Oliver Stone Tells the Real Story of the Leftist Latin American Leaders Transforming the Continent

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.

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, responsible for penning a 2004 factually imaginative article which 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.


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