Only in the United States can you believe advertising will fix everything.
— Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada
In February of 2003, as Our Brand is Crisis opens, Bolivia is in meltdown. Already one of the poorest nations in Latin America, it’s losing jobs. Many Bolivians blame this turn on government inaction, and protestors overrun the streets of La Paz, shouting for the removal of “gringo” President Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada, elected only a year before, on a platform of economic and governmental reform. The scene includes jerky video footage shot by someone running; we hear screams and breaking glass, we see wisps of tear gas. The camera closes in on a hunched protestor, dead, his hair matted with blood. Following a gunshot, the screen dissolves to clouds, and a title appears: “One Year Earlier.”
This is the setting for Goni Sánchez’s presidential campaign. Gray-haired, well-spoken, and aloof, a former businessman and Bolivian citizen raised in the U.S., he was Bolivia’s President from 1993-1997. Like many second world leaders in the ’90s, Sánchez presided over a series of economic reforms designed to open the country’s markets and natural resources to foreign development. This “capitalization,” as it was known in Bolivia, was applauded by “market liberalization” adherents outside the country, but was intensely unpopular domestically.
With an uphill battle against 13 other Presidential candidates, Sánchez hired the political consultants of Greenburg Carville Shrum (GCS), an A-Team of Clinton-era strategists turned freelance idealists. Worldwide, they promote a particular kind of democracy, “progressive, social-democratic, market-based and modern, but with broad benefits.” According to Jeremy Rosner, pollster and chief strategist, their mission is “progressive politics and foreign policy for profit.”
For any viewer not completely cynical about politics, that statement contains a great deal of tension. With his eloquent idealism, youthful good looks, and touch of Clintonian charisma, Rosner makes a fine global ambassador for American democracy. After watching him work, it’s hard to know whether he is a true believer or just doing it for the mortgage. He answers questions directly, without resorting to talking points. Juxtaposed with Goni’s incessant spinning, this sounds like honesty, but the stakes are too high not to ask: is this just more strategic communication? According to Our Brand is Crisis, candor is another strategy. As Goni chuckles, “We are all slaves to strategy.”
CGS’ strategy is to make Sánchez’s campaign a thoroughly American-style one. With 100 days until the election, they are cautiously optimistic. They begin the whirlwind of sloganeering, polling, and focus-grouping familiar to any observer of U.S. politics. They spin, re-frame messages, coach Sánchez on how to turn a question into a talking point. They establish a “brand” — the titular “Bolivia is in crisis” — as a theme. They even manage a negative whisper campaign (euphemized as “the dirty war”) against an opponent. In short, they transplant all the theatrical, trivializing, subtly demagogic techniques that so disgust American voters. CGS, the film proposes, confuses the trappings of democracy with its practice. For Bolivia, that confusion is the seed of tragedy.
CGS shifts the political rhetoric just enough that Sanchez wins the presidency by less than three percentage points. This is not a mandate; there will be no honeymoon, the consultants warn him, but once in power, he returns to the unilateral leader he was before the spin. He makes a curt, politically tone-deaf announcement increasing income taxes for the poor. Evo Morales, narrowly defeated by Sánchez, continues to incite against the new government, blocking roads and strong-arming the rural population. Though every CGS focus group warns the president he needs to dialogue with the people, at least make a show of hearing their opinions, he contends he doesn’t have time. He’s too busy running the country. The film cuts to Rosner, who just shakes his head.
No comforting slogans can distract the Bolivians from their government’s policy failures. CGS can spin only so much. Rosner calls the agitators “a bunch of irresponsible populists,” but his man is an unresponsive faux-populist. After just 14 months, Sánchez flees for America, leaving his vice president to run a country in economic and social turmoil.
When asked what went wrong in Bolivia, Rosner glances down and responds, “What went wrong in the United States leading up to the Civil War? There are conditions democracy ultimately can’t deal with.” Earlier in the film, he’d advised the candidate on the importance of appearing to have learned from their mistakes. It was a tactic Goni never quite grasped. Asked for a single mistake from his previous administration, he can’t (the moment weirdly recalls a similar one for George W. Bush). Remarkably, neither can Rosner. In suggesting that Bolivia’s government would have self-destructed anyway, he undercuts his reason for being there. Why sponsor a democracy that’s incapable of governing?
Unfortunately, Rosner and CGS’ experiment in democracy has real-world consequences. Though less destructive than other U.S. interventions around the world, the project suffers from the same fundamental flaw: a confusion of process with product. Elections and electioneering don’t inexorably lead to a working democracy; all of those purple fingers in Iraq ought to prove that. It’s tough to blame CGS for making that mistake — the election process is all they know. But in equating his unpopular, arrogant candidate with democracy, in reducing the democratic process to the often ruthless work of electioneering, Rosner fails his own professed ideals. Ultimately, he, CGS, and Goni Sánchez fail the people of Bolivia they say they wanted to help. The final image of Our Brand is Crisis is its first: a poor, dispossessed protestor dead in the street mere yards away from the closed doors of his government.