Oliver Stone's Latin America

An intriguing and newsworthy moment in Oliver Stone's South of the Border comes as Stone describes a private meeting between presidents Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez at an April 2009 conference in Trinidad. With footage of a light-hearted Obama and Chavez on the screen, Stone narrates:

In private, so I'm told, the new man in Washington assured Chavez that under his administration there would be no further destabilization attempts or any interference in the internal affairs of Venezuela.

I first reported those Obama-Chavez private contacts in The Huffington Post on April 21, 2009. My source was a Venezuelan official. I further noted that the State Department official in charge of the US delegation, Jeffrey Davidow, was an anti-Chavez hardliner who tried to spoil any impression of a warming of US-Venezuelan relations.

In South of the Border, Stone goes further, alleging a US promise not to destabilize or interfere in Venezuela's internal affairs, which would be a sharp departure from the Bush years and the views of Davidow and Clinton-era operatives like Doug Schoen and Mark Penn. What's the truth here? Who are Stone's sources?

Instead of following this lead, articles in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times have been filled with trivial questioning of the Stone documentary's accuracy. The NYT's Larry Rohter, a longtime critic of Chavez, now argues over whether Venezuela or Saudia Arabia send more oil to the United States [an irrelevant subject taking a few seconds of the documentary] or whether Chavez's leading opponent for the presidency in 1998 was Irene Saez [Miss Universe] or Henrique Salas Romer [Saez led the opposition for a year before dropping far behind, with Salas Romer finishing second]. Rohter also says Greg Wilpert, identified in the documentary as a Brooklyn College professor, should be described as pro-Chavez because he is married to a Venezuelan diplomat in New York [I think Wilpert should have been identified as professor and author who is pro-Chavez]. For that matter, I could do without Tarik Ali as a writer-narrator; why not Eduardo Galeano?

But who cares? Isn't the question of whether and how Obama is seeking a new relationship with Venezuela and Latin America more important than inflating all this trivia into a tempest? Compared with the big questions, Rohter comes off as an ankle-biter.

Kenneth Turan, the usually-sensible LA Times critic, opined that Stone's film was vanity in place of substance. But Turan struggles with facts himself. In the first version of his review, he names Evo Morales of Bolivia as coming to power in Ecuador. And in referring readers to better documentaries than Stone's, he describes The Revolution Will Not Be Televised as a film about "fascinating events around Chavez' rise to power," when in fact it documented the coup against the incumbent Chavez. And so on.

By accident, I happened to be in Caracas when Stone was shooting his film, and I can testify it was more than the vanity project Turan depicts. Stone was sleeping three hours a night, rushing from country to country, reading voraciously and, it turns out, delivering news and footage that were groundbreaking. One can argue that Stone is larger-than-life, inserts his presence clumsily onto the screen, and exhibits signs of megalomania -- but hardly more than many of his peers in Hollywood or the celebrity pundits of the television and radio commentary world. That Stone seems attracted to strong men [he praises Chavez as "a bull"] doesn't mean a macho male is the same as a dictator. As Cristina Kirchner says in her interview, Chavez has faced 13 elections -- in the same time period as three American presidential elections. The more relevant issue than Stone's ego is how he manages to dig up such original interviews in a narrative which is flatly contrary to the corporate media perspective.

Beyond the matter of the Obama-Chavez secret talks, which the media simply has not covered, Stone manages to film interviews with six Latin American presidents, all independent nationalists and democratically-elected, all proclaiming the end of American hegemony in their hemisphere. He interviews them separately and together, formally and informally, as presidents are rarely seen. Journals like Foreign Affairs and national security types have lumped these leaders together as "the bad left" in Latin America, negative forces in the region, hostile to US interests. Few reporters -- the LA Times' Hector Tobar is a major exception -- have given this development its voice. Stone is not acting as an investigative reporter so much as letting these Latin American leaders be seen at last, have their say without interruption. To which one might say: it's about time. Let a more inclusive debate begin.

