Back in 2012, just as the long Scottish independence referendum campaign was getting under way, I remember seeing a Chilean film called 'No'. It focused on the 1988 plebiscite which asked voters whether or not the dictator Augusto Pinochet should remain in office for another eight years. The challenge came in making a No vote sound upbeat and positive, something a young advertising professional (played by Gael García Bernal) solved by deploying marketing techniques then being used by the fizzy drinks industry.
The main campaign played out over 27 nights of television broadcasts, in which each side had 15 minutes to present its point of view. While Chile's artistic community provided a series of entertaining adverts appealing to every section of the electorate, the Yes campaign deployed dry (but positive) economic data in a series of presentations even Pinochet supporters found uninspiring. Now obviously the 2014 referendum took place in a very different context, but I remember thinking there were campaign lessons for both Yes Scotland and Better Together in that movie.
All this came back to me on a recent trip to Santiago, Chile's pleasingly laid-back – and very European – capital. As you would expect, the city is full of reminders of the 1973 coup and the dictatorship that followed. My first stop was the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, a thoughtful commemoration of the victims of that regime – its gift shop was selling t-shirts and posters featuring the rainbow motif associated with the 1988 No campaign. Later I visited Londres 38, a Socialist party office seized by the junta and used in 1973/74 as a brutal detention centre.
Nearby was La Moneda, home to the now democratically-elected Chilean president. Directly underneath was an impressive cultural centre, which included an exhibition of Turner watercolours from the Tate. It was slightly surreal gazing at paintings of Blair Atholl and Edinburgh Castle close to where, on 11 September 1973, Salvador Allende died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds during the coup d'état which ended his democratic socialist government.
There were also traces of home in Valparaíso, a charming coastal city to which Pinochet transferred the Chilean National Congress shortly before he stood down in 1990. Until the construction of the Panama Canal, 'Valpa' was the main stopping point for ships travelling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the Straits of Magellan. As a result it grew very wealthy, boasting Latin America's oldest stock exchange and a stretch of banks still known colloquially as 'Wall Street'.
In 1814, the Battle of Valparaíso was fought offshore between American and British ships involved in the war of 1812, and after Chilean independence from Spain in 1818, Valparaíso became the main harbour for the nascent Chilean navy. Near the port I stumbled across the Arco Británico, which commemorates four Brits who aided that independence, doubtless for geopolitical reasons. Two of the four were actually of Irish origin (Bernardo O'Higgins and Jorge O'Brien) and one Scottish, Thomas, Lord Cochrane, who hailed from Lanarkshire.
During its golden age, Valparaíso also proved a magnet for European immigrants. Evidence of this could be glimpsed in the Dissidents' (i.e. non-Catholic) Cemetery atop one of the city's many hills. Through the sealed gates of its Art Deco entrance, I could just make out the graves of William Mure from Kirkcudbright ('God's providence is mine inheritance' proclaimed the inscription on a Celtic cross), who died in 1908, and Alexander Kennedy, 'formerly of Edinburgh afterwards merchant at Chañaral', who ended his days in Valpa aged only 40.
After five days in Chile I took a flight to São Paulo, an 'alpha' global city of more than 12 million people. I confess to having felt apprehensive, not least because I'd heard unattractive tales of pollution, congestion and violent crime. Happily, my three days there were undisturbed by muggings or delays; in fact, I can now add it to my growing list of cities with undeserved reputations (Johannesburg and Tirana are already there). On the contrary, 'SP' was full of incredible public spaces and proved surprisingly pedestrian-friendly.
My main motivation for visiting, however, was the architecture. Although the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer's best-known work is in Brasilia (and indeed in New York, where he designed the United Nations building), São Paulo also has its share of his modernist delights, the quirky Memorial da America Latina and the Parque do Ibirapuera, which was built (over a swamp) to celebrate the fourth centenary of the city in 1954. Now rather dilapidated, its main attraction is the Museu Afro Brasil, a remarkable collection of more than 6,000 objects relating to Brazil's African population.
But the highlight was my accommodation, Niemeyer's Edificio Copan, an s-shaped apartment building which dominates the centre of São Paulo. Constructed in the 1950s and 60s, think of it as a Latin American Barbican, containing more than 1,000 apartments, shops and restaurants. I rented an Airbnb in Block B, which had been intended as a hotel (and which explained its shape and size). The views, however, were memorable, both from the 21st floor and from the roof, onto which visitors and residents were permitted twice a day at 11.15am and 3.15pm.
By coincidence, I got chatting to a long-standing tenant called Roy, who was actually from Walthamstow, the part of East London I now inhabit. He took great delight in explaining Copan's history and pointing out its lesser-known corners, including a cinema-turned-evangelical church and a basement car park full of vintage Fords. He was thinking of moving but was torn between the prospect of greater comfort and a building he had grown to love. I felt the same about São Paulo and left with an old song swirling around my head: 'There's only one thing I'm certain of – return, I will, to old Brazil'.
Photograph at top of page by David Torrance: Oscar Niemeyer's Latin American memorial in Sao Paulo