For the first time in years the people have a chance to vote. It’s a straight up or down vote – do you want to continue the brutal regime or do something different that isn’t all that well defined? If that sounds like an impossible situation, it’s what was facing Chile in the referendum on Augusto Pinochet on 5 October 1988. Many wanted to boycott the whole deal as a sham, a fake that was sure to be rigged. Some wanted to use it as an opportunity to document the murders of 3,197 political opponents or the torture of more than 29,000.
But some wanted to win. And how they did it was with a positive message and an upbeat anthem that convinced the nation that “Happiness is coming!” (Chile, la alegría ya viene!) If it seems unlikely, it’s brilliantly retold in the movie “No,” nominated for an Oscar. You must see this movie – but more to the point, we all need to understand the message. Democracy and an open society flourishes when people can see their future together – hope, pride, and happiness.
The referendum was forced on Pinochet after 15 years by a wide range of international pressures. The GHW Bush administration was urging a return to democracy, leaving Chile estranged from its one real friend during the regime. Pope John Paul II visited Chile the year before, urging Pinochet to resign and call free elections in a semi-public meeting with his generals. The nation had plunged into stagnation and isolation, with 45% living below the poverty line. Occasional attacks by a loosely organized group of communist rebels kept everyone on their toes.
Finally caving in to pressure, the simple referendum was announced – should we have 8 more years of Pinochet? It was hard to imagine how the regime could lose, but the political parties that existed pulled together and agreed that while they would use their 15 minutes of TV time per day for 27 days to document abuse, the centerpiece would be a message of hope. Here is the song, “Chile, Hapiness is Coming!” that framed the effort:
How could they reach so far down inside themselves and come up with this upbeat anthem? It helps that they were Chilenos, a tough but sophisticated people who live in a land constantly roiled by earthquakes. They know how to pitch together and to put sorrow behind them. You may remember their pluck and courage from the 2010 mine disaster which also had a happy ending. But the message is bigger than that, it is universal and powerful – and Pinochet’s people simply had no response at all. Consider this, my favorite verse of the song:
|Terminemos con la muerte||Get over death|
|Es la oportunidad de vencer la violencia||This is an opportunity to overcome violence|
|Con las armas de la paz.||With weapons of peace.|
|Porque creo que mi Patria necesita dignidad.||Because I think my country needs dignity.|
|Por un Chile para todos, vamos a decir que no!||For a Chile for all, we say no!|
The “No” vote won 55-45, and Pinochet eventually agreed to step down in favor of free elections. In the 25 years since, Chile has never looked back – and has prospered wonderfully. Happiness came to Chile.
The lesson is far more than how to bring down a dictator with a song. No matter how dark things seem it is a positive vision of the future that gathers the young people who will make that future happen. That could be simply “Hope”, as Obama gave us in 2008, or it can be a similar song, “Happy Days are Here Again!” at the end of the last Depression. Life is, after all, about happiness. Freude, schöner Götterfunken. That’s why we have a free and open society – to promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Given the nature of the referendum in Chile it would have been far too easy to use Saul Alinsky’s advice for organizing – “Pick the target, freeze it, personify it, polarize it.” Those tactics have worked well for, of all people, the Republicans lately. But that is a message of division which plays naturally into fear. A free people have only one thing to fear, and that is fear itself. A strong vision of freedom is a vision without fear – a vision of happiness first and foremost.
If Chile can do it after their darkest days, we can too. There is a message here beyond hope and happiness – the message is that this is how you make the future for a free people. We should all learn from the example of brave Chile. Happiness is coming!