The shameless mendacity and cynicism of a “documentary” that unequivocally praises Hugo Chávez’ revolution while refusing to show even the slightest compassion for, or even awareness of, his victims-some of whom are former Chavistas-represents a new low in “left-wing” polemic. Oliver Stone’s new film South of the Border isn’t a documentary in any honest sense of the word; it documents little save the uncurious director’s bloated sense of self-satisfaction. Even those who, like Stone, believe Chávez’s revolución Bolivariana represents the best chance Venezuela’s poor have to satiate their material needs, will, if they are honest with themselves, recognize the film as the puerile exercise in authoritarian hagiography that it is. Stone, who narrates the story, mentions the concept of human rights only once and only to disparage it as imperialist boilerplate, similar to Bush’s talk of “freedom” (i.e., a concern for human rights is neocon propaganda, so don’t even think about bringing it up in a discussion about Chávez). Not a single Venezuelan opposition figure or political prisoner is depicted or even named.
The film opens with an extended clip from FOX & Friends, the hosts of which are depicted chatting frivolously about Chávez. Watching them babble on, one is intended to realize (with the appropriate smirk of progressive condescension) that these bimbos epitomize, if not exactly represent, the probity and insight of the corporate American media establishment in toto. Gretchen Carlson, one of the show’s hosts, calls Chávez a dictator in the shrill and insouciant tone one imagines she would use to describe her favorite cocktail.
We understand immediately. These people are stupid and ignorant. Because they are stupid and ignorant and because they (and people like them) tell Americans what to think about Chávez, our opinions about Chávez are also stupid and ignorant. This is in the interests of the corporate media establishment, which would like us to remain stupid and ignorant, especially about economic injustice in Latin America, so that the privileged may stay privileged and the impoverished masses may remain impoverished masses.
By means of the IMF (the film’s most visible villain), the US is able to surreptitiously exert the might of predatory capitalism against the noble inhabitants of Latin America, robbing them of the fruits of their labor while keeping the American people ignorant of this theft by means of-again-the sinister corporate media establishment, which depicts those Latin American leaders who oppose American hegemony as crazy dictators. But in fact, it’s these slandered and vilified leaders who are the true heroes of the story. Wake up America!
Against the revolution, Stone explains, stands a familiar cast: the light-skinned, English-speaking, unpatriotic Venezuelans who, unwittingly or not, would rather live under the neo-colonial imposition of IMF austerity measures. Leading and inciting this obduracy against Chávez in Venezuela are rapacious business interests and corporate media owners. This is, for the purposes of Stone’s film, everything you need to know about the Venezuelan opposition.
In depicting Chávez as the innocent victim of American and domestic treachery, Stone exploits the events of April 11, 2002, during which Chávez was temporarily deposed. Stone presents the April coup as the epitome of opposition to Chávez: a reactionary Venezuelan bourgeoisie attempts to thwart the people’s will and destroy their revolution. The moral of the story, as presented by Stone, is that the Venezuelan people, having been made aware of their historical responsibility to Bolivarian socialism, were ultimately able to defeat the wealthy elite and rescue their revolution along with their comandante. To deliver this simple vision, however, Stone has to omit a few essential facts that even Chavistas would feel compelled to address in any discussion of the coup.
For instance, Stone refuses to tell us that it was Chávez’ own military high command that ousted him after they became convinced that Chavista gunmen, acting under the government’s direction and endorsement, opened fire on opposition marchers, resulting in the deaths of several innocents (and this is only the most prominent example of why the military high command rebelled against Chávez). The generals replaced Chávez with Pedro Carmona, the head of Venezuela’s largest business federation, hoping that the latter would form a conciliatory and transitional government. But the generals soon ousted Carmona after they were convinced that his presidential decrees would turn Venezuela into a dictatorship. Not wanting to take power themselves, the generals followed constitutional procedure by bestowing Diosdado Cabello-the Chavista vice-president who resurfaced when word spread that Carmona’s government lacked the backing of the military high command-with the presidency of the republic.
Cabello dutifully and predictably returned the presidency to Chávez upon the latter’s return from captivity, on April 13. The only attempt at an investigation of these events-a truth commission set up by the National Assembly following the tragedy-was decommissioned by the government after members of the military provided a version of events that contradicted Chávez’s (and now Stone’s) self-glorifying narrative.
