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  1. Wealth
June 29, 2010

South of the Border but Beyond Reason

By Spear's

Now for Oliver Stone. Let’s start at the beginning.

Alright, yes, yes, I get it, Oliver. America has been an imperialist pig; the media spread lies to an ignorant audience, and South Americans have a right to self-determination.

I can’t actually say I disagree with any of these points.

And yet South of the Border, Oliver Stone’s hagiography of Venezuelan Pres. Hugo Chávez, managed to get so many things wrong, I found myself talking back to the screen in a theater full of fired-up chavistas (as Chávez supporters are known) — not the best thing for my physical well-being.

Before we begin, let me explain where I’m coming from, so I don’t get accused of prevarication or hypocrisy. 

Yes, I was born into a white immigrant family (of Czech origin) that Chávez considers part of the old oligarchy. We owned a business that employed roughly 3300 people and a large charitable foundation that provided education for children and single mothers, healthcare for the poor and supported arts programs including the youth orchestra that is now known as El Sistema and is now credited to Chávez for producing Gustavo “the Dude” Dudamel.

And let’s get one other thing straight: no, we did not steal oil money, nor did anyone else I know. The only people who could have exploited the poor by stealing the oil money, as is widely alleged, are the people who had access to it: the Venezuelan government and the foreign oil companies — the Americans, the Brits, the Dutch. I made this point in my Sunday Times editorial on 22 February 2009

Now for Oliver Stone. Let’s start at the beginning.

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It’s always a clever ploy to open by ridiculing idiots — idiots, after all, are an easy target for ridicule. The idiots in the film’s opening are hysterical talking heads who cannot pronounce “coca” or distinguish it from cocaine, and make libelous claims about South American leaders in a cartoonish fashion. I agree with Stone that their statements and behavior is shocking and as a Latin American, I find it offensive, but then there’s a reason why these people read from teleprompters: they cannot be trusted to think or speak for themselves. I, too, find the pervasive American and European ignorance of Latin America frustrating and galling. So far, I’m with ya, Oliver.

I also absolutely agree with the assertions of some of the leftist leaders he interviews (Correa in Ecuador, Morales in Bolivia, Lula in Brazil, Kirchner in Argentina, Lugo in Paraguay) that it’s wonderful that the rulers now look and speak like their ruled. I also agree that the fact that the US doesn’t like them or they go against US interests does not make them bad.

I also agree that the neoliberal macroeconomic reforms imposed by the World Bank, US and IMF through the Washington Consensus were ill-conceived at best and downright unjust at worst, as (and this Stone does not understand or even tackle) they did indeed open the path for American business in Latin America while not doing the same for Latin American business in the US and was therefore widely perceived as another imperialist ploy. I also think it’s rather cool Rafael Correa told the US where they could stick their military base. 

The reason I don’t have a problem with any of these positions is because they are in keeping with the basic tenets of good government: an enactment of the aggregate will of the people (self-determination), a policy of political inclusion and a fiduciary duty of care to a nation and its people. Lula, for instance, may frustrate the US by meeting with Ahmadinejad and offering a different approach to Iran, but he’s been great for Brazil, increasing its geopolitical standing as part of his campaign to secure a permanent UN Security Council seat for his country, growing its economy and reducing its poverty. Whatever the US thinks, thumbs up, Lula!

But Oliver Stone is like an infatuated little girl: taken in by Chávez’s undeniable charisma and down-to-earth style, he will admit no criticism of his idol and is blind to the facts. His lack of journalistic distance from his subject is on constant display: Stone repeatedly hugs Chávez and takes the microphone to explain why Chávez is so great. He shows plenty of people dressed in red, praising Chávez like a hero, but does not show the university students (former chavistas) now starving themselves in protest on the steps of the OAS offices in Caracas.

Nor does he show the footage his former Defense Minister Raúl Isaías Baduel having a black hood thrown over his head and being bundled into a car in front of his screaming wife and children (a kidnapping, not an arrest) after Baduel publicly criticized Chávez’s dictatorial ambitions. Nor did Stone show the armed chavista militia firebombing a critical television station and shooting its journalists.

Indeed any journalist (including myself) who is deemed to “go against the interests of the state” can be imprisoned indefinitely without trial. This is not rumor; it’s black letter law. Go look it up. I just had to fight tooth and nail to get my Venezuelan passport back after they refused to renew it for the past two years. Thank God I have two other passports because being a stateless person is no joke.

More egregious than Stone’s lack of journalistic distance, however, is his lack of research.

Referring to the shootings of protesters on the streets of Caracas in April 2002, Stone goes into JFK-style conspiracy theory paranoia when he says that the opposition-controlled media lied about who got shot and who did the shooting by lying when they said that there were chavista shooters.

