The Oliver Stone Show

South of the Border is no portrait of Hugo Chávez or the Latin American left; it's about how one U.S. director views the world.

By far the most amusing scene in Oliver Stone's new documentary, South of the Border, features Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez riding what looks like a child's bike around his boyhood home in one of the country's poorer neighborhoods, or barrios. About mid-lap around the empty field where his home once was, now overrun with weeds, the bike buckles under Chávez's weight. He falls to the ground, landing on top of the now-disattached tires. The president erupts into chuckles, between laughs saying that it has collapsed under him. And now, he says, "Tengo que pagar!" -- joking that he'll have to pay for the broken bike, as if it were a vase he dropped at an expensive store.

If there's one thing South of the Border depicts well, it's Chávez's good sense of humor. (Another classic moment comes when Stone follows him to a Iranian-built corn-processing plant -- he turns and jokes that it is an Iranian nuclear-bomb factory.) But the film is not intended as a comedy. According to Stone -- who attended the screening in Washington Wednesday afternoon -- it is a means of countering the "blatant misrepresentation [in the American media] of what Mr. Chávez has done." Stone makes no bones about his ideological leanings, as other critics have already noted, and he's leaning heavily to the left on this one.

But if the goal was to portray the true Hugo Chávez -- the man behind the much-vilified persona -- the movie is far from a success. After having seen the film, I know a lot more about Oliver Stone than about Chávez, who is mainly seen spouting one-liners and proclaiming the glories of the Bolivarian Revolution. Stone gives himself far more than half of the film's dialogue, and not just the narration. He had unprecedented access to the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, and Paraguay. But the questions he asked were softballs and seemed interested far more in his understanding of the world than theirs. To Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, he asks: Has it been hard to fight against the right-leaning media? Stone wants to know what Argentina's former president, Néstor Kirchner, thought of his discussions with international bankers after the country's 2001 debt default. Is there a Hollywood moment, Stone wonders, where the banker replies, "Do you understand the repercussions of your actions?" He asks nearly everyone about U.S. intervention in the region, which elicits the same reply: It should not be allowed. This is hardly a revelation, and that's the point: Stone knows exactly the answer he's going to get.

More troubling is how South of the Border masquerades as journalism. Why not tell us what Hugo Chávez's agricultural policy actually is, rather than simply showing a cornfield, the fat stalks rustling in the wind? Why not ask him why food rots in government warehouses while there are shortages in Caracas? Rather than simply showing a bucolic rural scene, in which everyone is dressed in the characteristic red shirts and hats of the Chavistas, why not take us inside the process from production to market? Is it hampered by poor infrastructure? Do the government-run basic-goods stores pay a standard price? To what extent are food prices subsidized by the government's oil profits? How much of the revenue from the 2.6 million barrels of oil Venezuela sold last year trickled down to the people? The film leaves the viewer flush with platitudes about the leader's Bolivarian Revolution, but with a head full of unanswered questions about how it actually works.

That's not to say that there aren't some interesting points raised. Clips from the U.S. media that vilify Chávez are, as Stone no doubt intended, shocking for their black-and-white judgments and their caricatured understanding of Venezuela. The film also taps into very real anger in Latin America at the IMF, which Stone portrays as a black-hatted villain. (The IMF's structural-adjustment plans of the 1980s and 1990s were indeed very flawed, but this is something that the fund has itself recognized and addressed.) The emphasis that Stone places upon the attempted coup that almost ousted Chávez in 2002 is also revealing, indicating just how great a psychological impact it still has on the Venezuelan leader.

But Stone seems content to take virtually everything he sees at face value. At one point, Morales's claim that the United States has plans to assassinate regional leaders -- and him in particular -- elicits no follow up. Perhaps the director's head was elsewhere: The line comes as both Morales and Stone are in what appears to be the president's sitting room chewing coca leaves. This is supposed to show that chewing the leaves in their pure form (not as processed cocaine) is just fine. But the entire scene comes off as absurd. Across the board, serious discussions of policy take a back seat to fluff: Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's comments about the Latin American left are unmemorable compared with her witty back-and-forth with Stone after he asks her how many pairs of shoes she owns. (She doesn't know, but she's content with what she's got.)

Serious insight into Venezuela is lacking. For example, one of the Venezuelan media stations often portrayed in the film as railing against the Bolivarian leader -- during the 2002 coup against him and at other times -- is Globovisión, which has been under investigation several times under the Chávez government for reported code violations. It's true that the established media in Latin America tends to lean right, due to historical patterns of ownership by the region's elites. But there are more than enough press outlets in Venezuela today that toe Chávez's line. It's pretty clear to most analysts that the government is seeking to shut down opposition voices, and Globovisión is the only independently owned station left. Its owner has already gone into voluntary exile, fearing for his safety.

In the end, the film tell us less about Latin America than it does about Oliver Stone, and his career-long quest to expose Washington's supposedly implacable hegemonic designs. This time, it's the beleaguered, but unified good peoples of the Latin American left battling the forces of the Evil Empire -- right-wing media; American imperialists; rich, privileged opposition parties in Venezuela and elsewhere.

But the left in Latin America is neither uniform nor unified. In a panel discussion following the film, Cynthia Arnson of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars made exactly this point, explaining that the social democratic policies of Brazil are far different from the Bolivarian ones of Venezuela. She also noted the inconvenient example of Chile -- which is not characterized in the film, or even mentioned, as one of the new left, despite 20 years of left-leaning governments that followed the Augusto Pinochet regime. It is Chile, not Venezuela or Ecuador or Cuba, that made the furthest strides in lowering poverty in the region.

As for an openly hostile United States? If anything, U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America these days is the opposite of overactive; it scarcely exists. In the pecking order of importance, Latin America comes behind Asia, Europe, even Africa -- not to mention Russia or Central Asia. It's largely an afterthought. This lack of attention may be equally dangerous -- but it's not what Stone believes.

