Once-secret US Memos Reveal the Real History Behind the Film 'No'
March 12, 2013 Peter Kornbluh / National Security Archive
Formerly top secret records that provide new details about the "Campaign of the NO" in Chile -- the dynamic political movement that eventually led to Gen. Agusto Pinochet's loss of the presidency. Like "Zero Dark Thirty," "Argo" and "Lincoln," which also examine historical events, "NO" has been criticized for misrepresenting, and omitting, key elements of the history it depicts. Now, once-secret CIA, DoD and State Department records fill in the gaps.
WASHINGTON, D.C. (February 22, 2013) -- Chilean ruler General Augusto Pinochet intended to use violence to annul the October 1988 plebiscite that ended his lengthy military dictatorship, according to declassified documents posted today by the National Security Archive in order to fill in the historical gaps of the Oscar-nominated film, "NO."
With the Oscars approaching on February 24, the Archive posting includes formerly top secret records that provide new details about the history of the "Campaign of the NO" in Chile-the dynamic political movement that eventually led to Pinochet's loss of the presidency.
The documents include highly classified warnings from the US military attaché that Pinochet intended to use violence to sustain himself in power if the NO won the October 5, 1988, plebiscite; a CIA report on Pinochet's "apoplectic" reaction to the vote; as well as private records relating to the voter registration drive that was critical to the electoral victory to remove Chile's 15-year old military regime.
Nominated for best foreign film, "NO" has received widespread acclaim from movie reviewers. Writing in the New Yorker, critic Anthony Lane noted that "the title is a downer but the movie lifts you up;" he called "NO" "the best film ever made about Chilean plebiscites."
The film examines Chile's 1988 referendum on the Pinochet regime -- a "SI" or "NO" vote called by Pinochet to legitimize his military rule for another eight years. The regime allowed the Campaign of the NO only 15 minutes of television airtime a day (at ll:00 at night) to present its case for a NO vote that would end military rule and restore democracy to Chile.
Directed by Pablo Larrain and starring Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, the movie focuses on the media campaign created by García's character, René Saavedra, an apolitical ad man, who approaches the political marketing of the NO as he would advertising for a new type of soda pop. Larrain has received much acclaim for seamlessly integrating the actual ads that aired at the time into the film.
But like "Zero Dark Thirty," "Argo" and "Lincoln," which also examine historical events, "NO" also has been criticized for misrepresenting, and omitting, key elements of the history it depicts. Genaro Arriagada, who directed the actual Campaign of the NO in Chile, called the movie a "caricature" of what happened.
"NO," he told The New York Times, is a "gross oversimplification that has nothing to do with [the] reality" of the extensive organizing work -- voter registration drives, voter surveys, election day poll monitoring, etc. -- of a coalition of opposition political parties that, against all odds, used the ballot box to bring down one of Latin America's most infamous and entrenched military dictatorships.
In a series of opening statements on the screen, for example, the film states that Pinochet called the plebiscite "under international pressure" in July 1988 and gave the opposition only 27 days to campaign for the NO vote.
In fact, the 1988 plebiscite was mandated by the military regime's own constitution, which Pinochet drafted and pushed through in 1980, making him President for eight years and then calling for a "si" or "no" plebiscite in 1988 on the continuation of his rule for another eight years.
Opponents of the regime began organizing for a voter registration drive several years before the actual plebiscite. A major grassroots effort, targeting likely pro-democracy voters, and overcoming fear of repression and skepticism about fraud, successfully registered over 7.5 million Chileans-a key historical element that the film fails to mention.
"Registration lines have doubled," reported the US Embassy in a "pre-sit rep" (pre situation report) dated in August 1988. "Many Chileans appear to be looking forward to their first chance in 18 years to have a say in who will be the next president."
The campaign officially began on February 2, 1988, when fourteen of Chile's political parties announced the creation of a unified coalition-the Concertacion de Partidos Para el NO. In early August, General Pinochet did yield to internal and external pressure to modify his monopoly on the media through a new voter law that gave both the NO and the SI 15 minutes of free television time each night to present their ads.
A US Role
Toward the beginning of the movie, Gael Garcia's character, Rene, has a debate over US support for the No Campaign with his rightwing boss, who is supporting Pinochet and his "Si" campaign in the plebiscite. "The Americans and the CIA funded the coup," his boss asserts. "They are still with us." Rene responds that "the Americans are with the NO."
To be sure, the United States did support the September 11, 1973, coup; but fifteen years later, the historical record is also clear that the United States-the government, and civic groups-actively supported the NO campaign. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) provided some $1.6 million for the registration drive, voter education, opinion polling, media consultants, and organizing of a rapid response parallel vote count on the day of the election.
