Earlier this year, I found myself sitting in Santiago, Chile watching a vocal minority in the U.S. Congress bring our government to the verge of complete shutdown, threatening the health, incomes, essential benefits, and lives of millions of Americans. Republicans in Congress continue to threaten the very structure of the U.S. House of Representatives and continue to leave America weaker in the face of multiple world crisis. And they have been encouraged along the way by Donald Trump, the leading candidate for President, who just a few years ago plotted an American coup and is now promising to impose authoritarian measures if re-elected.
Chile is one of the many countries that overcame a coup and dictatorship in the 20th century, and I believe there are important lessons that we need to learn from the struggles of the people of Chile. Interestingly, I also think the recent passing of Henry Kissinger provides an important lens for Americans to consider those lessons.
This past year my colleague Annie Burns and I were invited by the U.S. Embassy in Santiago to commemorate the 35th anniversary of a historic citizens’ movement that defeated the entrenched dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet and restored democracy to Chile in the plebiscite of October 5, 1988. We came to Chile 35 years ago as volunteers to assist the fledging democratic organizing effort.
The movement was led by Genaro Arriagada, an amazingly skilled and effective political leader who had brought together a coalition of 16 political parties, civic and religious organizations in a united front to create “la Campaña del No” – the “Campaign of the No” – to defeat Pinochet in a national referendum on the continuation of his bloody regime.
Like many dictators, one of Pinochet’s key flaws was hubris. His 15-year military rule was based on brutal repression. He believed he was still powerful enough to control the outcome of a popular vote that would legitimize his regime and make him dictator-for-life. We were fortunate, as Americans, to be able to help with this historic campaign and to make a small contribution to righting the wrongs of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.
On the 50th anniversary of the coup, the National Security Archive released documents acquired through legal and FOIA efforts reaffirming that the CIA had worked to overthrow the democratically elected government of President Salvador Allende in 1973 and install a cruel, repressive military junta, led by Pinochet.
One memory of this time period stands out to me. As part of the ongoing efforts to shed light on the brutality of the regime, I assisted in organizing a memorial concert for slain Chilean folk singer Victor Jara while Kissinger’s coup was still raging. The event featured Joan Baez and Victor’s widow, who was also named Joan.
Joan Jara was a courageous leader of the opposition who bore witness to the crimes of Pinochet’s military until she passed this month. Her husband was one of the many Chileans who were arrested, beaten, and ultimately killed. Victor Jara was just one of the over 40,000 people Pinochet was responsible for murdering.
Fast forward to 1988. We knew success was a long shot with a dictator in power and his campaign run out of the military establishment. “I am never leaving, no matter what,” Pinochet told his subordinates, according to U.S. intelligence sources. But the people of Chile were willing to take on the challenge of going to the polls to push him from power.
The most daunting challenge was the need to register millions of disenfranchised voters who had been living through years of brutal intimidation and fear. However, the desire for Democracy was strong and the Chilean people had courage and commitment. It was a hard and difficult organizing effort, but the “No” Campaign registered over 94% of the people of Chile in a matter of months. Those voters and a formidable grassroots organizing effort, implemented throughout the country by Chilean volunteers, would prove to be critical to the victory of the “Campaign of the No.”
The “No” campaign also recruited an incredibly talented and passionate group of Chilean advertising and communications professionals, many of whom had been in exile or operating underground during the dark days of the dictatorship. They put their lives and futures on the line to develop an historic positive advertising campaign to defeat Pinochet. The slogan “Chile, joy is coming” signified a bright future with democratically elected leadership, and its rainbow logo illustrated the many parties working together, and the inspiring music captured the hope of the nation.
Activists, actors, and musicians from all over the world lent their support, including Christopher Reeve, who at that time was starring as Superman in movie theaters. In a TV spot for the “No” Campaign, Reeve said “the whole world is watching. You — the People of Chile — hold the future of the world in your hands!”
The “No” Campaign won a resounding victory for Democracy on October 5, 1988. The popular will for a return to civilian rule was so strong that when General Pinochet attempted to implement a violent Machiavellian plot to annul the vote and stay in power, the other members of his military junta refused to support him.
Thirty-five years later, the significance of this historic victory of democratic participation remains more relevant than ever. Through the peaceful means of the ballot box, Chileans were able to defeat dictatorship and reconstitute their democracy. Their courageous efforts of political engagement created a historical model for numerous nations today which face the challenge of sustaining democratic governance against the looming dangers of anti-democratic demagogues—the United States among them.
Shortly before Allende’s victory, Henry Kissinger infamously said, “The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.” We now know that sentiments like these were the dark side of Kissinger’s insidious style of nationalism that put the interests of “great powers” over values like human rights and democratic self-determination. They’re the same dark rumblings we see in the self-proclaimed goals and policy initiatives put forth by some of the leading candidates in the Republican presidential primary.
We have seen what happens when authoritarian and nationalist power goes unchecked, and recent history orchestrated by leaders like Kissinger should serve as a grim reminder of what unaccountable executive power can look like.
Former President Barack Obama was recently asked if Democracy would survive in the U.S. and he said, “Yes, if we are willing to fight for it.” The people of Chile were certainly willing to fight for it in 1988. As extremists, led by a dangerous authoritarian wannabe, are now threatening democratic structures in the United States will the people of America rise to face this dire challenge to our democracy?
The future of the world may now be in our hands.