Regarding “South of the Border”

Oliver Stone’s documentary, “South of the Border,” has been witheringly criticized since its release in selected cities on June 25th. Still showing in some theaters, the film continues to spark debate. The controversy surrounding the documentary, however, came as no surprise, as “South of the Border” was created with the intention of being a revisionist film, praising leftist Latin American governments (namely those of Hugo Chávez and others that practice 21st Century Socialism) frequently criticized by the American media and government. Given the subject matter, harsh scrutiny of the Stone film was to be expected, but what remains to be examined is whether or not the criticisms are deserved. The answer, of course, is multifaceted.

“South of the Border” mainly focuses on the actions and rhetoric of Hugo Chávez, highlighting the positive initiatives of his government, such as his effort to combat poverty and lack of development through redistribution of the country’s oil wealth. Through interviews with Stone, Chávez is portrayed as benevolent and hardworking, an image almost completely contradictory to his depiction in the American media. After glorifying the Chávez government, the film goes on the road and introduces viewers to leftist leaders across the region, many of whom Chávez has inspired (the notable exception here is Raúl Castro of Cuba, who continues the revolution of his brother, but not without significant changes). These leaders¬—Evo Morales of Bolivia, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner of Argentina, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador—offer up similar messages, but with a different pitch. Prompted by the failings of neoliberal policies in their countries and years of exclusionist elite control, these precursors knew it was time for change in Latin America. Change meant a turn (of some degree) to the left, and adopting principles of Chávez’ Bolivarian Revolution.

Yet, while the documentary is unquestionably successful in emphasizing the progressive changes made by these governments, it includes one moment that is disconcertingly flippant about the sanctity of human rights. Stone, who narrates the film, refers to human rights as a “new buzz word” and implies that this concept is used to unfairly chastise Chávez. While Stone narrates this, a Human Rights Watch logo flashes across the screen.

Undoubtedly, what Stone and the film’s two writers, Tariq Ali and Mark Weisbrot, are referencing at this moment is a 230-page report produced by HRW in 2008, in which the organization criticized the Venezuelan government for cracking down on press freedoms, among other derelictions. The report, however, failed to mention the gross unprofessionalism of many opposition media outlets in Venezuela, which often act as anti-Chávez weapons, rather than objective news sources. The fact that the inaccuracies of this specific HRW report (titled “A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for the Advancing of Human Rights in Venezuela”) are not even minimally cited in the film, weakens it by confusing audiences.

After the HRW scene, Stone goes on to narrate that human rights concepts are used to demonize Chávez in the U.S. while Colombia, a U.S. ally which is notorious for human rights abuses, receives a free pass in the media. This commentary is somewhat problematic. First of all, “human rights” cannot be considered a “new” issue. Take the prominent human rights organization, Amnesty International. This group has been closely monitoring human rights situations around the world since 1961. Further, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, and has been operating ever since. Second, referring to human rights as a “buzz word” not only completely undermines the work of legitimate human rights organizations, but also inferentially criticizes the concept of human rights as a whole.

Moreover, U.S. allies, like Colombia, in no way receive a free pass when it comes to human rights abuses, at least in the case of human rights NGOs. Reports by a number of organizations make it clear that the human rights situation in Colombia is far worse than that in Venezuela. For 2010 alone, Amnesty International has published 31 reports pertaining to human rights issues in Colombia and only 11 reports concerning human rights in Venezuela.

“South of the Border” should have foregone flashing the HRW logo in the film. While the organization deserves to be criticized for publishing inaccurate material in its 230-page report on Venezuela in 2008, there is no reason to completely undermine its current work and the work of other human rights agencies.

Even after acknowledging its stigmata, “South of the Border” as a whole merits less castigation, and much more praise. Its mission, after all, is novel: to present left-leaning governments in Latin America in a positive light. The documentary does not pretend to be impartial; it is clear from the beginning that it aims to promote the Latin American left. New York Times reporter Larry Rohter bashed “South of the Border,” meticulously pointing out every slight inaccuracy, no matter how minute. These errors, although present, are for the most part unimportant, and do not severely harm the message of the film as a whole. What could have made the film stronger, nevertheless, was inclusion of more solid information about each of the spotlight countries. For example, none of the faults of these left-leaning governments were touched upon in the documentary. Instead of blind praise, “South of the Border” should have emphasized that many of these governments, although they are not flawless, at long last give voices to groups previously excluded from political dialogue, like the poor and the indigenous.

“South of the Border” rightly reprimands Fox News for using the word “dictator” to describe democratically elected presidents Chávez and Morales. While speaking of the Chávez government, however, the film ebulliently stresses his achievements, such as his 70% reduction of extreme poverty in Venezuela, but fails to mention any of his shortcomings, such as his indefensible support of the Colombian rebel group FARC and his increased badgering of opposition media (at first this could be justified, given the involvement of TV channel RCTV in the 2002 coup, but Chávez’ more recent crackdown in 2009 and 2010, especially with the passing of a law that could imprison journalists for publishing “harmful” material, demonstratively may have gone too far). While touching on Rafael Correa, the film praises the Ecuadorian president for being very bold in relations with the United States, yet neglects to mention his controlling move of eliminating term limits on the presidency and his continuing manipulative actions against members of the indigenous community.

These left-leaning leaders are far from flawless. But it is essential to remember that some of these new faces reflect a welcomed, progressive era in Latin America. Morales, for example, is the first elected indigenous president of Bolivia, a country in which those of indigenous and mestizo heritage makes up eighty-five percent of its population. His chief objectives include empowering the country’s indigenous and poor through land reform and redistribution of gas wealth.

Leaders like Morales deserve to be looked upon as a breath of fresh air in a region previously dominated by white, rich (and often corrupt) oligarchies that demonstrated little concern for the interests of the poor and the indigenous. While protagonists like Chávez, Correa, and Morales may not be without questionable parts of their backgrounds, they are certainly a step in the right direction. As emphasized in “South of the Border,” the American media and government should be able to abandon their Cold War lenses and adopt more balanced views towards these governments. They should be criticized only when they criticism is deserved and praised when praise is due.