The Oliver Stone Show

South of the Border is no portrait of Hugo Chávez or the Latin American left; it's about how one U.S. director views the world.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

By far the most amusing scene in Oliver Stone’s new documentary, South of the Border, features Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez riding what looks like a child’s bike around his boyhood home in one of the country’s poorer neighborhoods, or barrios. About mid-lap around the empty field where his home once was, now overrun with weeds, the bike buckles under Chávez’s weight. He falls to the ground, landing on top of the now-disattached tires. The president erupts into chuckles, between laughs saying that it has collapsed under him. And now, he says, "Tengo que pagar!" — joking that he’ll have to pay for the broken bike, as if it were a vase he dropped at an expensive store.

If there’s one thing South of the Border depicts well, it’s Chávez’s good sense of humor. (Another classic moment comes when Stone follows him to a Iranian-built corn-processing plant — he turns and jokes that it is an Iranian nuclear-bomb factory.) But the film is not intended as a comedy. According to Stone — who attended the screening in Washington Wednesday afternoon — it is a means of countering the "blatant misrepresentation [in the American media] of what Mr. Chávez has done." Stone makes no bones about his ideological leanings, as other critics have already noted, and he’s leaning heavily to the left on this one.

But if the goal was to portray the true Hugo Chávez — the man behind the much-vilified persona — the movie is far from a success. After having seen the film, I know a lot more about Oliver Stone than about Chávez, who is mainly seen spouting one-liners and proclaiming the glories of the Bolivarian Revolution. Stone gives himself far more than half of the film’s dialogue, and not just the narration. He had unprecedented access to the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, and Paraguay. But the questions he asked were softballs and seemed interested far more in his understanding of the world than theirs. To Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, he asks: Has it been hard to fight against the right-leaning media? Stone wants to know what Argentina’s former president, Néstor Kirchner, thought of his discussions with international bankers after the country’s 2001 debt default. Is there a Hollywood moment, Stone wonders, where the banker replies, "Do you understand the repercussions of your actions?" He asks nearly everyone about U.S. intervention in the region, which elicits the same reply: It should not be allowed. This is hardly a revelation, and that’s the point: Stone knows exactly the answer he’s going to get.

More troubling is how South of the Border masquerades as journalism. Why not tell us what Hugo Chávez’s agricultural policy actually is, rather than simply showing a cornfield, the fat stalks rustling in the wind? Why not ask him why food rots in government warehouses while there are shortages in Caracas? Rather than simply showing a bucolic rural scene, in which everyone is dressed in the characteristic red shirts and hats of the Chavistas, why not take us inside the process from production to market? Is it hampered by poor infrastructure? Do the government-run basic-goods stores pay a standard price? To what extent are food prices subsidized by the government’s oil profits? How much of the revenue from the 2.6 million barrels of oil Venezuela sold last year trickled down to the people? The film leaves the viewer flush with platitudes about the leader’s Bolivarian Revolution, but with a head full of unanswered questions about how it actually works.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some interesting points raised. Clips from the U.S. media that vilify Chávez are, as Stone no doubt intended, shocking for their black-and-white judgments and their caricatured understanding of Venezuela. The film also taps into very real anger in Latin America at the IMF, which Stone portrays as a black-hatted villain. (The IMF’s structural-adjustment plans of the 1980s and 1990s were indeed very flawed, but this is something that the fund has itself recognized and addressed.) The emphasis that Stone places upon the attempted coup that almost ousted Chávez in 2002 is also revealing, indicating just how great a psychological impact it still has on the Venezuelan leader.

But Stone seems content to take virtually everything he sees at face value. At one point, Morales’s claim that the United States has plans to assassinate regional leaders — and him in particular — elicits no follow up. Perhaps the director’s head was elsewhere: The line comes as both Morales and Stone are in what appears to be the president’s sitting room chewing coca leaves. This is supposed to show that chewing the leaves in their pure form (not as processed cocaine) is just fine. But the entire scene comes off as absurd. Across the board, serious discussions of policy take a back seat to fluff: Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s comments about the Latin American left are unmemorable compared with her witty back-and-forth with Stone after he asks her how many pairs of shoes she owns. (She doesn’t know, but she’s content with what she’s got.)

Serious insight into Venezuela is lacking. For example, one of the Venezuelan media stations often portrayed in the film as railing against the Bolivarian leader — during the 2002 coup against him and at other times — is Globovisión, which has been under investigation several times under the Chávez government for reported code violations. It’s true that the established media in Latin America tends to lean right, due to historical patterns of ownership by the region’s elites. But there are more than enough press outlets in Venezuela today that toe Chávez’s line. It’s pretty clear to most analysts that the government is seeking to shut down opposition voices, and Globovisión is the only independently owned station left. Its owner has already gone into voluntary exile, fearing for his safety.

In the end, the film tell us less about Latin America than it does about Oliver Stone, and his career-long quest to expose Washington’s supposedly implacable hegemonic designs. This time, it’s the beleaguered, but unified good peoples of the Latin American left battling the forces of the Evil Empire — right-wing media; American imperialists; rich, privileged opposition parties in Venezuela and elsewhere.

But the left in Latin America is neither uniform nor unified. In a panel discussion following the film, Cynthia Arnson of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars made exactly this point, explaining that the social democratic policies of Brazil are far different from the Bolivarian ones of Venezuela. She also noted the inconvenient example of Chile — which is not characterized in the film, or even mentioned, as one of the new left, despite 20 years of left-leaning governments that followed the Augusto Pinochet regime. It is Chile, not Venezuela or Ecuador or Cuba, that made the furthest strides in lowering poverty in the region.

As for an openly hostile United States? If anything, U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America these days is the opposite of overactive; it scarcely exists. In the pecking order of importance, Latin America comes behind Asia, Europe, even Africa — not to mention Russia or Central Asia. It’s largely an afterthought. This lack of attention may be equally dangerous — but it’s not what Stone believes.

This article reflects the following correction:  Globovision has not been shut down. FP regrets the error.

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