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There's a revolution underway in South America, but most of the world doesn't know it. Oliver Stone sets out on a road trip across five countries to explore the social and political movements as well as the mainstream media's misperception of South America while interviewing seven of its elected presidents. In casual conversations with Presidents Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Lula da Silva (Brazil), Cristina Kirchner (Argentina), as well as her husband and ex-President Nestor Kirchner, Fernando Lugo (Paraguay), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), and Raul Castro (Cuba), Stone gains unprecedented access and sheds new light upon the exciting transformations in the region. Written by
Cinema Libre Studio
Alright, something that I never knew was that - I knew there was some dictators around the world, but did you know that some of the dictators now apparently, allegedly, are drug addicts as well? That might explain a few things. Hugo Chavez, now admitting in his speech, that went widely undocumented by the way, that he chews cocoa every morning. And he also eats something called cocoa paste, which by the way is addictive. And he gets it from the dictator in Bolivia.
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Latin American politics has moved markedly leftward in recent years. The shift might have extended as far north as Mexico, had Andrés Manuel López Obrador not been defeated in a much-contested election in 2006. A Wikipedia "History of South America" gives the following list of left wing South American presidents by date of election: Hugo Chávez of Venezuela (1998), Ricardo Lagos and later Michelle Bachelet of Chile (1999; 2006), Luís Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil (2002) and Lucio Gutiérrez and Rafael Correa of Ecuador (2002; 2006), Néstor Kirchner of Argentina, succeeded by his wife Cristina (2003 and 2007), Tabaré Vázquez and José Mujica of Uruguay (2004 and 2008), Evo Morales of Bolivia (2005), and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay (2008). (The remaining strong right-wing government in the region is Colombia, coincidentally the closest US ally there.)
This group isn't monolithic. Some are populist and international in focus, like the most visible figure, Chávez; others, like Lula and the Kirchners, are more focused on local problems. As the Wikipedia article points out, in 2008 the Union of South American Nations was formed, aiming to function like the European Union; it is a decisive signal of the end of US hegemony in the region. The days may be over when the CIA can conduct a boldfaced coup like the ouster and killing of Salvador Allende in Chile September 11, 1973, replacing him with a right-wing leader, Augusto Pinochet, friendly to the US and to business interests. As Wikipedia points out, "In the 1960s and 1970s, the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay were overthrown or displaced by U.S.-aligned military dictatorships." And then of course there is the scandal of Iran-Contra during the Reagan era of the Eighties, symbolic of the US' self-interested anti-progressive role in various conflicts, such as those of Nicaragua and El Salvador.
One reason for the shift to the left and the rise of more democratically elected governments is the economic problems brought about by neoliberal, i.e., market-based policies that benefited the rich nations and further impoverished the South. The presence of former bishop Fernando Lugo may attest to the political influence of "Liberation Theology" in Latin America since the Fifties and Sixties, an activist philosophy linking Catholic faith with the struggle for the rights of the poor and dispossessed.
North Americans don't know a lot about these developments, and it's hard to be informed about them from a US perspective, especially if one does not know Spanish. US government policy has long favored any malleable, pro-American regime, and views favorable to other regimes are hard to find on the English-language Web or mainstream media. The new left-leaning group of Latin American governments is despised in Washington circles precisely because its members are, if not strongly at odds with the US, like Cuba or Venezuela, no longer willing to bow to the major US-dominated economic forces represented by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It is easy to find criticisms of the new leaders, especially of Hugo Chávez, on the English-language Internet.
Into this scene comes Oliver Stone's new documentary, 'South of the Border,' which focuses on Chávez, Morales, and several others; he does not interview all of the dozen leaders listed above. To cover them all, with their individual national issues, would be a daunting task for an 85-minute film. It is a mixed blessing to have Stone's film available to US audiences. Predictably, it has been ruthlessly attacked by the American press and reviewers. Unfortunately, Stone is an easy mark. Much of his information is valid. But in the voice-over narration, he repeatedly mispronounced Chávez as "Chavéz": accents do matter in Spanish names, and even George Bush got this one right. Stone has only one talking head, his political adviser on the film Tariq Ali, a London born leftist with a recent book on this subject who has a tendency to sound strident and dogmatic. Stone makes elementary errors, like saying they are flying over the Andes when for the most part they are not. He is entirely too chummy with the leaders, congratulating them, shaking their hands, and hugging them on camera in a manner that is not only a revelation of bias but vaguely condescending.
There is also the problem of proportion. In the brief film Stone devotes at least twenty minutes to the story of Chávez's rise and the debates over coverage of the 2002 coup time that might better have been spent presenting new material about the other leaders, about whom we know less.
The Chávez coup has already been covered elsewhere in Bartley and O'Briain's 'Revolution Will Not Be Televised' (2003). The virulent response I received from the anti-Chávez camp in Caracas from my review on IMDb at that time showed how extreme the polarization is. This camp is particularly eager to propagandize against Bartley and O'Brian because their film is quite convincing. Stone has not done better.
South America is rife with class conflict, and wealth remains in the hands of the few, while many are impoverished. The advantage of Chávez, Morales, and the others is that the poor are the vast majority. The opposition may resemble the enemies of the Egyptian leader and man of the people, Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom in my view Chávez resembles. Both carried out many reforms benefiting the people, sought to be world leaders dominating neighboring nations, and viewed favorably the idea of ruling for life.
One would like to know more about how the other new left leaders differ from Chávez, and more about all their specific accomplishments and specific criticisms of them. Stone's coverage of the various countries (he misses several) does not involve anonymous investigation, only showpiece sessions with the leaders before an audience.
Oliver Stone should be applauded for making 'South of the Border,' and for Americans interested in Latin American politics it's a must-see. But one wishes Stone had made a film of more depth and thoroughness.
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