“Democracy, Television, and the Mediatization of Chilean Politics: How the Medium Became the Message in Post-Pinochet Chile” – Defense Presentation

This is the text of the presentation I gave to open my dissertation defense that took place on September 23, 2016 at UCSD.

My dissertation is about a critical moment in Chilean political history, focusing on the emergence of a new relationship between political struggle as a social process, and the enactment of politics through a media artifact.

Seizing power in 1973, Augusto Pinochet’s regime permanently altered Chilean politics during his seventeen years as dictator of Chile. By the late 1980s, Pinochet’s hold on power remained unyielding, political reconciliation with the military was unimaginable, and civil war seemed inevitable. Under these circumstances, official preparations began in earnest for the military to convene for a third and final plebiscite in 1988. This process was designed to culminate in the establishment of a “PROTECTED DEMOCRACY,” – that is, to legitimate the existing regime by declaring itself a democracy, bound to the political economic tenets of the Chicago school of economics, and one that precluded any participation of left wing political parties.

This “PROTECTED DEMOCRACY” was perceived by the dictatorship as key to its continued political dominance for at least another decade. The entire process would be a controlled one; Pinochetistas were certain it would work out in their favor, and in the end, even if things should go awry, their interests would remain protected by the power of the Chilean armed forces.

Thus, what became known as “el Plebiscito” was scheduled to take place on October 5, 1988, to be decided according to a simple vote of SÍ or NO; a “SÍ” or “YES” victory would be a democratizing mandate for the dictator to retain power in Chile for another eight years, but now serving as a “democratically elected” president. A “NO” victory, on the other hand, required Pinochet to convene new presidential elections within twelve months of the 1988 vote, and subsequently surrender the “presidency” of Chile to a newly elected leader, chosen from a field of civilian candidates.

My dissertation, examines the context and content of the Franja de Propaganda Electoral of 1988. What loosely translates as “the official space for electoral propaganda” – was a nationally televised, largely uncensored, 30-minute political program, representing the two sides of the 1988 Plebiscito; the NO campaign in opposition to the military regime on the one hand, and on the other hand, the pro-Pinochet SÍ campaign.

Sanctioned and coordinated by the Chilean military dictatorship itself, access to the Franja Electoral was afforded to both sides of the “el Plebiscito,” each provided with 15 minutes of nationally televised airtime, beginning at 10:45 p.m. (11:45 am on weekends), back-to-back, every night, running for the last 27 days of the Plebiscito campaign, before the final vote was to take place.

The enduring mystique this televised Franja campaign generated, over time, can be pinpointed to the moment of the first Franja broadcast. That day represented the culmination of months of intense and risk-laden organizing by members and supporters of the NO campaign. On September 5th, 1988, the moment arrived for Day 1 of the nationally televised “Franja De Propaganda Electoral.”

At exactly 10:45 p.m., a green screen flashed across every television channel throughout Chile, and Vivaldi’s “Violin Concerto No. 8 in D minor” filled rooms across the country. The disembodied voice of the military regime entered abruptly to read the following words as they simultaneously appeared on the screen:

“IN COMPLIANCE WITH PROVISIONS REGARDING ELECTORAL PROGRAMS, ALL TELEVISION CHANNELS SHOULD INTEGRATE THE NATIONAL NETWORK AS OF THIS INSTANT.”

The well-known TV-personality, Patricio Bañados, opened the NO campaign with a short, but meaningful, introduction.

“CHILE, HAPPINESS IS ON ITS WAY. GOOD EVENING. FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 15 YEARS, THOSE OF US WHO DO NOT SHARE THE OFFICIAL WAY OF THINKING, HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO ADDRESS YOU THROUGH A TELEVISION PROGRAM OF OUR OWN. THIS IS ALSO AN OPPORTUNITY FOR ME TO RECONNECT WITH THIS PROFESSION, FROM WHICH I WAS MARGINALIZED MORE THAN FIVE YEARS AGO. BUT, OF COURSE, 15 MINUTES, IN 15 YEARS, IS NOT VERY MUCH TIME, SO LET US BEGIN BY SHARING THAT HAPPINESS, THAT IS COMING OUR WAY.”

Suddenly – millions of television sets began to sing “Chile, La Alegría Ya Viene.” This moment electrified Chileans across the country, to mark the beginning of a qualitative shift in Chilean political culture, and what I argue is the initial spark of what was to become the mediatization of Chilean politics.

The following is a an edited 10-minute sample of Franja content, drawn from the nearly 13 hours of audio-visual material, broadcast nationally, on behalf of both the NO and SÍ campaigns:

On October 5, 1988, 56% of the Chilean electorate voted against Pinochet. Notwithstanding the lack of substantive political, economic, and institutional change throughout the country, on March 11, 1990, over a year and a half after “el Plebiscito”, Pinochet ceremoniously handed the presidential sash to the leader of his legal opposition, Patricio Aylwin, thus initiating a peaceful transition to civilian rule in Chile.

28 years later, the discursive power of the 1988 Franja Electoral is still palpable. For many viewers who had grown up politically between 1973 and 1988, and had only experienced the total instrumentalization of TV under the military regime, this televised campaign provoked a tremendous shock. During the 15 years previous to this Franja Electoral, nationally televised, direct critical representations of the dictator, were something that no one would have dreamed was possible while Pinochet was still in power.

Thus, the Franja Electoral became a mediated space of Chilean politics, just beyond the repressive reach of the Pinochetista regime, within which a seemingly impossible transition was not only articulated, but also, through which, a transformation of Chilean political culture was engendered.

To help explain this transformation, I draw from a conceptual framework known as mediatization theory, to examine the Franja Electoral as a sample case for the mediatization of Chilean politics. I propose that this case is best understood as an historical, political, and theoretical process, rooted in the cultural assimilation of an imagined political configuration. Moreover, I argue that it was the mediatization of Chilean politics that would ultimately help reconcile the irreconcilable – a contradictory relationship between what was politically viable as a social and historical course of action, with what was represented as acceptable in a mediated, televisual space of political culture. Additionally, this project helps in the recovery of an exceptionally rare, complete collection of the 1988 Franja Electoral, and includes one of only a handful of content analyses performed on this important audio-visual material.

Finally, my use of mediatization theory involves the incorporation of Cultural Historical Activity Theory, to analyze the Franja Electoral as an artifact of Chilean political culture – this is, a mediated representation of an enduring qualitative shift in the meaning of Democracy in Chile.

I conclude this stage of my research convinced that what I have discovered is essential for a more critical understanding of contemporary, hyper-mediated, youth oriented political movements, such as the anti-H.R. 4437 movement (2006), Arab Spring (2010), Occupy Wall Street (2011), #YoSoy132 (2012), Black Lives Matter (2013), and even Trumpism (2015), when this last phenomena is understood as a broad cultural process that will endure beyond the November presidential elections. With your continued support, I intend to focus on these topics through my future research.

Thank your very much – to each of you – for serving on my committee. And thanks to all of you for being here today, for your undivided attention, and your ongoing support.