Oliver Stone Tells the Real Story of the Leftist Latin American Leaders
Transforming the Continent
Stone's new film traces the rise of Chávez, Lula, Evo, and others who see
participatory democracy and cooperation between Latin American countries as
By Daniela Perdomo
Alternet: July 12, 2010
After decades of military dictatorships and IMF puppetry in Latin America,
the southern cone of the New World is slowly but surely moving toward
reformist, left-leaning governance. This all started in 1999, when Hugo
Chávez was elected in Venezuela. Today, Chávez has left or left-center
allies at the helm of Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay, and
preceding him, Cuba.
But given the minimal and distorted coverage of political developments in
Latin America, most Americans don't know the real story. And when the U.S.
corporate media does deign to discuss the region's significant ideological
shift, it's usually in a very alarmist way. "Leftist menace," CNN has
blared, while Fox News consistently warns of "Rising dictators" when one of
these so-called despots wins a democratic election.
The good news is that Oliver Stone's new documentary, South of the Border,
offers American audiences an alternative version of this continent-wide
paradigm shift. The film traces the rise of Chávez, Lula, Evo, and all the
other members of a new generation of political leaders who see participatory
democracy, socialism, and mutual aid and cooperation between Latin American
countries as the future. Neo-liberalism, capitalism and imperialism, they
believe, are out -- and they're not going to let the United States push them
around anymore. This is terrific news given that the United States has
launched military interventions and political coups in Central and South
America an astounding 55 times.
Part of what makes the film so compelling is that the historical actors tell
the story in their own words. Indeed, Stone's legacy as a successful
filmmaker known for going against the Hollywood grain -- consistently
leftist, anti-war and anti-power -- landed him relatively intimate and
uncensored access to each of the heads of state in question.
Hugo Chávez comes off as particularly charismatic, which is likely why Stone
dedicated nearly the entire first half of the film to him. Multiple scenes
depict him driving through Caracas, children running after the car yelling,
"Hugo! Hugo!" He shakes many hands and holds many babies during his time
But you also get a sense of the personality fueling the Bolivarian
revolution -- which is "peaceful but armed," he says -- and of his efforts
to distribute land for communal ownership by his country's poorest. The film
also explains the man behind the dramatic flourishes -- such as calling Bush
a sulphurous devil and making the sign of the cross at the United Nations'
General Assembly -- that are so widely disseminated by the American press.
In one interview, Chávez admits that the American media's depiction of him
hurts -- or at least it did at first. In one of the film's funnier moments,
as he and Stone walk to a corn processing plant (pre-Chávez, Venezuela had
to import most of its corn) he tells the camera and its eventual American
audience, "This is where we're building Iran's atomic bomb."
Chávez isn't the only one who scoffs at the U.S. media's depiction of him.
Rafael Correa, the young American-educated president of Ecuador, tells Stone
he doesn't mind the bad press in the United States: "I'd be worried if the
U.S. media was speaking favorably of me."
In this vein, one of the strongest points Stone makes is the way the
American government and its complicit press corps give consistently negative
coverage to, say, Venezuela but refer favorably to Colombia, one of the
United States' last malleable allies in the region. Human rights, Stone
intones, has become a buzzword void of meaning, employed by the media and
the State Department to delineate who we support and who we don't. Although
Colombia has a pretty terrible human rights record -- indeed worse than
Venezuela's, which is easily a safer place to vote, unionize and politically
organize -- you never hear about it in the editorial pages of the New York
Times or in remarks given by our diplomats.
South of the Border is a biting critique of the American media's coverage of
the movement -- sparing no major news outlet. The movie opens with a
bumbling, outrageous clip featuring Fox News' Gretchen Carlson essentially
accusing Bolivian president Evo Morales of being a cocaine addict (he chews
coca leaves, as most Bolivians have for generations, so as to withstand the
nation's high altitudes), but Stone also calls out our so-called newspaper
of record, the New York Times, for endorsing (and then recanting its
endorsement of) the failed 2002 U.S.-backed military coup of Chávez, a
democratically elected leader.
It is no surprise, then, that the mainstream media has made valiant efforts
to pan South of the Border. Larry Rohter wrote a particularly damning
article in the Times in which he details what he views as the documentary's
"mistakes, misstatements and missing details." (It's curious that the Times
let him write the piece in the first place given that Rohter is the
newspaper's former longtime South American bureau chief, and was relieved of
that position after a 2004 factually imaginative article he wrote claimed
that Lula had a drinking problem that negatively impacted his job as
president of Brazil.)
Although Stone and co-writer Tariq Ali, the historian and commentator, have
handily refuted all of Rohter's qualms with their film, once the movie opens
nationwide we can expect more corporate media outlets to spout talking
points similar to Rohter's, and of course to repeat the same less
sophisticated barbs CNN and Fox News have long been propagating about the
move to the left in Latin America.
What the media is unlikely to publicize is the fact that South of the Border
demonstrates that Latin American leaders have a genuine interest in
maintaining good relations with America -- even Raúl Castro of Cuba
professes his love for the American people. The presidents Stone meets with
speak of their hope in Barack Obama's presidency -- they view his replacing
Bush as a tremendous win for the relationship between the United States and
their countries. (Things were really bad, after all. Former Argentinian
president Nestor Kirchner, now succeeded by his wife Cristina, tells an
appalling anecdote about asking Bush for a Marshall Plan for Latin America;
Bush reportedly replied that the best way to revitalize an economy is to
engage in war.)
As positive as these new Latin American heads of state are about Obama's
presidency, they are not waiting around for the United States to extend a
hand. Already Argentina and Brazil are engaging in trade in their own
currencies, having dropped the dollar. Lula envisions an end to IMF (and
American) economic control of the region -- Brazil has paid off its foreign
debt and boasts a $260 billion surplus -- and a continent-wide effort to
strengthen labor unions. Evo has banned all foreign military bases in
Bolivia; Correa told the United States it could build a military base in
Ecuador only if he could build one in Miami. Fernando Lugo, a former Roman
Catholic bishop now president of Paraguay, has revived the liberation
theology of the 1960s, which calls for the humanization of socio-economic
structures that benefit all -- especially the most destitute. And all of
these nations want to help reintegrate Cuba into the global system.
There was little about the film I did not find fascinating or compelling.
Requisite disclosure: I was raised in Latin America -- mostly Brazil, but
also Argentina, Mexico and Guatemala -- and believe that a move to a
multi-polar world is a really good thing. As a Latin American, it is
awesomely heartening to see not only governors who actually look like the
people they govern -- Evo and Lula in particular -- after years of
presidents culled only from the lighter-skinned, wealthier classes, but to
see that the continent's new leaders are making concerted efforts to address
the plague of poverty and ill distribution of opportunities that have long
defined the region. In fact, I'd argue that having leaders that come from
the same background as the majority of the population is the only way real
change is ever going to come to Latin America.
Daniela Perdomo is a staff writer and editor at AlterNet. Follow Daniela on
Twitter. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.