Our Brand is Crisis (2005)

by Keith McCrea

29 October 2006


In 2002, an American-bred and educated Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada sought to return as president of his native Bolivia and hired American consulting firm Carville, Greenberg, and Shrum (CG&S) to help communicate his message. Director Rachel Boynton follows the collaboration and the resulting chaos in her excellent film, Our Brand is Crisis.  The film documents the underlying logic between this unlikely pairing while making clear that some things can’t necessarily be exported.

As leader of the centrist National Revolutionary Movement Party, de Lozada had focused on some moderate social reforms during his previous term in office between 1993 and 1997, while also following strict International Monetary Fund guidelines and US-supported market reforms. His main opponents in the 2002 election were Cochabamba mayor Manfred Reyes Villa and senator and coca planter Evo Morales, both opponents of the free market Washington Consensus.

cover art

Our Brand is Crisis

Director: Rachel Boynton

(Koch Lorber Films)
US DVD: 5 Sep 2006

To help confront these challenges from the left, de Lozada (or Goni, as he is popularly known) called upon the firm of Carville, Greenberg, and Shrum. The Carville is James Carville, of Sunday morning talk show fame thanks to Clinton’s successful races for the White House. Stan Greenberg, whose last minute hiring by Gore in 2000 allowed Gore to close a 15 point gap to win the popular vote for president, enjoys a deserved reputation as the Democrats’ smartest pollster. And Bob Shrum has been at the helm of all the non-Clinton Democratic presidential campaigns since the ‘70s—y’know, the ones that lost. Jeremy Rosner, the primary talking head of CSG in Our Brand is Crisis, describes the firm’s work as “progressive politics and foreign policy for profit” and is seemingly untroubled by any contradictions.

No one could say that Goni doesn’t get his money’s worth from CS&G. They take a moribund campaign, saddled by Goni’s well-deserved reputation for arrogance and a less-than-inspiring record from his previous term in office, and turn it into a winner of sorts. By viciously attacking Mayor Reyes Villa and milking the most out of focus groups and polls, CS&G brings Goni within striking distance of winning. Rosner prods, mentors, and focuses the campaign while Greenberg’s insights into the polling numbers layout some effective “Hail Mary” plays. Carville appears largely to tell jokes and lend his famous mug to the proceedings and, to his credit, he makes clear his limited role in the actual campaign, though he doesn’t hesitate to make the expected star-turn to keep the clients happy.

Rosner and his colleagues decide that their first task is to stop Reyes Villa. Combining a style of humorous attack ad with some telemundo touches, CS&G’s Tad Devine stops Reyes Villa’s momentum and atrophies his growing support. While this should be a godsend to Goni, the US government steps in to help his other chief rival, Evo Morales.

In a statement shocking for both its bluntness and its stupidity, the US ambassador to Bolivia attacks Morales for his anti-Washington rhetoric, clumsily attempts to tie Morales to bin Laden, and threatens the Bolivian people with economic repercussions in the event that Morales wins. To the surprise of no one outside of the Bush administration, Morales support increased by nearly 60 percent, much of it coming from the slumping Villa Reyes.

This had the effect of essentially leaving the race a three-way tie in the days immediately before the election.  As Carville cheerfully admits, their guy was probably only ahead on one day of the whole campaign, but that day happened to be Election Day. Goni won a second term with slightly more than one-fifth of the electorate’s support. He would serve in that office for about two months before being forced from office by an enraged public.

Goni, whose arrogance is treated frankly by all in the campaign and in the film, took office and immediately began doing what he thought was right.  Perhaps the minority who supported him agreed, but judging by the ferocity of the response to his choices for Bolivia’s petrocarbon industry, his regressive tax increase instituted to please First World creditors, his pointed refusal to even act as if the opinion of the nation mattered, and his willingness to use military support against protestors, even many of them likely abandoned him. A frustrated cadre from CG&S returns in an effort to save Goni from himself. The attempt fails and Goni is spirited away to his ideological home – Washington.

So what went wrong? How did a candidate supported by the nation’s most influential class and aided by advice from the sages of CG&S, fresh from wins in the US, the UK, and Ireland, fail so badly once in office? The central conflicts are twofold. First, Goni and CG&S agree that, in the words of CG&S’s Jeremy Rosner, “the only road for this country (Bolivia) to get unpoor is private ownership and market economics.” And that Goni, “an unabashed champion of market economics,” is “the best person for running the country.” Further, CG&S doesn’t merely believe this, they act according to it by taking on clients that who are “modernizers who want to use globalization to expand prosperity in their countries.” These are ideological claims, and ones not particularly well supported by facts or the history of South America.

What market economics in fact represents to South America is a history of currency devaluations, commodity extraction by North American and European countries, companies, and empires, and punitive economic policies designed to protect multinational concerns and local oligarchs at the expense of indigenous populations and national sovereignty. The fact that Goni, Jeremy, and the rest of the CG&S gang believe that capitalism always works better than other system doesn’t make it true to the over 77 percent of the Bolivian voters that choose other candidates— including the 42 percent that voted for anti-globalization candidates for president. They, like voters in Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina (a country that suffered economic collapse at the hands of North American banks in 1999), have seen only privation and want come from market economics.

Secondly, CG&S’s definition of democracy only includes an enfranchised majority (minority? plurality?) using electoral mechanisms exclusively to gauge the consent of the governed. Here, Rosner tells the camera that “(t)here are conditions that democracy ultimately can’t deal with” and suggests that the protests by those who didn’t vote for Goni were less legitimate than the desires of the 22 percent of voters who did. Any democracy that excludes protests as a valid form of dealing democratically with crisis is bankrupt, as Goni’s expulsion from office makes clear. The voice of the people wasn’t given its most valid expression by the one-fifth of voters who elected Goni, but rather by the huge numbers that protested to throw him out. The people on the streets, who months before Rosner had praised for their “perfect voter rationality” when they turned away from Reyes Villa, he now dismisses as dupes of “irresponsible populists”, while those who feel duty bound to prop up a government elected with a small minority presumably represent responsible opinion in Bolivia. What the nice men at CSG are evidently unwilling to acknowledge is that, while they may have considered their client’s brand to be crisis, the voters of Bolivia understand that Goni’s brand was, in fact, the same free-market capitalism that made him an unpopular president in his first term.

Evo Morales, who was defeated by Goni by one percent in the 2002 general election and led the protests that eventually forced both Goni and his successor and running-mate Carlos Mesa from office, took a different view of democracy. This view, as described by historian J.P. Nettl, “might be short on measurable criteria like majority votes, which bourgeois democracy valued so highly, but was long on unmeasurable but much more real links of action which bound leaders and mass.” That the work of Evo Morales was later ratified by a 54 percent majority in the 2005 elections (compared to Goni’s 22 percent in 2002) serves to validate the view of democracy held by Morales—and condemn to irrelevance the view held by the solons of K Street.

The Our Brand is Crisis DVD also includes the theatrical trailer and a commentary track by director Rachel Boynton, whose insights into documentary filmmaking and anecdotes about her time in Bolivia are both entertaining and interesting. It is valuable and informative to hear the opinions of the director on the subject matter of a film that so scrupulously treats its subjects fairly and the track is a welcome addition.

Our Brand is Crisis


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