Watch ‘South of the Border’ for a Slanted, Romantic Delusion

EspañolSouth of the Border is a 78-minute documentary film directed and produced by Oliver Stone, premiered at the 2009 Venice Film Festival. Stone, a US-based Academy Award winner, seeks to promote how South American leaders have united together against the political and economic imperialism of the United States, and he idealizes the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Chávez with Oliver Stone promoting the movie
Chávez with Oliver Stone promoting the movie. (PSUV El Hatillo)

Stone’s narrative begins with clips from US television networks such CNN and FOX, as they fail to accurately report certain Latin-American realities. In their ignorance, for example, they mistake coca leaves for actual cocaine. The film seeks to carry these misperceptions over to discredit the claim that Chávez was a “dictator.”

He then proceeds to interview Néstor and Cristina Kirchner (Argentina), Fernando Lugo (Paraguay),  Evo Morales (Bolivia), Lula da Silva (Brazil), Raúl Castro (Cuba), Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), and Rafael Correa (Ecuador). The narrative he presents, though, is no surprise to any South American native. We are subjected to the same story line from all the state-run television networks here.

The overarching theme of the documentary is a defense of 21st Century Socialism. The interviewed presidents justify their attacks on “neoliberal” politics as necessary in the face of the International Monetary Fund’s intrusion in their underdeveloped nations.

However, the ongoing comparisons between Latin America’s “grand motherland” nations and the empire of the devil that smells like sulfur — how Chávez called former President George W. Bush — is so well worn that it becomes extremely boring.

Stone’s interviews throughout the documentary function as a self-fulfilling prophecy. His questions come across as designed for the presidents to answer exactly in the manner that best suits them. They enjoy interviews in an environment of complicity and friendship, where both the interviewer and the interviewee have the same views, without cross-examination or hot-topic questions.

In terms of the movie’s storyline, Stone presents us with a biased portrayal of South America, relying only on official numbers and sources, and showing us images of what looks like paradise. Stone’s Venezuela, as portrayed in the movie, shows Chávez’s impeccable performance as the grand Caudillo who solves all economic troubles with a few simple instructions based on his mere good intentions.

It is amazing to see El Comandante ask a woman who owns a small farm how many liters of milk she manages to produce with the small number of cows she owns, and encourage her to increase production. Chávez is clueless regarding how he is destroying the price system, by imposing maximum prices and profit margins for businessmen, so it can never incentivize production (except on the black market).

Emblems of corruption: power in the hands of a few enlightened dignitaries, crony profiteering, high inflation rates, and poverty rates way higher than official numbers are all absent from Stone’s narrative. He doesn’t seem to care either, that it was exactly the politics of cronyism and public indebtedness that led a country like Argentina to a political, social, and economic crisis in 2001.

Instead, Stone presents us with a dictum to show that 21st Century Socialism in South America has come to stay. Apparently, this rebirth of the Latin-American statists is a warranted retaliation against the politics promoted by the IMF and leaders more friendly with the West. The media, so the story goes, have simply portrayed Chávez in a negative light.

The leaders in the movie did assume power democratically, at least initially, with near majorities of the votes, and in a period characterized by relative institutional stability in South America. However, Stone’s narrow analysis ignores all the severe economic and social troubles that have proceeded. These pieces of the story might sully the show and must remain backstage.

Stone fails to examine the dots on the map he presents as his route at the beginning of the film. Unfortunately, the specific nations he travels to happen to be the worst ranked in terms inflation, wages, government spending, corruption, and unemployment.

By the end of the movie, he even begs to God for the end of capitalism, to replace it with a noble form of trade, based on Chávez’s ideals. He compares the former Venezuelan president to the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, as they both seek to end the capitalist system, which supposedly has brought so much evil upon their nations. The only noted difference is that Chávez (and now Nicolás Maduro) has broader support from many ideological allies on the continent, and they are in power.

As the documentary concluded, I felt as if I were watching the Argentinean public broadcast channel or any news outlet controlled by the Venezuelan state, or perhaps reading the Young Rebel Communist newspaper from Cuba. Stone presents us with a fairytale that he may believe, for the most charismatic yet most authoritarian rulers of the region.

Translated by Anneke Ball.

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