’t we come across that recently? ‘Yes’ protecting the status quo. ‘No’ the outsiders, the left-behinds, now the insurgents, with all to gain. ‘Yes’ focused on all the dangers of change, ‘No’ promoted a brave new world free from shackles.

And the differences? They are radical of course.

The Brexit insurgents (allowing for some generalisation) are the old(er) stagers, the over 50s and 60s, sensing they are neglected or somehow left behind, believers in older, stricter values, self-reliance – wary of new ideas, identity politics, immigration, the younger generation.

They had, or were presented with, an enemy – the EU, portrayed as the source of manifold evils.

The Chilean insurgents were the younger generation, or at least their agenda was dictated by the younger generation. The older generations of socialists and communists came on board, most but not all, and with hesitation. Pinochet had privatised, brought in overseas and especially American investment – Chile was, as an economy, prospering. The No campaign never suggested rowing back to the old times – they were all about opening doors on the new.

Their enemy was the army and repression – the EU doesn’t quite compare. (Though some might argue it does…)

Both the similarities and the radical differences intrigue. Above all, how the insurgents in Chile were broadly speaking from the left and centre, in the UK from the right.

Insurgents do have a big advantage. I doubt if Remainers in 2016 thought to look to Chile. Just too far way, too off the map. Had they done so they’d have appreciated the dangers of focusing on a safety-versus-risk agenda, looking to hold on to the past rather than focusing on a brave new future. The greatest danger is in thinking that, surely, you can’t possibly lose. Yes, a charismatic leader would have helped the ‘Yes’ campaign – but in the end it’s the message that counts.

Could the Remain campaign have sketched out a brave new future, as opposed to the Leaver’s ‘brave new past’? Maybe not. The time when anyone in Europe thought the EU or European cooperation was exciting or sexy is long past.

But excitement will always beat down gloom. It was the two ‘No’ campaigns that got the blood racing.

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