US Ambassador Harry Barnes vigorously and openly supported the Chilean organizations that carried on much of the work to garner electoral support for the NO, so much so that the pro-Pinochet press began referring to him as "Dirty Harry." Campaigning to extend his dictatorship through 1997, General Pinochet (who had been helped to power by the CIA) issued repeated denunciations of "Yanqui imperialism" in Chile.
At the request of Genaro Arriagada, US media consultants also participated directly in the NO effort, providing strategic planning, training, materials, and creative strategy for the registration drive and the TV advertisements.
Frank Greer of the legendary Washington D.C. political communications firm, GMMB, (then known as Greer, Margolis, Mitchell & Associates) traveled to Chile at least six times in 1987 and 1988. "The most important thing we did was design a field plan, down to the precinct level," Greer recalled, "that they implemented to register voters."
The 194-page "Electoral Registration Campaign" manual was put together by a 24 year-old associate (and now partner), Annie Burns. Burns traveled to Santiago three times to conduct training sessions for strategists and registration volunteers. Greer also joined the creative team of Chilean media specialists who designed the actual ads that are the central focus of the movie.
The challenge, he noted, was "how to get people to vote 'no' in a positive way." The TV commercials needed to provide something "new and fresh," to "create buzz, and a movement that people could join and feel safe about." And they did.
Their strategy proved so successful, Greer recalled, that the 15-minute slots for the NO campaign became the most watched show on Chilean television. Greer remembers being told by a Pinochet media adviser that as soon as he saw the NO commercials, he "knew we had lost."
Blocking Pinochet's Autocoup
A number of Pinochet's top military officers also came to understand that the regime would lose the plebiscite, and began planning for that contingency. The movie does not delve into the dark history of Pinochet's plot to foster violence, annul the election, and reassert bald dictatorial powers if he lost, or the US efforts to expose and thwart that plan. Declassified CIA, State Department and Defense Intelligence Agency records tell this story.
As early as May 1988, elements of the Chilean army had concluded that the NO could not be allowed to win. Their chief concern, the CIA Station reported in a heavily censored cable titled "The Increasing Resolve within the Military to Avoid a Civilian Government in Chile," was the regime's record of terrorism and human rights violations.
There was a "great fear that a civilian government would cooperate with the United States Government in pursuing the case of the assassination of former foreign minister Orlando Letelier," the CIA noted, "as well as other abuses by the military, to the extreme detriment of the Chilean Army."
By late September polls indicated that the NO campaign had surged ahead as the TV commercials gained a popular following and Chileans became confident that safeguards, including hundreds of international election observers, would insure a non-fraudulent election. "Public perception of the 'NO' is increasingly that of a winner," the embassy reported on September 29.
The next day, however, Ambassador Barnes sent the first "alerting" cable to Washington on information he had received regarding an "imminent possibility of government staged coup" if the vote went against Pinochet.
Both CIA and DIA intelligence provided what Ambassador Barnes characterized as "a clear sense of Pinochet's determination to use violence on whatever scale is necessary to retain power."
In a secret report for Assistant Secretary Elliott Abrams, Barnes summarized Pinochet's scheme: "Pinochet's plan is simple:
A) if the "Yes" is winning, fine:
B) if the race is very close rely on fraud and coersion:
C) If the "NO" is likely to win clear, then use violence and terror to stop the process.
To help prepare the atmosphere the CNI will have the job of providing adequate violence before and on 5 October. Since we know that Pinochet's closest advisors now realize he is likely to lose, we believe the third option is the one most likely to be put into effect with probable substantial loss of life."
Highly placed US intelligence sources within the Chilean army command provided additional details. A Defense Intelligence Agency summary, classified TOP SECRET ZARF UMBRA, reported that: "Close supporters of President Pinochet are said to have contingency plans to derail the plebiscite by encouraging and staging acts of violence. They hope that such violence will elicit further reprisals by the radical opposition and begin a cycle of rioting and disorder.
"The plans call for government security forces to intervene forcefully and, citing damage to the electoral process and balloting facilities, to declare a state of emergency. At that point, the elections would be suspended, declared invalid, and postponed indefinitely."
The declassified record shows that Reagan administration officials, who had come to view Pinochet as an undesirable dictator because his intransigence was radicalizing the militant left and marginalizing the political center in Chile, acted quickly on this intelligence.
President Ronald Reagan was briefed on the situation. US officials sent unequivocal demarches to a broad range of regime officials-in the foreign and interior ministries, the army, the Junta, and to Pinochet himself. They warned authorities "not to take or permit steps meant to provide pretext for canceling, suspending or otherwise nullifying the plebiscite."
