Film director Oliver Stone’s moral loathing for the global banking and finance industries should be pretty obvious to everyone by now. In his 1980s film Wall Street, tycoon Gordon Gekko—played by Michael Douglas sporting his famous Pat Riley ‘do — shamelessly preached “Greed is good.” We can expect more of the same in Stone’s soon-to-be released Wall Street II. And in the Secret History of the United States, Stone’s 10-hour TV documentary series, viewers will learn the extent to which U.S. financial institutions backed Nazi leader Adolph Hitler in his rise to power.
In contrast to these sprawling denunciations, Stone’s short documentary South of the Border, which is playing at the Film Festival, reads almost like a home movie, allowing five impressive Latin American leaders who went toe-to-toe with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to shine brightly on the screen.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez occupies the dramatic core of Stone’s undertaking. Reviled as the second coming of Bin Laden by Fox news commentators, Chavez — the one-time career military officer elected to office in 1999 (after a failed coup attempt in 1992) — has famously warred with his own country’s media, the United States, and the IMF as he’s set about to exploit Venezuelan’s vast oil wealth in order to help the poor people of his nation.
In an attempt to counter the media’s relentlessly negative portrayal of Chavez, Stone provides viewers a relaxed, intimate, and notably wart-free glimpse of a genuinely compelling political personality. Speaking of Chavez in a recent interview, Stone said, “He’s really a man of the people. I mean he doesn’t even have a personal bank account. He’s helped out with Haiti. He was generous to the citizens of New Orleans after Katrina hit.” Stone offers us scenes of Chavez talking history on his private plane, riding a dilapidated stingray bicycle on the dirt lot next to his childhood home — the bike breaks in two to Chavez’s embarrassment — and detailing his dawn-to-3 a.m. workload while sitting around his presidential office.
Stone presents Chavez as charismatic bull of a man who grew up poor and never forgot his roots. Where the mainstream media depicts Chavez as an oafish buffoon and bully, Stone gives us someone endowed with sly humor and a keen strategic understanding of his own bombastic theatricality. Chavez has long delighted in yanking the tail of Yankee Imperialismo and to that end Stone visually reminds us how Chavez vilified George W. Bush while speaking at the same United Nations podium Bush had spoken from the day before. Calling Bush a Satan, Chavez told those assembled he could “still smell the sulfur.”
But what most people in the United State fail to grasp, said Stone, is that the United States tried to remove Chavez — democratically elected — from power by engineering a military coup in 2002. It succeeded for just one day; the plan backfired when the soldiers who captured Chavez switched sides to become his protectors. The United States has steadfastly denied any involvement in the affair, but Stone — relying on interviews with reporters from some of the same media outlets he vilifies for knee-jerk anti-Chavez coverage — lays out a convincing case to the contrary. (One of those reporters, the Washington Post’s Scott Wilson, it turns out, worked for the Santa Barbara News-Press in the late 1980s.) “We’re the aggressors here,” Stone said, combining incredulity, outrage, and an almost admiring sense of bewilderment, “but we always present as if we’re the victims, that they’re the aggressors attacking us.”
As riveting as Chavez is, the real revelation in Stone’s movie is the extent to which Chavez has been joined by a wide array of other Latin American leaders embarking on the same path of populist-minded Democratic socialism. One would have to squint hard at the reporting provided by the U.S. media reports to achieve an appreciation for the sweep and depth of this movement that’s thrived in the shadow of George W. Bush. (Barack Obama, Stone said, has been a keen disappointment, failing to stand up for Honduran President Manuel Zelaya — another populist proponent of economic reform — when last year that country’s military physically removed him from office lest he morph into another Hugo Chavez.)
Bolivia’s Evo Morales, a hard-core soccer player, bachelor, and former union leader of coca farmers, explains how he’d be happy to allow the United States a military base in his country — a significant bone of contention between the two nations — so long as the United States allows Bolivia a base somewhere in Florida.
Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo, a former archbishop, details the importance of liberation theology — aggressively rooted out by the current Pope Benedict at the direction of his predecessor John Paul II — as the spiritual spawning ground for Latin America’s poor people’s movements. Lugo, whose father had been jailed 20 times by the dictator who ruled Paraguay for 50-years, exudes rare grace, humility, and resolve. Stone does not mention that Lugo now finds himself enmeshed in paternity suits stemming from when he was still a man of the cloth.
Brazil’s Luiz Lula da Silva describes how Brazil was $200 billion in debt to international banks when he took office and how under his regime there’s now a surplus. Likewise, Argentina’s Nestor and Christina Kirchener — the husband and wife presidential tag-team, explain how unhappy the IMF was when Argentina retired its debt to that world body.
Stone’s film is an unabashed work of political admiration. No critical questions are asked, other perhaps than Stone’s query of Christina Kirchener about how many shoes she has. Kirchener expressed serious doubt Stone would ever ask a male leaders about the number of shoes parked in their closets. Stone is trying to balance the picture, not provide a balanced picture. Under Stone’s kind interrogations, the politicos he’s profiled come across as strikingly thoughtful, articulate, and impressive.
Every movie needs a villain and in South of the Border, that role belongs to the IMF and the World Bank. “People don’t understand. They think we’re helping out, we’re giving these poor counties money. But that’s bullshit,” said Stone. “It doesn’t happen like that. The money comes with so many conditions and so many strings attached. The IMF has become an institution of oppression used by the United States and other first powers to control the world.”
Exactly how that happens — cutting off credit to governments seeking to privatize their nation’s natural resources, for example, demanding draconian cuts to public benefits or devaluing currencies in exchange for desperately needed credit — is not made nearly as clear as it could be in Stone’s film. Nor are there any interviews allowing IMF officials to defend their actions. But Stone’s ambition in South of the Border was to shed a new light on subjects either ignored or vilified in mainstream media accounts. To that extent, the film’s an eye-opener, warts and all.