Oliver Stone has never been one to shy away from a controversy. Over the past two decades, the director's filmic output has included a conspiracy-laden take on John F. Kennedy's assassination, provocative (and factually unconstrained) portraits of the two most polarizing U.S. presidents in recent memory, and not one but two flattering documentaries about Fidel Castro.
So it is not terribly surprising that South of the Border, his new documentary coming to U.S. theaters later this month, offers a similarly admiring take on Castro's protégé, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The film's website even mounts a pre-emptive attack on Chávez's detractors, offering a detailed rebuttal to "Media Misperceptions" about the Venezuelan leader.
I would have very much liked to contribute a few misperceptions of my own. Sadly, though, I wasn't able to obtain a copy of the film by my deadline. I did, however, speak recently with Mark Weisbrot, one of the two people credited with writing it. (The other is Tariq Ali, a British-Pakistani author with a long involvement in left-wing causes.) Weisbrot, an economist and co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, is one of rather few people with both an economics Ph. D. and a Hollywood screenwriting credit to his name.
Weisbrot's -- and Stone's -- subject in the film is a new generation of Latin American leaders who have risen over the past decade to challenge Washington's traditional claim to dominance of the Southern Hemisphere. These leaders generally subscribe to left-of-center political views, reject "neoliberal economics" and the hegemony of the International Monetary Fund, and push instead for national control of natural resources, income redistribution, and varying degrees of state intervention. They include, to varying degrees, Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Cristina and Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay. Most prominent among them, of course, is Chávez; the others, Weisbrot and Stone aver in the film, look to him as a friend and role model. (Stone also throws in Cuba's Raúl Castro for good measure, though it's hard to see how the 79-year-old ruler of the region's most entrenched government could have much to do with an argument about change in Latin America.)
The rise of these leaders, says Weisbrot, "is a series of events that have changed the entire history of this hemisphere in ways that haven't happened in 50 or 100 years." The U.S. media have failed to tell this story, he argues, because the corporations that own them "would never allow that story to be told" -- and have unfairly demonized Chávez in particular. That's because journalists "tend to follow the lead of the State Department" in their reporting. Weisbrot says he was happy to participate in South of the Border because he wanted to help Stone tell the real story about what's been happening in Latin America.
One of the film's underlying arguments -- previously voiced by Weisbrot in a series of papers and op-eds -- is that the Chávez years have been a big economic success for Venezuela. Contrary to the conventional wisdom north of the border, says Weisbrot, Venezuela under Chávez has witnessed a remarkable economic expansion. Chávez has invested enormous amounts of cash in anti-poverty programs, such as food subsidies and cheap, accessible health care, and succeeded in drastically reducing social inequality. Yes, Chávez has nationalized a number of big companies, Weisbrot says, but the private sector has actually grown in recent years. Venezuela is in good fiscal shape, too, he argues; its public debt as a share of GDP is much lower than America's. In a word, not such a bad picture.
This stands in sharp contrast to quite a bit of recent reporting from the country, which tends to feature rampant inflation, food shortages, and electricity rationing. Venezuela's GDP slid a sharp 5.8 percent in the first quarter of this year -- unlike that of other Latin American countries, which have already begun to climb out of the global recession. One recent piece on Venezuela in the Washington Post described an economic landscape of empty warehouses, layoffs, and shrinking export markets. It also included a dark quote from Augusto de la Torre, the World Bank's chief economist for Latin America: "What we're seeing in Venezuela is a phenomenon where productivity, private activity, and private business is falling." When I asked Weisbrot about this piece, he dismissed it as "editorializing," a tissue of "anecdotes" without any statistical basis.