In their meetings with the Chileans, US officials were authorized to use tough language: "I want to warn you that implementation of such a plan would seriously damage relations with the United States and utterly destroy Chile's reputation in the world," talking points read. "President Pinochet should also be informed that nothing could so permanently destroy his reputation in Chile and the world than for him to authorize or permit extreme violent and illicit steps which make a mockery of his solemn promise to conduct a free and fair plebiscite."
Behind the scenes, the CIA Station Chief received instructions to strongly advise Chilean secret police officials against such action; US military officers at SOUTHCOM issued similar warnings to their contacts inside the Chilean military.
Washington also asked the Thatcher government, a close friend of Pinochet's, to privately pressure his regime. On October 3, the State Department raised that pressure at the noon press briefing by publicly expressing its concern that "the Chilean government has plans to cancel Wednesday's presidential plebiscite or to nullify the results."
Against this backdrop of potential violence, October 5 marked a historic day for Chileans. The Command for the NO organized a massive turnout. Some 98 percent of eligible Chileans cast their votes.
Early evening returns, according to NO campaign manager Arriagada, showed the opposition ahead by 62 to 37 percent-a stunning lead. Final results had the NO winning by more than 800,000 votes, with a 54.7 percent to 43 percent victory over the vote to continue the Pinochet dictatorship.
The Pinochet regime did try and implement its contingency plan to abort the plebiscite, announcing that evening that the Yes votes were ahead and then halting hourly reports on the vote tally. "The GOC is obviously sitting on voting results," the embassy cabled in "Sitrep Four."
This was part of a Machiavellian plan worked out by Pinochet and his highest aides, a high-level military informant would tell a CIA agent, which called for the Interior Ministry to delay the announcement of voting results to agitate the opposition, announce preliminary results favorable to the YES vote, and then call the YES voters to the streets to celebrate the alleged YES victory. This would then result in a strong opposition reaction, street clashes and the need to call in the Army to restore order, thereby providing a handy excuse to suspend the plebiscite.
Pinochet's attempt to orchestrate chaos and violence in the streets failed, however, when the Carabinero police refused an order to lift the cordon against street demonstrations in the capital, according to the CIA informant.
In a dramatic last gasp to hold onto power, Pinochet called the members of the military Junta to his office at the Moneda palace at 1:00 AM. He was "nearly apoplectic" about the turn of events, one participant of the meeting noted. "The Chilean President and CINC of the Army Gen. Augusto Pinochet was prepared on the night of 5 Oct to overthrow the results of the plebiscite," an informant reported.
Pinochet was insistent that the Junta give him extraordinary powers to meet the crisis of the electoral defeat. "He had a document prepared for their signatures authorizing this .... Pinochet spoke of using the extraordinary powers to have the armed forces seize the capital.
At this point Air Force commander Fernando Matthei stood up to be counted. Matthei 'told Pinochet he would under no circumstances agree to such a thing ... he had had his chance as the official candidate and lost.' Pinochet then turned to the others and made the same request and was turned down ...."
Without the Junta's support to overthrow the NO, Pinochet was left with no alternative but to accept defeat at the hands of Chile's democratic forces.
As the movie indicates, Pinochet's ouster at the polls was an inspirational event, a rare victory of good over evil, brought about by Chileans for Chileans. As a historic event, it demands to be understood. The complexity of the story is not depicted on screen. But the fact that the movie is being recognized at the Oscars, and now being seen around the world, cannot help but draw attention to the fuller story of the Campaign of the NO, which is included in this documentation.
THE DOCUMENTS Document 1: State Department, "Preparations Accelerating for Plebiscite" August 3, 1988
Document 2: State Department, Confidential, "The Chilean Plebiscite: Sitrep 2," August 12, 1988 (original missing p. 5)
Document 3: Greer, Margolis, Mitchell & Associates, "Campana para la Inscripcion en Los Registros Electorales" (Campaign for Electoral Registration) ca 1987
Document 4: Defense Intelligence Agency, Top Secret Zarf Umbra, Chile: Contingency Plans," October 4, 1988
Document 5: State Department, "The Chilean Plebiscite, Sitrep 4," October 6, 1988
Document 6: CIA, [Informant Report on Pinochet's auto coup plan for the plebiscite] November 18, 1988
Document 7: Defense Intelligence Agency, Secret ExDis, "Chile: Plebiscite Goes Forward as Pinochet Apparently Loses," October 6, 1988
Document 8: Defense Intelligence Agency: Secret, "Chilean Junta Meeting, the Night of the Plebiscite," January 1, 1989
Document 9: State Department, Confidential, "The Chilean Plebiscite, Sitrep Eight," October 7, 1988
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.