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Hangin' with the New Bolivarians in Oliver Stone's 'South of the Border'

Oliver Stone has chosen to channel his 'radical' political leanings into his documentaries, and this film would seem to bear that out.

South of the Border

Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Oliver Stone, Lula da Silva, Christina Kirchner, Nestor Kirchner, Fernando Lugo, Rafael Correa, Raul Castro
Distributor: Cinema Libre
Release date: 2010-10-26

When I saw Oliver Stone’s W with a cinema group just before Obama’s historic sweep, I was told that a missing invitee had vehemently declined to join us, proclaiming Stone a wacko and musing why those of our socially liberal group couldn’t “think for themselves”, which I suppose was code for agreeing with him. I could only giggle after seeing the film, as it’s not an anti-Bush rant, nor even particularly weighty as drama. W is a mildly engrossing semi-biopic that misses countless opportunities to truly engage the viewer. The saga of an unqualified, incurious oil heir – and Yale classmate of Stone’s -- who amounted to little before his 40th birthday, yet nevertheless sat pretty at 1600 Pennsylvania for two presidential terms, leading America into two military quagmires is surely the makings of a contemporary Godfather, but instead Stone fashioned a timid, milk-and-water drama that disappeared almost upon release.

A film critic pal of mine argues that Stone has chosen to channel his ‘radical’ political leanings into his documentaries, and his recent South of The Border would seem to bear that out. Stone skipped across the globe, training his camera on Latin and South American rulers that the United States’ previous administration couldn’t abide – in fairness, Castro’s Cuba has pissed off American presidents since Kennedy – and generally expressing support for their policies. Among his subjects are so-called ‘dictator’ Hugo Chavez, Bolivia’s proud indigeno Evo Morales, and Raul Castro, who will forever stand in the shadow of his remarkable, justifiably controversial brother.

Stone’s passion is such that he narrates the film itself, and we see early on a report from Fox News announcing that Hugo Chavez chews coca leaves, apparently designed to shock the American populace and simultaneously discredit Chavez, neglecting to mention that coca leaves and refined cocaine that one inhales are worlds apart.

Predictably, Chavez is denounced by a host of Republican notables, including Condoleeza Rice, who deems the Venezuelan prez “a negative force” in the world, and the generally rational John McCain, who in a moment of vitriol calls Chavez “one of the world’s worst dictators”. When Pat Robertson, never noted for thoughtful commentary, even suggests “taking Chavez out”, I’m reminded of fringe lunatics like the Westboro Baptist Church, and left to wonder why Robertson is still taken seriously by his constituents.

We’re reminded that Chavez was democratically elected, though that’s never been an innoculation against irresponsible, even hostile leadership; a psychotic middle-aged loser was placed in the German Republic’s catbird seat in 1933. Yet none of Chavez’s opposition has calmly, fairly explained why he is a opponent to democracy. It’s made clear in the film that the Venezuelan oligarchy feel threatened by him, and of course they would, as his public statements plainly express a populist wish for greater financial equality amongst Venezuelans.

Stone visits frequently with Chavez, and their conversations seem quite jovial. Venezuela is the third largest petroleum producer in the world, and that fact alone puts the nation high on a list of US concerns, regardless of the liberal credentials of our current president. Indeed, Stone claims that the US, along with Spain, helped foment opposition against Chavez, and anyone can imagine that Cuba’s shipments of medical resources to Venezuela gets the goat of Chavez enemies, especially right-wing hardliners in America.

Chavez himself is a charismatic, hulking bear of a man, not necessarily handsome, but eminently capable of playing to crowds, or more importantly, the camera. He comes from dire poverty, spending all or much of his childhood in a hut constructed of mud – I think that trumps Lincoln’s fabled log cabin upbringing – and Horatio Alger tales always attract press attention, because the masses so want underdogs to triumph. Chavez has exhorted other Latin American rulers to join his self-styled revolution, inspiring the collective nom de guerre “The New Bolivarians”, in homage to the legendary Simon Bolivar, of which I learned nothing in grade school.

Among his fellow Bolivarians is Bolivian president Evo Morales, significant in being the first indigeno to command that country; historically, most rulers of Latin nations of the Americas have been light-complexioned members of the Spanish or Portugese elite.

