Oliver Stone’s latest film tackles south of the border

In feature films about John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon and George
W. Bush, Oliver Stone gave free rein to his imagination and was often
criticized for doing so. Now, in “South of the Border,” which opened 25 June,
he has turned to Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s controversial populist president, and
his reformist allies in South America.

“People who are often demonized,
like Nixon and Bush and Chavez and Castro, fascinate me,” Stone said in a
recent interview during a tour to promote the film, which portrays Chavez as a
benevolent, generous, tolerant and courageous leader who has been unjustly
maligned. “It’s a recurring thing,” he added, that may suggest “a psychological
attachment to the underdog” on his part.

Unlike his movies about U.S.
presidents, the 78-minute “South of the Border” is meant to be a documentary
and therefore to be held to different standards. But it is plagued by the same
issues of accuracy that critics have raised about his movies, dating to “JFK.”
Taken together, the mistakes, misstatements and missing details could undermine
Stone’s glowing portrait of Chavez.

Stone’s problems in the film begin
early on, with his account of Chavez’s rise. As “South of the Border” portrays
it, Chavez’s main opponent in his initial run for president in 1998 was “a
6-foot-1-inch blond former Miss Universe” named Irene Saez, and thus “the
contest becomes known as the Beauty and the Beast” election.

But Chavez’s main opponent then was
not Saez, who finished third, with less than 3 percent of the vote. It was
Henrique Salas Romer, a bland former state governor who won 40 percent of the

When this and several other
discrepancies were pointed out to Stone in the interview, his attitudes varied.
“I’m sorry about that, and I apologize,” he said about the 1998 election. But
he also complained of “nitpicking” and “splitting hairs” and said that it was
not his intention to make either a program for C-Span or engage in what he
called “a cruel and brutal” Mike Wallace-style interrogation of Chavez that the
BBC broadcast this month.

“We are dealing with a big picture,
and we don’t stop to go into a lot of the criticism and details of each
country,” he said. “It’s a 101 introduction to a situation in South America
that most Americans and Europeans don’t know about,” he added, because of
“years and years of blighted journalism.”
“I think there has been so much unbalance that we are definitely a counter to
that,” he also said.

Tariq Ali, a British-Pakistani
historian and commentator who helped write the screenplay, added: “It’s hardly
a secret that we support the other side. It’s an opinionated documentary.”

Initial reviews of “South of the
Border” have been tepid. Stephen Holden in The New York Times called it a
“provocative, if shallow, exaltation of Latin American socialism,” while Entertainment
Weekly described it as “rose-coloured agitprop.”

Some of the misinformation that
Stone, who consistently mispronounces Chavez’s name as Sha-VEZ instead of
CHA-vez, inserts into “South of the Border” is relatively benign. A flight from
Caracas to La Paz, Bolivia, flies mostly over the Amazon, not the Andes, and
the United States does not “import more oil from Venezuela than any other OPEC
nation,” a distinction that has belonged to Saudi Arabia during the period

But other questionable assertions
relate to fundamental issues, including Stone’s contention that human rights, a
concern in Latin America since the Jimmy Carter era, is “a new buzz phrase,”
used mainly to clobber Chavez. Stone argues in the film that Colombia, which
“has a far worse human rights record than Venezuela,” gets “a pass in the media
that Chavez doesn’t” because of his hostility to the United States.

As Stone begins to speak, the logo
of Human Rights Watch, which closely monitors the situation in both Colombia
and Venezuela and has issued tough reports on both, appears on the screen. That
would seem to imply that the organization is part of the “political double standard”
of which Stone complains.

“It’s true that many of Chavez’s
fiercest critics in Washington have turned a blind eye to Colombia’s appalling
human rights record,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of the group’s
Americas division. “But that’s no reason to ignore the serious damage that
Chavez has done to human rights and the rule of law in Venezuela,” which
includes summarily expelling Vivancoand an associate, in violation of Venezuelan
law, after Human Rights Watch issued a critical report in 2008.

A similarly tendentious attitude
pervades Stone’s treatment of the April 2002 coup that briefly toppled Chavez.
One of the key events in that crisis, perhaps its instigation, was the “Llaguno
Bridge Massacre,” in which 19 people were shot to death in circumstances that
remain murky, with Chavez supporters blaming the opposition, and vice versa.

