Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

Latin America’s Rising Left


Jose Ibanez/Cinema Libre Studio

Review by David Kane

Oliver Stone has provided a great antidote to mainstream U.S. media coverage of Latin America with his latest film, South of the Border. People in the United States who get most of their international news from broadcast shows and cable news programs need this counterweight to the appalling spin they receive on the political changes currently taking place south of the border. For those living in Latin America, the film offers a refreshing opportunity to hear local protagonists of these changes tell their story and explain their motives.

The past decade in Latin America has been inspiring for those of us who work for social justice, and the film does a good job of portraying that energy. Since Hugo Chavez's election to the presidency of Venezuela in 1998, many other Latin American countries have voted for leaders who, as Argentine president Cristina Kirchner says in the film, "for the first time in the region ... look like the people they govern." A soldier in Venezuela (Hugo Chavez), a metal worker in Brazil (Lula da Silva), an indigenous leader in Bolivia (Evo Morales), and a liberation theology bishop in Paraguay (Fernando Lugo) were all elected by significant margins and proceeded to create very different economic policies aimed at benefiting the long-forgotten poor of each of their countries.

The film shows the failings of neoliberalismo, the term used in Latin America (and most of the world) to describe the economic policies that the United States has worked to spread throughout the world through the International Monetary Fund and "free trade" agreements. These neoliberal strategies have been an abysmal failure in Latin America, where people refer to the 1980s and 1990s as two "lost decades" due to the economic stagnation brought on by the policies pushed by the IMF. While the idea that governments should play a minimal role in the economy and allow corporations to act as freely as possible continues to hold sway here in the United States even after the recent collapse, in the rest of the world, especially Latin America, it is clear that those policies have failed and other options need to be tried.

Stone spends close to half the movie focusing on Chavez's rise to power and the short-lived coup against him in 2002. He does a good job of showing how Chavez is far more legitimately democratic than portrayed in U.S. media, and how much of an inspiration he is to others in the continent, but it still felt like too much time was spent on Chavez and Venezuela.

Unfortunately, I think that many who see the film will simply dismiss it as propaganda. For example, when Stone says the IMF has 186 member countries "but is controlled overwhelmingly by the U.S. Treasury Department," many could see that as a biased statement. It would have been more convincing to simply point out that the United States is the only country to hold veto power in the IMF -- a power it uses to heavily influence that institution's policies. The scene of Chavez in the backyard of the house where he grew up also seemed a little too manipulative and fawning.

Unfortunately the filmmaker did not interview Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, or Mauricio Funes of El Salvador, other components of the political shift in Latin America, though I imagine that Stone would have liked to as well if he had had the time or money. More interviews with people on the street would have more clearly shown the excitement behind these governmental changes.

I hope Stone will take advantage of the DVD format to include a significant "extras" section with the full interviews with the presidents and some of the "on the street" interviews in each country. Bonus features could also include more details about the inner workings of the IMF and some statistics to show the notable economic improvements brought on by these new governments. Also, the subtitles are fine for a larger screen but are too small for a small television or computer monitor.

Despite its minor flaws, South of the Border is a must-see for all who are interested in better understanding the significant changes occurring in Latin America today.

David Kane, a Maryknoll lay missioner, served for nine years in Joao Pessoa, Brazil, and currently works in Maryknoll's Office for Global Concerns in Washington, D.C., covering Latin American and economic issues.

Source Citation: Kane, David. 2010. Latin America’s Rising Left. Tikkun 25(6): 69

tags: Economy/Poverty/Wealth, Film, International Monetary Fund, Latin America, Neoliberalism, Reviews, Socialism  
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