Oliver Stone's Latin America
By LARRY ROHTER
Published: June 25, 2010
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
on Friday, he has turned to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's controversial
populist president, and his reformist allies in South America.
"People who are often demonized, like Nixon and Bush and Chávez and
Castro, fascinate me," Mr. Stone said in an interview this week
during a tour to promote the film, which portrays Mr. Chávez 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 American 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 back to "JFK."
Taken together, the mistakes, misstatements and missing details could
undermine Mr. Stone's glowing portrait of Mr. Chávez.
Mr. Stone's problems in the film begin early on, with his account of
Mr. Chávez's rise. As "South of the Border" portrays it, Mr. Chávez's
main opponent in his initial run for president in 1998 was "a
6-foot-1-inch blond former Miss Universe" named Irene Sáez, and thus
"the contest becomes known as the Beauty and the Beast" election.
But Mr. Chávez's main opponent then was not Ms. Sáez, 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 vote.
When this and several other discrepancies were pointed out to Mr.
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 Mr. Chávez 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, the 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-colored agitprop."
Some of the misinformation that Mr. Stone, who consistently
mispronounces Mr. Chávez'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 2004-10.
But other questionable assertions relate to fundamental issues,
including Mr. 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 Mr. Chávez. Mr. Stone argues in the film that
Colombia, which "has a far worse human rights record than Venezuela,"
gets "a pass in the media that Chávez doesn't" because of his
hostility to the United States.
As Mr. 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 Mr. Stone complains.
"It's true that many of Chávez's fiercest critics in Washington have
turned a blind eye to Colombia's appalling human rights record," said
José Miguel Vivanco, director of the group's Americas division. "But
that's no reason to ignore the serious damage that Chávez has done to
human rights and the rule of law in Venezuela," which includes
summarily expelling Mr. Vivanco and an associate, in violation of
Venezuelan law, after Human Rights Watch issued a critical report in 2008.
A similarly tendentious attitude pervades Mr. Stone's treatment of
the April 2002 coup that briefly toppled Mr. Chávez. 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 Chávez supporters blaming the
opposition, and vice versa.
Mr. 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 Chávez 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 Chávez and the Making of
Modern Venezuela" (Nation Books), neither of which Mr. Stone mentions.
Instead Mr. 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 Mr. Wilpert is also the husband of Mr.
Chávez's consul-general in New York, Carol Delgado, and a longtime
editor and president of the board of a Web site,
Venezuelanalysis.com, set up with donations from the Venezuelan
government, affiliations that Mr. Stone does not disclose.
Like Mr. 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 Mr.
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 telephone interview this week, Mr. 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-Chávez mayor of central Caracas. In a congressional
investigation following the coup, Mr. Bernal, who led an elite police
squadron before taking office, was questioned about a military
officer's testimony that the Defense Ministry had ordered Mr. Bernal
to fire on opposition demonstrators. Mr. Bernal described that charge
as "totally false."
"I did not know about that, I didn't even know it was a Chávista
building," Mr. 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 Mr.
Stone, sometimes accompanied by Mr. Chávez, 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 Mr. Chávez
in the forefront.
Visiting Argentina, for example, he accurately describes the economic
collapse of 2001. But then he jumps to Néstor Kirchner's election to
the presidency in May 2003 and lets Mr. Kirchner and his successor
and wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner claim that "we began a
different policy than before."
In reality, Mr. Kirchner's presidential predecessor, Eduardo Duhalde,
and Mr. Duhalde's finance minister, Roberto Lavagna, were the
architects of that policy shift and the subsequent economic recovery,
which began while Mr. Kirchner was still the obscure governor of a
small province in Patagonia. Mr. Kirchner was originally a protégé of
Mr. 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 Chávez acolyte, Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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."
Response to Attack From the New York Times' Larry Rohter
Published on Monday, June 28, 2010 by South of the Border
The following letter was sent to The New York Times:
by Oliver Stone, Mark Weisbrot and Tariq Ali
Larry Rohter attacks our film, "South of the Border," for "mistakes,
misstatements and missing details." But a close examination of the
details reveals that the mistakes, misstatements, and missing details
are his own, and that the film is factually accurate. We will
document this for each one of his attacks. We then show that there is
evidence of animus and conflict of interest, in his attempt to
discredit the film. Finally, we ask that you consider the many
factual errors in Rohter's attacks, outlined below, and the pervasive
evidence of animus and conflict of interest in his attempt to
discredit the film; and we ask that The New York Times publish a full
correction for these numerous mistakes.
