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To Chávez, With Love

Ronald Radosh

The red carpet was rolled out this Wednesday night for director Oliver Stone at the premiere of his new documentary, “South of the Border,” at the Silverdocs Film Festival in Silver Spring, Md.

Mr. Stone told the enthusiastic crowd that his intent in making the film was to correct Americans’ negative view of the Latin American left, particularly of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. Americans, Mr. Stone said following the screening, “have a false view of these countries, as they do of Saddam Hussein, Iran and any country that crosses our path.”

In “South of the Border,” Mr. Chávez is portrayed as a hero, a humble man of the people dedicated to elevating the poor who have democratically elected him time and again. The villains are all the usual suspects: capitalists and local oligarchies that are slaves to foreign interests, the Western press, the International Monetary Fund, and, of course, George W. Bush. Both the subject and the filmmaker had high hopes for Barack Obama, who is shown near the end of the film warmly shaking Mr. Chávez’s hand.

While the film’s major focus is on Mr. Chávez, it also covers Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Brazil’s Lula da Silva, Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and Fidel Castro’s younger brother, Raul. By Mr. Stone’s lights, all of these heads of state should be celebrated for daring to take on our country, the imperialist giant. “It is the big story that hasn’t been told,” Mr. Stone said. “These leaders are being trashed as dictators because our leaders don’t like them.”

Competently filmed by renowned documentarian Albert Maysles, “South of the Border” follows a well-established pattern first used in the 1960s and ’70s by the filmmaker Saul Landau. He followed Castro around Cuba in a jeep, portraying him as a beloved leader dedicated to making a better country for the Cuban poor. Mr. Stone rides in the front seat of an SUV as throngs surround Mr. Chávez, cheering. The intent is clear: Such a popular man can’t be an evil dictator.

The film depicts the ups and downs of Mr. Chávez’s rise to power, including his failed 1992 coup. It recounts how he was saved from death by armed forces loyal to him, and was brought back to power in large part by Gen. Raul Baduel. The general is shown discussing the role he played in Mr. Chávez’s restoration.

A small detail Mr. Stone conveniently leaves out is that in 2009, Gen. Baduel, who Mr. Chávez had appointed as defense minister, was stripped of power, indicted for corruption, and imprisoned because he had opposed Mr. Chávez’s attempts to institute constitutional changes that would transform Venezuela into a formal dictatorship.

What Mr. Stone and his writers have presented is a standard far-left narrative that is part of a long line of propaganda films, a modern American version of the old agitprop. There are no dissenting voices in this film. Nor is there any mention of the fact that Mr. Chávez has closed down television and radio stations that disagree with him and arrested dissenting political figures.

Another sin of omission: Mr. Stone makes no mention of Chile, which in the 1970s embraced economic liberalization and successfully reduced poverty much more than Mr. Chávez has managed to do in his own country. As writer Tariq Ali argued after the film ended, even under the recent socialist government Chile did not make the kind of structural Marxist changes that he and Mr. Stone believe is necessary for real change. Thus moderate leftist countries south of our border simply don’t count as “progressive.” Perhaps that’s why the filmmakers only praise those regimes that use their elected office to quickly institute an end to all limitations on their power.

Those interested in the truth about Latin America should save their money when “South of the Border” opens this weekend, and rent Ofra Bikel’s “The Hugo Chavez Show” from Netflix, or watch it for free on the PBS Frontline website instead.

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