Oliver Stone Tells the Real Story of the Leftist Latin American Leaders Transforming the Continent
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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 a terrific development 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 with Stone.
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.