1) Accusing the film of "misinformation," Rohter writes that "A
flight from Caracas to La Paz, Bolivia, flies mostly over the Amazon,
not the Andes. . ." But the narration does not say that the flight is
"mostly" over the Andes, just that it flies over the Andes, which is
true. (Source: Google Earth).
2) Also in the category of "misinformation," Rohter writes "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 2004-10."
The quote cited by Rohter here was spoken in the film by an oil
industry analyst, Phil Flynn, who appears for about 30 seconds in a
clip from U.S. broadcast TV. It turns out that Rohter is mistaken,
and Flynn is correct. Flynn is speaking in April 2002 (which is
clear in the film), so it is wrong for Rohter to cite data from
2004-2010. If we look at data from 1997-2001, which is the relevant
data for Flynn's comment, Flynn is correct. Venezuela leads all OPEC
countries, including Saudi Arabia, for oil imports in the U.S. over
this period. (Source: US Energy Information Agency for Venezuela
3) Rohter tries to discredit the film's very brief description of
the 1998 Venezuelan presidential race:
"As "South of the Border" portrays it, Mr. Chávez's main opponent in
his initial run for president in 1998 was "a 6-foot-1-inch blond
former Miss Universe" named Irene Sáez, and thus "the contest becomes
known as the Beauty and the Beast" election.
But Mr. Chávez's main opponent then was not Ms. Sáez, 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 vote."
Rohter's criticism is misleading. The description of the presidential
race in the film, cited by Rohter, is from Bart Jones, who was
covering Venezuela for the Associated Press from Caracas at the time.
The description is accurate, despite the final results. For most of
the race, which began in 1997, Irene Sáez was indeed Chavez's main
opponent, and the contest was reported as "Beauty and the Beast." In
the six months before the election, she began to fade and Salas Romer
picked up support; his 40 percent showing was largely the result of a
late decision of both COPEI and AD (the two biggest political parties
in Venezuela at the time, who had ruled the country for four decades)
to throw their support behind him. (See, for example, this 2008
article from BBC, which describes the race as in the film, and does
not even mention Salas Romer: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7767417.stm )
Rohter's description makes it seem like Saéz was a minor candidate,
which is absurd.
4) Rohter tries to frame the film's treatment of the 2002 coup in
Venezuela as a "conspiracy theory." He writes:
" Like Mr. 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."
This description of the film is completely false. The film makes no
statement on the identity of the snipers nor does it present any
theory of a "larger conspiracy" with any snipers. Rather, the film
makes two points about the coup: (1) That the Venezuelan media (and
this was repeated by U.S. and other international media) manipulated
film footage to make it look as if a group of Chavez supporters with
guns had shot the 19 people killed on the day of the coup. This
manipulation of the film footage is demonstrated very clearly in the
film, and therefore does not " [rely] heavily on the account of
Gregory Wilpert" as Rohter also falsely alleges. The footage speaks
for itself. (2) The United States government was involved in the
coup (see http://southoftheborderdoc.com/2002-venezuela-coup/ and below).
Ironically, it is Rohter that relies on conspiracy theories, citing
one dubious account in particular that he argues we should have
included in the film.
5) Rohter accuses us of "bend[ing] facts and omit[ting] information"
on Argentina, for allowing "Mr. Kirchner and his successor - and wife
- Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to claim that "we began a different
policy than before."
"In reality, Mr. Kirchner's presidential predecessor, Eduardo
Duhalde, and Mr. Duhalde's finance minister, Roberto Lavagna, were
the architects of that policy shift and the subsequent economic
recovery, which began while Mr. Kirchner was still the obscure
governor of a small province in Patagonia."
This criticism is somewhat obscure and perhaps ridiculous. The
Kirchners were in the presidency for five out of the six years of
Argentina's remarkable economic recovery, in which the economy grew
by 63 percent. Some of the policies that allowed for that recovery
began in 2002, and others began in 2003, and even later. What exactly
are the "bent facts" and "omitted information" here?
