South of the Border: Countermyth or Counterpropaganda?

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Oliver Stone is not a subtle filmmaker. His projects, like the director himself, tend to voice bold opinions and provoke strong responses–and his latest, South of the Border, about the new wave of leftist leaders in Latin America, is no different. Recently on, critic Rob Nelson called the film a “countermyth” to prevailing media coverage and came away impressed by its entertainment value if not its evenhandedness. Fellow critic Anthony Kaufman, however, sees the film as crossing over into “counterpropaganda,” glossing over Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s human rights abuses with its “reductive calculations.” Apparently, asking people how they liked the film is like asking them who shot J.F.K.: You’ll get a different answer every time. –The Editors

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has received a bum rap. Along with his comrades in the Latin American “New Left,” Chavez has routinely been called a dictator, Stalinist and “menace to the West.” If you watch enough cable news, you might think the former soldier was conspiring with Iran to launch a military attack on U.S. soil at any given moment. Such preposterous claims require neutralizing, which is why Oliver Stone’s new documentary South of the Border offers a useful counterpoint to the dominant conservative propaganda that bellows constantly from U.S. politicians and media outlets.

But in the race to depict Chavez and his cohorts in Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil, among others, as part of a widespread and faultless “Bolivarian” revolution, Stone’s project suffers from the same reductive calculations that we often get from the countries’ right-wing critics.

Dictatorships or pure socialist democracies? An axis of evil or an axis of hope? The answer, of course, lies somewhere in between. But in Stone’s documentary reality, the extreme poles are reified, with wacko Fox News pundits on one side, deriding Chavez as a “coco” drug addict, and the president himself, on the other, depicted as a teddy-bear-ish savior, hugging random passerby and preaching utopian dreams.

“Who is Hugo Chavez?” asks Stone early in the film, as part of his running narration. The documentary begins with a short history lesson: Venezuela’s economic collapse in 1989, Chavez’s failed military coup in 1992, his presidential election victory in 1997, and the shocking and short-lived CIA-supported unrest that briefly removed Chavez from power in April 2002. The street violence and voluble political roller coaster ride of that infamous week gets a more comprehensive investigation in the 2003 documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Nonetheless, as the opening salvo in South of the Border, this crisply edited history lesson on Venezuela’s ups and downs, and the United States’ and International Monetary Fund’s efforts to suppress progressive change in the country, makes for a strong and compelling introduction.

But then Stone switches emphasis to Chavez the man, producing a hagiographic portrait and linking him none too subtly to Simon Bolivar, the legendary 19th century Venezuelan leader who fought for independence from Spain. We see Chavez’s birthplace, and get to know the politician as a human being rather than a combative soundbite from the news. In one bright ironic scene, Stone and Chavez are visiting a newly constructed corn-processing plant to show off Venezuela’s thriving state-supported industry, and Chavez wryly jokes, “This is where we’re building the Iranian atomic bomb.” Stone quickly replies, “Don’t say that!” perhaps fearing what Glenn Beck might do if he got hold of the quote.

More problematic is that Stone pre-empts any inkling of levelheaded criticism. Stone’s narration even criticizes “human rights” as merely “a buzz phrase,” evoking accountability only to point out the double standards of its usage: “Columbia has a far worse human rights record,” says Stone, “but gets a pass in the media that Chavez does not.” And that means we shouldn’t take note of Venezuela’s human rights record?

Stone’s apparent willful ignorance of Chavez’s faults undermines his film’s legitimacy. By excluding any mention of Chavez’s penchant for prosecuting dissenters, his undermining of judicial independence, and his wholesale consolidation of political power into the president’s office (see Human Rights Watch’s 2008 Report, “A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela”), the film comes off more as counterpropaganda than elucidating commentary.

It’s only in the film’s final moments–seemingly tossed in and given little explanation–that Chavez’s autocratic tendencies are evoked, when Argentina’s former president and current First Husband Nestor Kirchner suggests that a fair and democratic government requires 20 candidates on the ballot, not just one.

Indeed, when Stone leaves Chavez for a cross-country tour, traveling from Bolivia to Argentina, Paraguay to Brazil and Ecuador to Cuba, the film’s widening focus is welcome. With each stop, Stone hammers home the film’s ultimate and most valid point: that IMF policy has crippled Latin America. And the country’s move towards social movements and self-sufficiency–and its dream of a united South American economic powerhouse with a single currency–is the ultimate kiss-off to U.S. hegemony.

Which is all well and good. But Stone’s continued efforts to mitigate the rabble-rousing reputations of Chavez and Morales feels a tad disingenuous–showing them riding a bike, kicking a soccer ball around, and kissing children.

It’s only in Stone’s brief conversation with Paraguayan bishop-turned-president Fernando Lugo that the positive potential of progressive politics in Latin America truly feels authentic, democratic–“of the people and for the people.” As Lugo says, “Fifteen years ago, no one would have ever thought that an indigenous person would be president, that two women would be presidents, that a metal worker would be a president, that a soldier would be president and least of all, that a bishop would be president,” he adds. “We are committed to honest, transparency and to give back dignity to our institutions with more social justice.”

Coming from the soft-spoken and sympathetic Lugo, the film’s propagandistic tone briefly slips away and one feels a tinge of sincerity at its core. Maybe Stone is on to something, after all.

Image by Jose Ibanez, courtesy of South of the Border.

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