South of the Border
Here are some rough notes on Oliver Stone’s documentary “South of the Border”, which documents the recent democratic resurgence of leftist, socialist oriented regimes within Latin America, along with their consistent misrepresentation as “dictators” within the US news. There was Hugo Chavez (Venezuela) in 1998. Then, more recently Evo Morales (Bolivia) in 2005. Then Raphael Correa (Ecuador) in 2007. Then Fernando Lugo (Paraguay) in 2008. Lula da Silva in Brazil in 2003. And Nestor Kirchner in 2003 (followed by his wife in 2007.
What all of this has added up to is a serious challenge to US dominance in the region. As FOX news soundbiters never cease to repeat, these “dictators” don’t “have US interests at heart”. Ecuador, for example, said it was no longer going to allow the US to have a giant military base for free on its soil. (1) The US administration was piping mad, to which Correa famously replied (here and here; both are very worth clicking):
“If it’s no big deal to have a foreign military base on my country’s soil, than I accept – as long as it is reciprocal, and Ecuador is allowed to have a military base in Miami. So it’s a deal?”
That incident was a comical aside to a larger unfolding of the new map of Latin American relationships. These new leaders had come to power democratically, and had all opposed autocratic regimes that the US supported. This new wave of leftist leaders would no longer “kneel before the kings of empire,” in the words of Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner.
Kirchner himself famously refused to cooperate with the (Washington controlled) IMF program to dictate policy in his country. In exchange for loans to bail out Argentina’s economy, the IMF had strictly regulated domestic and foreign economic policies. These policies invariably favored multinational corporations, but left the country’s masses in abject poverty.
Kirchner recognized that this tactic had long been used to control Latin American politics, while leaving the people starving. Argentina by this point owed more money than its entire gross income, and was so hopelessly indebted that economic recovery a dire prospect.
The IMF had, typically, offered huge loans to former regimes, not to actually help anyone but, through proxy, as a way of controlling Latin American policy. On one hand, through the interests rates that these puppet-leaders are forced to accept, the country is kept dirt poor. (Argentina in the end owed more on just the interest payments than its total gross income.) On other hand, the loans are bundled with a host of conditions that force the country to restructure its internal to benefit international corporations (so, for example, the US can sell its cotton or its corn there).
It is rather as if my neighbor were in extremely dire straits and I offered to loan him a thousand dollars on the condition that he paint his living room neon green and divorce his wife, only eat pork for dinner, and send his kids to a Catholic school. If my neighbor is in a hard enough spot, he takes the bargain and I get to say what happens in his house.
This has been going on for ages in Latin America, to the benefit of multinational corporations, whose profit interests are the true meaning of the common political rhetoric of “American interests abroad”. So Kirchner flat out refuses to play ball, and tells the IMF off. This of course enraged Washington, who had been counting on him as another puppet.
These are just a few of the great scenes in this highly informative film. What struck me in the documentary is not only the inspiring story of a region coming together to successfully work out local solutions to national problems. What also comes through is the extent to which the American media uncritically portrays foreign regimes as “dictators” and “terrorists” for the mere fact that they don’t accept US terms for trade treaties.
With no other source of information than the nightly news, Americans, buying into the fabrications of our newscasters (after all, why wouldn’t they?), assume that Chavez (or Castro, or Morales, etc.) is some monster who do evil things in his country. What an irony, then, to find out that these leaders are by far the most democratic their countries have ever had, and for that matter far more democratic than the actual, US-funded dictators that preceded them in decades past.
“News” in America is increasingly revealed as something that distorts, skews, and spins narratives in favor of the US state’s declared “interests”. If you want a stark contrast to US mainstream “news,” and to see some truly exemplary reporting, check out Democracy Now! (here) or al-Jazeera (here). This list could easily be expanded to include Mother Jones, Alternet, PBS, Counterpunch, The Guardian, and many others. But these don’t access to US cable networks, which are instead dominated by private profit interests. (In fact, FOX’s internal memos, dictated from billionaire owner Rupert Murdoch on down, reveal a systematic attempt to skew the news in favor specific private and political interests.)
Instead of portraying things in a balanced way, the mainstream news-sources serve the interests of the US state. If information looks bad for the US, it is just “polished” or outright distorted. In Latin America, if you go along with US policy, you are “good” and “democratic”. If you disagree, you are automatically a dictator, no matter how many fair elections are behind your political power. (2)
Here is the trailer for the film:
Notes and references:
1. We should recall that the US has over 1000 military bases on other countries soil. Either we lease it, or we have forced them into treaties at some point in history, or we just occupied them at some point and force them to accept a base (note that the US has occupied dozens of countries in its history, from Japan and Korea to Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Our network of military installation encircles the globe, making the US a true empire of bases. If you drew dots between each one, you would have drawn a net that ensnares much of the globe. I won’t even talk about the cost to US taxpayers of maintaining such a vast empire of military bases.
(2) The United States has a long, dark history of supporting thugs and dictators in Latin America, even while it has brutally put down democratic movements.
Sometimes the CIA has directly intervened to assassinate democratic and revolutionary figures, as when it assassinated Che Guevara in Cuba in 1969. In other cases, the United States trains local thugs to operate as terrorists within the state. This is works to keep these states weak in the aim of eventually toppling them, in hopes of putting in a puppet who, on US payroll, will carry out US interests in the region. This has long been a successful ploy in Latin America, and the list is long and ugly. In Chile in 1973, during the “other 9-11,” the CIA participated in assassinating Salvador Allende, who rose to power democratically in a country full of hope and optimism about a better future, and instead installed Pinochet, arguably the worst dictator the region has ever seen. Pinochet killed far more people than Saddam ever did; only instead of going to war against him, we funded him and trained his army. Chileans were ever more miserable, but US profits soared, which was all the hegemon was actually concerned about. See, for example, the documentary The Pinochet Case (2001).
A list of countries in Latin America where the US has undermined democratic movements while funding local terrorists to destabilize the regime would include Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cuba, Bolivia, Panama, and El Salvador. The reports on the violence in many of these cases is sickening. In Guatemala in the 1980s, for example, US-supported death squads perpetrated the worst kinds of violence against peasants in the countryside who were suspected of having given food to “rebels,” as the opposition groups were called when they were forced into hiding. Whole villages were brutally wiped out, along with the usual litany of war crimes, from torture to systematic rape. All the while, the US media represents its actions as supporting a “democratic movement” against “tyranny,” the exact opposite of how the actual citizens of the country would have called it. See, for example, UC Berkeley professor Beatrice Mainz’s moving anthropology Paradise in Ashes, 2005.