On Wednesday afternoon at the National Press Club, Michal Elseth of The Washington Times conducted an interview/discussion with the film-making team of the Hugo Chavez documentary “South of the Border”: director Oliver Stone and writers Mark Weisbrot and Tariq Ali. Mr. Stone is an Oscar-winning director, Mr. Weisbrot is a journalist and an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and Mr. Ali is a British-Pakistani historian and filmmaker.
TWT: What, specifically, first alerted you to the possibility that Chavez’s reputation among the media might be false? And why this perpetuated lack of American respect for these countries?
Oliver Stone: I’ve been interested off and on in South American projects and I did “Salvador” in 1986. I did two documentaries on Castro in the early part of the century. And I returned in 2007 and 2009 to see Chavez, and I met him, and he said, ‘You know, don’t take my word for it- go out there and see for yourself.’ He gave me access to the presidents of the region, and I went and talked to them, and I came back with the big picture. And I say big picture-because that’s what the movie is, it’s a roadtrip through these six countries, and it’s a quick glance, but you know, it’s not a heavy movie at all, I think it’s an introductory view, a big brushstroke, and humbly done, frankly. It’s face time with these presidents, they talk about Chavez, they talk about what’s going on in their countries, and the movement toward change, away from the old ways which are basically corporate control and oligarchical. The rich people did control these countries, and took the best profits out of Venezuela- also from Bolivia, certainly from Bolivia and Ecuador. Big time. I mean, these guys would be living in New York and Miami and Paris and spending the money, you know, it belonged to the people.
WT: So what do you think has perpetuated a lack of American respect for these countries?
Stone: Well, America has not been interested in the poor, not in our country hardly, and certainly abroad we have a contempt for the people’s desire. We don’t really support democracy; we call it that, but I mean, we really support military dictatorships, we support oligarchs, we support rich people and corporations. We’re a corporate-controlled country. I hate to say that, but that’s what we fight for.
Tariq Ali: The big difference, if you like, between the States and these countries is, all these elected leaders in the countries portrayed are bailing out the poor. Here you bail out the rich. We’ve spent trillions of dollars bailing out rich bankers, money which could create a health service, a proper education service, or public transport in this country. And jobs.
WT: So a lot of the difference is between capitalism and a more socialist form of government?
Stone: I believe in capitalism, I really do. My father was a stock broker. But I think it’s got to be made to work. It’s got to be regulated; I do believe the markets know best where to distribute goods and how to innovate.
I think there’s a lot of problems with government. But I don’t think we’re doing it right. And these countries are at least making the effort. And there are many problems in that, too. It’s not easy to run anything- I wouldn’t want to be the leader of a country, believe me. Mark [Wesibrot], you’re an economist. Talk about the capitalism that works and the ones that don’t.
Mark Weisbrot: Well, these are essentially social democratic governments. What they’ve done is provided increases in health care, for example. In Venezuela now, people have access to health care. They didn’t have that before.
They have greatly expanded access to education. They’ve doubled college enrollment, for example, in the last decade. Ecuador also has greatly increased spending on health care, Bolivia has increased public works employment; so, all these states are much smaller as a percentage of their economy than France, for example. So it might seem radical, but it’s what people voted for.
Stone: I’m asking you, what capitalism works and what doesn’t work, in your mind. You’re an economist.
Weisbrot: Of all the OECD, the developed countries, we have about the worst inequality; we did a little paper called “No Vacation Nation”- we’re the only country of all the developed countries that has no legal vacation days mandated by law. We don’t have health insurance. So, I would say that’s capitalism that’s not working very well for the majority of the people, even before the 2008 crash.
Stone: But you agree that there is also a market economy that works in the United States.
Weisbrot: Well, the word ‘market’- I don’t usually use that word market and free market, because it’s, I think, misused. The Right in this country, for instance, is very much in favor of government intervention for the things that they want, being bank profits, guaranteeing the pharmaceutical companies’ monopolies, there’s very heavy state intervention there too. I think it’s been misframed as a debate between the free market and the state. In fact, the conservatives want to use the government to redistribute upward and to fix the outcomes so that they benefit.