This article reflects the following correction:  Globovision has not been shut down. FP regrets the error.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images


What Really Happened in Urumqi?

One year later, here's what we still don't know about the bloody riots in China's Xinjiang region.

Nearly a year after violent riots engulfed Urumqi, the capital city of China's restive Xinjiang region, major questions about China's deadliest ethnic unrest in decades remain unanswered.

Key facts remain unknown or in dispute.

First, how many Uighurs were killed at a southern China toy factory in late June, an event that helped trigger the Urumqi riots hundreds of miles away? Chinese officials say two Uighurs were killed in a fight with Han Chinese workers; several eyewitnesses and Uighur leaders say many more Uighurs were beaten to death in an unprovoked attack.

Second, how were the riots in Xinjiang organized? The government insists they were preplanned and instigated by outside forces, including exiled Uighur businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer. Kadeer and others have said the protests were grassroots in origin, spurred largely by the lack of arrests in the Shaoguan toy factory murders.

Finally, what was the ethnic divide of those killed in the riots? The Chinese government says most victims were Han Chinese, while Uighur rights groups insist that more Uighurs were killed than has been acknowledged.

Advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch have attempted to uncover answers to these questions, but controls on journalists and pressure on sources have limited independent investigations.

These significant looming questions are all the more galling when you consider that Xinjiang was supposed to have been open to foreign journalists. On the heels of last year's deadly riots in Urumqi, the Chinese government made the surprising decision to allow foreign journalists access to the city to cover the mayhem.

The move marked a radical departure from the government's handling of a similar crisis in Tibet a year earlier, when Beijing locked down the region amid violent protests, allowing only a few non-Chinese journalists to visit on official trips with minders.

In the case of the Xinjiang riots, the government actually invited foreign journalists to Urumqi and provided them with a designated hotel and press center; their access to telephone and Internet services was assured, at least for a time, even when communication services to the region were cut. It's true that foreign journalists were given tours and suggestions by Chinese minders, but those reporters who went described relatively open reporting opportunities.

The government's turnabout surprised many and drew guarded compliments for alleged openness. As a July 2009 Reuters article described the situation: "The access for foreign media in Urumqi was in marked contrast to a blanket prohibition on travel to Tibetan areas after last March, when demonstrations across the plateau followed deadly riots in Lhasa." The political calculation in Beijing that afforded this degree of relative openness in Xinjiang is still not understood.

But there is a problem in this narrative around Beijing's handling of the Xinjiang riots. Although the city of Urumqi was relatively open to foreign media, most of Xinjiang -- particularly Kashgar, the political center of Uighur culture -- remained off-limits for practical purposes. As a result, it has become increasingly unlikely that a clear picture of what happened will ever emerge.

Intense pressure on Uighurs in China has kept most from speaking openly about events leading up to the riots. "I think that under the current repressive conditions on freedom of speech and information in Xinjiang, it will be very difficult to get at the truth of what exactly transpired -- beyond the individual accounts of Uighurs brave enough to step forward," says Henryk Szadziewski, manager of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project. "To get at the truth would take a change of direction from the Chinese government that has until the present not been seen -- to allow an independent and international investigation that encompasses the testimonies of all stakeholders."

Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at University of California at Berkeley and editor of the project's affiliated news site, China Digital Times, noted that China's information controls around the Xinjiang riots went beyond limits on reporting. The entire region's Internet access was shut down just hours into the riots. Several commerce-related sites were reopened in February, and Internet service was fully restored this May. 

"There are a lot of things we don't know about the whole situation," says Xiao. "The fact that they closed the Internet for so long is a symptom of how serious things were."

I experienced the lockdown firsthand on a trip to Kashgar this winter. For five days, I managed to elude police attention, but it was made very clear that most locals wouldn't dare speak openly with a foreign journalist. Kashgar's tour guides were instructed to report to police any journalists who hired them, and one European colleague was aghast to discover that a local family he interviewed about the Eid festival was later questioned by police. To be clear, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing has explicitly said Kashgar is open to foreign media.

My own run-in came when a delayed flight forced me to stay an extra night. I checked into what is meant to be the nicest hotel in town, a standard-issue high-rise full of rowdy businessmen. I waited as late as possible to check in, as I knew the journalist stamp on my passport would likely draw the police. Within 20 minutes, five officials came knocking on my door, demanding to know why I was in Kashgar and insisting I leave.

Later, in the lobby, the hotel manager offered me a halfhearted apology for calling the police when he realized a foreign journalist checked into his hotel.

Free press and human rights groups now worry about the climate leading up to and during the one-year anniversary, with initial reports suggesting that China will allow foreign journalists back into Xinjiang. But locals report heightening pressure not to talk to reporters, and the Chinese media remains leashed.

The government's own post-riot assessment suggested it was pleased with last year's media policy and coverage -- another unusual departure. In comments quoted by the official Xinhua news agency in July, Wang Chen, head of the State Council Information Office, said the media strategy worked well. Wang has described the new approach to media control as "more open."

"Openness stemmed from confidence; rumors were stopped by truth, by the rapid and wide dissemination of truth," Wang said.

In fact, access to Xinjiang is difficult for journalists a year after the riots, and new concerns have emerged about local sources refusing to talk for fear of repercussions. China's handling of Xinjiang could offer a glimpse of future media-control policies. The new approach -- allowing some access to information while blocking most -- seems to have worked in both hiding facts and placating some critics.

"I'm sure this was a kind of an experiment by the Chinese government on how to handle a crisis," said the China Digital Times' Xiao.

In other words, Beijing is updating, but hardly lifting, its media controls.

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