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.
Stone: So you don't think capitalism can work.
Weisbrot: No no, capitalism is very resilient! It's gone through all kinds of crises- since Marx wrote about it it's gone through all sorts of crises and it's still survived. So it works in different ways in different countries and it doesn't work, but there are a lot of different forms of capitalism, just as there are different forms of socialism.
Stone: I figured you'd like that at The Washington Times- have a good debate on that.
WT: What do you hope this film will accomplish? Shat does film bring to such an issue that another medium cannot? (to Mark Weisbrot) You're an economist, you could just write about it.
Weisbrot: No one would read it.
Stone: The truth is, when you see 6,000 Bolivians stand up and cheer, which we did about two weeks ago- it inspires my heart. You know, I've been making movies for thirty-some years, and I've done three movies about Vietnam, and I kind of gave up in the idea that movies can actually do anything, because then we went and invaded so many countries, and we're militaristic. It's the majority of our discretionary spending. A trillion dollars a year, they say. So you become despairing over time, but when you see a young movie like this- and I call it a young movie because it was thrown together, it was very fast- documentaries provide the ability to make movies quick and low budget, and it's fresh and real people; you see the reactions of these people in these countries- 3,000 Venezuelans, 2,000 Ecuadorians, it was unbelievable. They were booing the bad guys- they knew who the bad guys were- and cheering the heroes. It's like being in a cereal, you know. It gave me that [feeling]- wow, movies do persuade, they do move people in their hearts. It gives me hope. I hope I can bring films to America that would pick up the spirits of the people.
WT: You spoke of the influence in these countries when you showed the documentary there, but what do you hope this will accomplish in America? Are you hoping for a popular conception change?
Ali: Look, it's just a modest attempt to correct the balance. Because what you see on your television screens and read in the print media, it's so far out from the reality of what these countries are, that all this film is trying to show is, this is how Oliver Stone found these countries, he talked to their leaders, this is what their leaders are saying, unmediated. Listen to them, and perhaps it'll make you think again, and perhaps you'll think, that last attack I saw on some cable channel on Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales, perhaps it isn't true. That's what democracy's about. It's about diverse opinions. But the way it's going, we have very few diverse opinions, real, serious diverse opinions in the mainstream media, either in op-eds or on the television screens. So this film, if you like, is an op-ed from a very different place.
Stone: A corrective.
Weisbrot: If I could add one thing, too, I think there are facts in the film that have been ignored, but the film shows documentary evidence both from the U.S. state department and de-classified CIA documents showing the United States involvement in the coup in 2002, that you can find if you're willing to spend a day searching for them, but have received very little attention in the media. So Im hoping that these facts will have an impact as well, that the press will think maybe they missed a story here- that maybe this is why we have such bad relations with Venezuela, maybe it isn't all Chavez himself. It's not ancient history.
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Michal Elseth is an intern with the National Journalism Center working in commentary and national news for the summer. She graduated in May with a Bachelor of Arts in English from Hillsdale College. Michal loves D.C. and life as a graduate, but she is actually from the other Washington and hopes to work in journalism there.
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