Stone’s film includes some new
footage from the confrontation at the bridge, but its basic argument hews
closely to that of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a film the Chavez
camp has endorsed. That documentary, however, has been subject to rebuttal by
another, called “X-Ray of a Lie,” and by Brian A. Nelson’s book “The Silence
and the Scorpion: The Coup Against Chavez and the Making of Modern Venezuela”
(Nation Books), neither of which Stone mentions.

Instead Stone relies heavily on the
account of Gregory Wilpert, who witnessed some of the exchange of gunfire and
is described as an American academic. But Wilpert is also the husband of
Chavez’s consul-general in New York, Carol Delgado, and a long-time editor and
president of the board of Venezuelanalysis.com, a website set up with donations
from the Venezuelan government, affiliations that Stone does not disclose.

Like Stone’s take on the Kennedy
assassination, this section of “South of the Border” hinges on the identity of
a sniper or snipers who may or may not have been part of a larger conspiracy.
As Stone puts it in the film, “Shots were fired from the rooftops of buildings,
and members from both sides were hit in the head.”

In a recent telephone interview,
Wilpert acknowledged that the first shots seem to have been fired from a
building known as La Nacional, which housed the administrative offices of
Freddy Bernal, the pro-Chavez mayor of central Caracas. In a congressional
investigation following the coup, Bernal, who led an elite police squadron
before taking office, was questioned about a military officer’s testimony that
the Defence Ministry had ordered Bernal to fire on opposition demonstrators.
Bernal described that charge as “totally false.”

“I did not know about that, I
didn’t even know it was a Chavista building,” Stone said initially, before
retreating to his original position. “Show me some Zapruder footage, and it
might be different,” he said.
The second half of “South of the Border” is a road movie in which Stone,
sometimes accompanied by Chavez, meets with leaders of Bolivia, Argentina,
Paraguay, Brazil, Ecuador and Cuba. But here, too, he bends facts and omits
information that might undermine his thesis of a continent-wide “Bolivarian
revolution,” with Chavez in the forefront.

Visiting Argentina, for example, he
accurately describes the economic collapse of 2001. But then he jumps to Nestor
Kirchner’s election to the presidency in May 2003 and lets Kirchner and his
successor – and wife – Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner claim that “we began a
different policy than before.”
In reality, Kirchner’s presidential predecessor, Eduardo Duhalde, and Duhalde’s
finance minister, Roberto Lavagna, were the architects of that policy shift and
the subsequent economic recovery, which began while Kirchner was still the
obscure governor of a small province in Patagonia. Kirchner was originally a
protege of Duhalde’s, but the two men are now political enemies, which explains
the Kirchners’ desire to write him out of their version of history.

Trying to explain the rise of Evo
Morales, the president of Bolivia who is a Chavez acolyte, Ali refers to a
controversial and botched water privatization in the city of Cochabamba.

“The government decided to sell the
water supply of Cochabamba to Bechtel, a U.S. corporation,” he says, “and this
corporation, one of the things it got the government to do was to pass a law
saying that from now on it was illegal for poor people to go out onto the roofs
and collect rainwater in receptacles.”

In reality, the government did not
sell the water supply: It granted a consortium that included Bechtel a 40-year
management concession in return for injections of capital to expand and improve
water service and construction of a dam for electricity and irrigation. Nor is
the issue of water collection by the poor exactly as Ali presents it.

“The rainwater permit issue always
comes up,” Jim Shultz, a water privatization critic and co-editor of “Dignity
and Defiance: Stories of Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization” (University of
California Press), said in an e-mail message. “What I can say is that the
privatization of the public water system was accompanied by a government plan
to require permits in order to dig wells and such, and that it could have
potentially granted management concessions to Bechtel or others.”

But “it never got that far,” he
added, and “it remains unclear to me to this day what type of water collection
systems would have been included.” He concluded: “Many believed that would have
included some rain collection systems. That could also easily be hype.”

Asked about the discrepancy, Ali
replied that “we can talk about all this endlessly,” but “the aim of our film
is very clear and basic.” In “South of the Border,” he added: “We were not
writing a book or having an academic debate. It was to have a sympathetic view
of these governments.”