6) Rohter tries to make an issue out of the fact that the logo of
Human Rights Watch appears for a couple of seconds on the screen,
during a discussion of Washington's double standards on human rights.
The film doesn't say or imply anything about HRW. Most importantly,
in his interview with Rohter, HRW's Americas director José Miguel
Vivanco backs up exactly what the film does say, that there is a
double standard in the U.S. that focuses on allegations of human
rights abuses in Venezuela while ignoring or downplaying far graver,
far more numerous, and better substantiated allegations about human
rights abuses in Colombia: "It's true that many of Chávez's fiercest
critics in Washington have turned a blind eye to Colombia's appalling
human rights record," says Vivanco.
7) Rohter attacks co-writer Tariq Ali for saying that "The government
[of Bolivia] decided to sell the water supply of Cochabamba to
Bechtel, a U.S. corporation." Rohter writes: "In reality, the
government did not sell the water supply: it granted a consortium
that included Bechtel a 40-year management concession . . ."
Rohter is really reaching here. "Selling the water supply" to private
interests is a fair description of what happened here, about as good
for practical purposes as "granting a 40-year management concession."
The companies got control over the city's water supply and the
revenue that can be gained from selling it.
Rohter's animus and conflict of interest: We gave Rohter an enormous
amount of factual information to back up the main points of the film.
He not only ignored the main points of the film, but in the quotes he
selected for the article, he picked only quotes that were not fact
related that could be used to illustrate what he considered the
director's and co-author's bias. This is not ethical journalism; in
fact it is questionable whether it is journalism at all.
For example, Rohter was presented with detailed and documentary
evidence of the United States' involvement in the 2002 coup. (see
http://southoftheborderdoc.com/2002-venezuela-coup) This was a major
point in the film, and was backed up in the film by testimony from
then Washington Post foreign editor Scott Wilson, who covered the
coup from Caracas. In our conversations with Rohter, he simply
dismissed all of this evidence out of hand, and nothing about it
appears in the article.
Rohter should have disclosed his own conflict of interest in this
review. The film criticizes the New York Times for its editorial
board's endorsement of the military coup of April 11, 2002 against
the democratically elected government of Venezuela, which was
embarrassing to the Times. Moreover, Rohter himself wrote an article
on April 12 that went even further than the Times' endorsement of the coup:
"Neither the overthrow of Mr. Chavez, a former army colonel, nor of
Mr. Mahuad two years ago can be classified as a conventional Latin
American military coup. The armed forces did not actually take power
on Thursday. It was the ousted president's supporters who appear to
have been responsible for deaths that numbered barely 12 rather than
hundreds or thousands, and political rights and guarantees were
restored rather than suspended." - Larry Rohter, New York Times, April 12, 2002
These allegations that the coup was not a coup - not only by Rohter -
prompted a rebuttal by Rohter's colleague at the New York Times, Tim
Weiner, who wrote a Sunday Week in Review piece two days later
entitled "A Coup By Any Other Name." (New York Times, April 14, 2002)
Unlike the NYT editorial board, which issued a grudging retraction of
their pro-coup stance a few days later (included in our film), Rohter
seems to have clung to the right-wing fantasies about the coup. It is
not surprising that someone who supports the military overthrow of a
democratically elected government would not like a documentary like
this one, which celebrates the triumphs of electoral democracy in
South America over the last decade.
But he should have at least informed his readers that the New York
Times' was under fire in this documentary, and also about his own
reporting: in 1999 and 2000 he covered Venezuela for the Times,
writing numerous anti-Chavez news reports. The media's biased and
distorted reporting on Latin America is a major theme of the
documentary, one which Rohter also conveniently ignores in is
1665-word attempt to discredit the film.
We spent hours with Rohter over the course of two days and gave him
all the information he asked for, even though his hostility was clear
from the outset. But he was determined to present his narrative of
intrepid reporter exposing sloppy filmmaking. The result is a very
dishonest attempt to discredit the film by portraying it as factually
inaccurate - using false and misleading statements, out-of-context,
selective quotations from interviews with the director and writers,
and ad hominem attacks. The Times should apologize for having published it.