Wait a minute, there was a crossfire in which both sides got shot, but many anti-chavistas got shot and killed and Chávez has openly boasted on nationally-broadcast television (many times, in fact) that for years he has been arming civilian militias to do just that: to inform on their neighbors Stasi-style and shoot the opposition in the streets. He has praised their work and boasted about the hundreds of thousands of weapons he has given them and bragged about how he is training young children to shoot and build bombs.

Again, this is not opposition-spread rumor; these are Chávez’s own words on national television, where he routinely incites his people to violence, urging one half of the population to throw Molotov cocktails at the other half. Again, go Google it.

In the meantime, Caracas has now become more violent and dangerous than Baghdad, and Venezuela (America’s third largest oil supplier) will be the only South American country whose economy will shrink in the coming year. My brother, who’s still there, lives with shortages of food, water and electricity. Electricity?!

In a country that has the largest oil reserves outside the Arab world, one of the biggest natural gas reserves in the world, as well as one of the world’s biggest hydroelectric dams: the Guri Dam, an engineering miracle? Chávez has not maintained Guri’s turbines in the past decade of his rule, which is why there are electricity shortages; and yet, he blames El Niño, a weather pattern.

In what alternate universe is a country where the people are hungry, thirsty, broke, living in the dark, imprisoned for their opinions and murdered in the streets an example of good governance? Even Thomas Hobbes during the English Civil War in the 17th century understood that providing security was the fundamental sine qua non of political rule. Chávez cannot manage even that. So, no, unlike Lula, Chávez has not been good for his people, either domestically or geopolitically.

Stone doesn’t seem to like these facts that are inconvenient for his view of his hero and his close chum. In the film, Stone portrays Ambassador Otto Reich’s assertion (yes, Otto Reich is a family friend) that Chávez has created poverty as pure hogwash and instead quotes Chávez’s own manufactured statistics that he has reduced poverty by 70% and eliminated illiteracy by prioritizing the fight against poverty, inequality and social injustice.

But these facts have been widely discredited, not by the evil US or even the sneaky opposition, but by Chávez’s own cabinet members who were in charge of these programs and resigned in disgust at the lies and had to flee the country.

As I argued in my Guardian editorial of 4 February 2009, income inequality between rich and poor (that horrid social injustice Chávez was elected to address) has actually grown under Chávez. Indeed, poverty has grown in both directions: there are more poor and the poor are poorer.

Furthermore, as I argued in my BBC Newsnight interview, it’s a patent lie to say Chávez has prioritized poverty reduction in his budget: it’s exactly the same percentage of the budget as it was against President Carlos Andrés Pérez against whom then-Col. Chávez attempted a coup in February 1992. Chávez only had more money to spend because the price of oil went up; it was economic luck, not political prioritization.

And now where is all that money?

Well, I found one clue at the Guard’s Polo Club outside London when I went to see a friend’s polo team play in the Queen’s Cup semifinal. And whom were they playing? Well none other than the team of Victor Vargas, a man who came from no known legitimate business background to become Chávez’s main banker, managing state funds and suddenly worth so many billions, he can fly 24 horses and all the attendant grooms, tack, players and their families from Caracas to London for a game, as well as marry off his daughter to a Bourbon, i.e., a member of the Spanish royal family.

Now Stone claims in his film that the Spaniards were part of the conspiracy in the 40-hour coup against Chávez, and his evidence is the rumor that Pedro Carmona (who took over in what I agree was an illegal and horribly regrettable coup that must never be repeated) got measured for a presidential sash in Madrid. Funny, I never heard that one. It’s Stone engaging in just the sort of media lies of which he accuses those who criticize his hero. Remember the goose and gander, Oliver. 

Now it is true that there are still plenty of people who support Chávez, though I personally find this irrational and attribute it to just how far ethnic and socioeconomic divided will get a demagogue. Now, everyone is certainly entitled to their vote — though Chávez doesn’t think so: I know government employees who had to reveal for whom they voted and lost their jobs when they voted against Chávez and Chávez broke every single campaign law last time around.

It’s also well overdue that greater political and socioeconomic inclusion be a guiding tenet of national development in a more self-determining Latin America that doesn’t bend to US corporate interests. Hallelujah to all that.

My problem with Chávez isn’t that he stands for those things; it’s that he doesn’t. He’s a self-serving liar and thief who is grievously harming his people. 

Yet somehow Oliver Stone and Tariq Ali, the screenwriter and Pakistani Latin America “expert” whose previous screenwriting credential is Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope (even the chavistas in the audience chuckled every time he came on the screen) think that just because Chávez has the right look and the right rhetoric, he should be hailed as a hero.

Who asked these foreigners anyway? How dare they sit around and opine on what’s good for our country? As I wrote in an email to Tariq Ali days before the US premiere in DC, if that isn’t White Man’s Burden, I don’t know what is.

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