Chávez’ relationship with the military leads us to what is Stone’s most glaring omission concerning the April coup. In depicting democratic revolutionaries battling against a greedy and heartless elite, Stone leaves out someone who should be one of the drama’s central heroes: the Chavista who rescued both Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution from ruin, General Raul Isaías Baduel. It was Baduel who orchestrated the mission to rescue Chávez on April 13 and was instrumental in deposing Carmona. Without Baduel, and the other military officers and generals who followed his lead, the Bolivarian Revolution would have likely suffered a conclusive defeat on April 11. Chávez subsequently made Baduel his secretary of defense, evidently to reward his loyal efforts during such a decisive moment. Why, I invite you to wonder, does Stone excise Baduel from the story? To answer this one merely needs to look at the reason why Chávez no longer includes Baduel in his revolutionary narrative-at least not as a hero.
A few months after resigning as defense minister in 2007, Baduel openly broke with Chávez and was subsequently denounced as a traitor and enemy of the revolution by his former boss. Baduel publicly came out against Chávez’s constitutional reform project and exhorted Venezuelans to vote against it. Baduel believed Chávez’s constitutional reform would, if passed, give Chávez nearly unlimited executive power and betray the very principles of the revolution. In April 2009, Baduel was arrested and charged with embezzlement. In May, Baduel was convicted and sentenced to serve seven years and 11 months in prison. He is what fair-minded observers would call a political prisoner (though certainly not the only victim of political persecution: In addition to Baduel, we can name the cases of Usón, Alvarez Paz, Afiuni, Rosales, and López).
The second half of the film focuses on the rest of Latin America’s Bolivarian axis. Stone holds a series of bland conversations with Evo Morales, Cristina and Nestor Kirchner, Luiz Inácio Lula, Fernando Lugo, Rafael Correa, and Raul Castro. These “interviews” are the height of frivolity masquerading as critical introspection, and we learn nothing concrete about any political leader’s set of specific policies. Stone chews Coca leaves and kicks a soccer ball with Morales. He playfully asks Cristina Kirchner how many shoes she has. Nestor Kirchner tells Stone that Bush once told him war was the best form of economic stimulus. Stone tells Lugo that he is a good and gentle man. Chávez tells Stone that Lula is his brother as both heads of state embrace. The film is replete with such vacuous attempts at humanization.
I was particularly amazed at the casual way in which Stone included Raul Castro in this group of democratically elected leaders, as if no further clarification or justification were required. South of the Border portrays Castro as a quaint and gentle old man who regales both the director and Correa with stories of the common heritage of social justice in the Americas, waxing reverently about Bolívar, Chávez, and others. Astonishingly, Stone does not bring up the fact-nor, predictably, does the democratically elected Correa seem to mind-that Raul Castro is not a democrat but an unelected dictator enthroned by his ailing older brother. Or, to be more succinct, the closest thing to a right-wing, monarchical transition of power in Latin America has taken place in “revolutionary” Cuba; and we, who must be expected by Stone to possess the rational faculties of drooling baboons, are meant to accept this monumental political contradiction as belonging to Latin America’s “progressive” inheritance.
Stone’s unproblematic inclusion of Castro is a scandalous insult to common sense and simple consistency, given the film’s supposed focus on the importance of democratic legitimacy and popular support for the Bolivarian axis of Latin American leaders. The truth is that there is only one military dictatorship left in the Western Hemisphere-the Cuban government. And there is only one political bloc that gives that military dictatorship constant and unequivocal praise-Stone’s beloved Bolivarian axis.
By portraying Chávez as a benevolent and misunderstood hero, Stone plays the role of useful idiot, providing the Bolivarian Revolution with the cultural legitimacy it needs to capture the attention of Western “progressives.” Hidden beneath this self-righteous veneer of solidarity with the Venezuelan poor, however, South of the Border is easily recognizable as the record of a director’s collaboration with tyranny. By refusing to mention any of Chávez’ victims, Stone has produced a version of Venezuelan history that tacitly justifies the oppression of dissidents.
In Venezuela, where such dissidents have no choice but to exist, Stone’s film has failed miserably. Venezuelans, we should always remember, are living under a government that forces all domestic television and radio stations to broadcast Chávez’ incessant and interminable public speeches and propaganda. Stone cannot possibly expect Venezuelans to pay for what they are already obliged to suffer.
Antonio Rumbos, a native of Venezuela, is a writer living in Washington, DC. This column first appeared at Reason.com.