How Do You Defeat a Dictator When He Gets to Write the Rules?

February 11, 2013

NO_ecard_AmnestyI didn’t think it was possible. As a student at Rutgers in 1988, I sarcastically asked my friends, “Who do you think is going to win the referendum in Chile? Pinochet or Pinochet?”

Following his bloody overthrow of the democratically elected Allende Government in 1973, Pinochet murdered thousands of dissidents and outlawed opposition parties. Like many dictators, he legitimated his rule by holding a plebiscite on a “constitution” that gave him unchecked power in 1980. He was able to do so, of course, because the climate of fear and impunity guaranteed his victory.

Facing growing international pressure to step down, General Pinochet tried to pull this same trick again in 1988, by offering a pseudo-election in which Chileans could vote to either let Pinochet remain in office for another eight years or hold a presidential election the following year. Given that he was writing the rules again, how could human rights activists and other opposition groups possibly win? It seemed hopeless.

But it wasn’t! No!, an Oscar-nominated film, tells the story of the brave and creative Chileans who helped their fellow citizens stand up and say, “NO!” to repression. This movie opens in New York and Los Angeles on February 15. You can find a list of theatres and dates for other cities by clicking here.

We can all learn a lot from this story. Pinochet was voted out of office and he has since died while facing the increasing likelihood of prosecution for human rights abuses and corruption. But there are still dictators in this world, and we continue to need brave and creative activists to force them from power. Governments and private actors continue to threaten and attack human rights defenders throughout Latin America. Even in the established democracies of the United States and Europe, we must find new strategies to say “NO!” to torture, indefinite detention, and execution by drone.

There is further reason for hope. Just as I never believed that the 1988 plebiscite would force Pinochet from power, I never expected the Chilean soldiers who tortured and killed musician Victor Jara to be brought to justice. But that is happening!