Compared to our official passion for free elections in Iran, for example, the US is uncomfortable with progressive electoral outcomes in Latin America. In addition to the six he cites, Stone could add Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Chile [which just reverted to a conservative]. The Latin Americans overall have rejected US-controlled neo-liberal economics. The Latin American majority favors good relations with Cuba and opposes the military coup in Honduras. US drug warriors have been expelled from Bolivia, and a US military base closed in Ecuador. Arguably, Latin America in the past decade has experienced the largest democratic electoral upsurge since the republican movements of the 18th century, including our own American revolution. Oliver Stone wants to salvage the essence of this moment from its dustbin of neglect.

What's revealed in the documentary is not necessarily the continental Bolivarian Revolution which Stone suggests. There is an affinity, a genuine camaraderie, a solidarity with Chavez' Venezuela among these leaders, to be sure. Chavez' election in 1998 set the trend in motion. But this is not a Cold War model with Caracas, like Moscow, directing a conspiracy of satellite powers. It is a band of more or less equals, brought to power in very different countries by social movements and electorates aligned in wanting an alternative to US domination.

In using the banner "21st century socialism" to describe this project, Chavez may fit himself into the stereotypes of the Soviet past. But the Soviets [and the Cubans] came to power through revolutionary violence, not through elections, and were besieged and encircled ever since. A similar path to power was attempted by guerrilla movements all over the continent beginning in the 1960s, mostly without success. These new social movements, parties and leaders of Latin America are successors of those older movements, and also fundamentally different because they have come to power through electoral coalitions. Socialism in the 21st century means coming to power through elections in a globalized world where popular movements drive states to regulate the banks and corporations in the public interest. As Cristina Kirschner points out "to me, it seems that for the first time in the region, the leaders look like the people they govern." The common model is not that of Russia or China, but a "global New Deal," which at one point in the film Chavez plaintively calls upon Obama to lead.

Unfortunately, the US appears to have no answer to this Latin American challenge, insisting instead on continuing the Cuba embargo, escalating the war in Colombia, meddling in the Mexican border war, seeking to weaken government safety nets, expanding investment privileges for private banks and corporations, and spreading a drug war and counter-terrorism plans. As a result, US officials remain isolated in the region and increasingly petulant. This is far, far from the New Deal which President Franklin Roosevelt promised Latin America when he suspended US military interventionism and supported Mexico's nationalization of their oil resources in the 1930s.

That is why Stone's claim that Obama's promise of non-intervention, if true, is such a crucial step. Nothing like threats of intervention -- sponsorship of counter-revolutionaries, covert operations, blockades, economic sanctions, and coups -- is more likely to bring about a tightening of state controls over everyday freedoms. Such is the history of Latin America through centuries of blood. Stone, however, lets himself slip into an unfortunate dismissal of "human rights as a buzzword," leaving the implication that Venezuela was justified in 2008 in expelling a Human Rights Watch team. [Notwithstanding questions about balance in the HRW report, the irate Venezuelans went overboard in asserting that foreigners could not could make "rude" commentaries against their president. A state of siege, however, is not conducive to human rights criticisms from a US-based organization.]

Stone doesn't criticize his Venezuelan hosts, but points out that human rights violations are far worse in neighboring Colombia, the US military ally. He could have cited the Saudis or the Israelis in Gaza for that matter. But as an artist, Stone may have to return to the question of human rights in all its complexity in the future. This film is not about the degree of democracy in Venezuela, however. It is about a democratically-elected president there who symbolizes a larger awakening that most Americans have been sleeping through. Considering the intense pace of Stone's filming these Latin American leaders, literally on the run, the documentary is a New Latin America 101 that should shock most north Americans, and shame many in the mainstream media, with its hopeful, intelligent and determined cast of characters. Unless our gringo vanity gets in the way.