Morales, predictably, has ruffled Northern feathers by suggesting that cocaine be legalized, and reminding the United States that coca leaves have been used for millenia by his people to combat altitude sickness in his mountainous country.

Also interviewed are Christina and Nestor Kirchner, of Argentina, with the unenviable task of rescuing that once-proud beef producer from a devastating recession of a decade past, Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo, Brazil’s much-discussed Lula da Silva, shepherding the world’s 9th-largest economy into the 21st century, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, who has audaciously demanded removal of American military bases from his country, and last, but certainly not least, Raul Castro, who has inherited stewardship of the Caribbean’s largest island from “the mouse that roared”, his legendary, close-to-death hermano, Fidel.

Stone denounces what he terms “predatory capitalism” in the film, an especially timely indictment as that seems to be what caused the American economic meltdown which began in late 2007 and, in the extras, he notes that even Chavez’s detractors have never tarred the president as corrupt. During his South American sojourn, Stone also, perhaps more controversially, defends the lack of term limits in Venezuelan politics. American ignorance of political issues is reiterated, and Chavez and Stone enjoy an effusive chat sure to spark much hissing and booing from Stone’s arch-nemesis FOX News.

In the featurette, “Changes In Venezuela”, citizens are depicted cheering Chavez in the streets, singing the praises of his revolution, and anxiously awaiting an upcoming election. The deleted sequences are comprised of additional interviews with Stone’s passionate subjects. Brazil’s Lula claims that “South America is not used to having progressive governments”, a powerful understatement if I ever heard one, and Evo Morales’ expulsion of DEA agents from Bolivia is mentioned. Speaking of which, Morales also informs us that the name “Bolivia” is derived from Bolivar. American political analyst Mark Weisbrot delivers an insightful explanation of neo-liberalism, as well.

The DVD also includes two TV interviews with Stone, one conducted in Argentina, the other in Brazil. Stone recalls palling around El Salvador in turbulent 1985 with the courageous Richard Boyle, whose exploits formed the basis of Stone’s 1986 thriller Salvador, a critically-lauded but little-seen film which garnered countless endorsements, an Oscar nomination for star James Woods, and warmed up audiences for Stone’s Vietnam-themed smash Platoon, released in time for Christmas that year. During the Brazilian chat, Stone rather sternly defends the Castro administration, a morally dubious stance to say the least, and we hear Lula’s accusation that the International Monetary Fund sought to keep Brazil in shackles of dependency.

Visually speaking, Stone isn’t interested in playing the sarcastic showman, an identity that Michael Moore has enthusiastically adopted. If South of The Border is socialist-friendly agitprop, it accomplishes this without stylish camera flourishes, jokey animated sequences, or rhetorical stunts. Stone presents what he sees, and only that, for the most part, refraining from razzle-dazzle, which he employed in Natural Born Killers to impart a timely, satirical immediacy to the horrific proceedings.

No reasonable person can suggest that Stone is an impartial observer of left-leaning revolution, or that South of The Border is the equivalent of a middle-of-the-road CNN piece. However, I’ve heard few thoughtful intellectual arguments against the New Bolivarians, whose mandates to bring their economically stagnant countries out of poverty represent an enormous challenge. We know that socialism, in the not-so-distant past, has occasionally devolved into brutal totalitarianism; witness 1970s Cambodia, Stalin’s USSR, or Chairman Mao’s merciless Cultural Revolution. George Orwell’s chilling Animal Farm, a perennial favorite of mine, lays out a frightening blueprint for how such things can occur.

We should also recall how a gentler, more inclusive brand of socialism has provided prosperity and bourgeois comforts for millions in Western Europe and Scandinavia, not to mention the rustic but lovely Indian province of Kerala. It seems that capitalism, within limits, has traditionally delivered the greatest amount of wealth to the greatest number of folks. But the devil remains in the details. The unfettered capitalism exploited by the robber barons of late-19th century America created vast fortunes for some, but untold misery for too many others.

I think that Stone recognizes that entrepreneurial zeal must work in tandem with social protections that provide a net for those who must do the toil. It will be a great shame if the politically-divided United States surrenders much of this ideology, but a great tragedy if the New Bolivarians cannot implement this at home.


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