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By Larry Rohter
Larry Rohter is a graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, where he majored in history, economics and political science, and also has a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International Affairs, where he specialized in Modern Chinese History and Politics. From 1977 to 2008 he was primarily a foreign correspondent in Latin America and Asia, first for Newsweek and then for The New York Times, where he is now a culture reporter. He is the author of “Deu no New York Times” (2008: Objetiva), a Portuguese-language best-seller in Brazil, and “Brazil on the Rise,” which will be published September 1 by Palgrave Macmillan.
One month ago, I incurred the wrath of Oliver Stone for stating the obvious in an article I wrote: his new movie South of the Border, ostensibly a “documentary” about Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and a group of supposedly like-minded South American colleagues, is so riddled with errors, misrepresentations, fabrications and fraudulent statistics as to be useless except as an example of over-the-top propaganda. At the screening for the movie that I attended, I counted more than two dozen assertions that are demonstrably incorrect, but chose, in the limited space available to me, to focus on but a handful.
Stone’s response wasn’t long in coming. Though he had acknowledged and apologized for several of his mistakes in a pair of interviews I did with him before writing my fact-checking article, he changed course as soon as the piece appeared, circulating an attempt at a rebuttal while also launching a smear campaign against me and my work with the assistance of sympathetic pro-Chavez solidarity groups and websites. To hear them tell it, I am a CIA agent, coup supporter, racist, coup denier, “tool of the corporate media,” reactionary and defender of rapacious multinational companies. One “solidarity” website went so far as to suggest I be assassinated, and I suppose that if I had looked hard enough, I would even have found myself accused of beating my wife.
All of this is nonsense, of course, a diversionary tactic meant to draw attention away from further discussion of the manifold failings of Stone’s film. The same goes for the written claims, full of indisputably false assertions, which Stone and his two screenwriters, Mark Weisbrot and Tariq Ali, have sent to a number of news organizations and websites, including HNN. I don’t intend to test the patience or limited interest of readers with a point-by-point refutation of Stone’s letter here. But it is worthwhile to examine a few of his more egregious errors and specious claims, because they say something about the way he and his associates think and work.
In my original article, for example, I pointed to the film’s erroneous contention that “the United States imports more oil from Venezuela than any other OPEC nation.” In fact, that distinction has long belonged to Saudi Arabia. But rather than admit their error, Stone and especially Weisbrot, who as the principal screenwriter is responsible for the bulk of the most glaring mistakes, have shifted position several times, trying to redefine what years should be taken into account and whether the standard of measurement should be “oil,” as stated in the film, or “petroleum and derivatives,” their fall-back position.
None of this attempted sleight of hand changes the bottom line. No matter how Stone and Weisbrot try to twist the numbers, they continue to be wrong. Here are the official statistics comparing U.S. oil imports from Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, compiled by the U.S. Department of Energy and expressed in thousands of barrels, for every single year since Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999:
YEAR S. Arabia Venezuela
1999 506,272 419,893
2000 557,569 447,736
2001 588,075 471,243
2002 554,500 438,270
2003 629,820 431,704
2004 547,125 474,531
2005 527,287 452,914
2006 519,236 417,001
2007 528,189 419,180
2008 550,276 380,419
2009 360,934 352,278
Weisbrot is an economist, not a historian, and apparently not a very good one. Either he is so incompetent that he can’t read a simple table or he is deliberately manipulating the numbers. The latter seems more likely, since reputable economists have chastised him for such lapses in the past. For example, Francisco Rodriguez, a Venezuelan who once was chief economist for the Venezuelan Congress and now teaches at Wesleyan University, has written a scathing paper called “How Not to Defend the Revolution: Mark Weisbrot and the Misinterpretation of Venezuelan Evidence.” In it, he notes that “Weisbrot’s critiques are generally invalid, relying on erroneous reading of the evidence or use of severely biased indicators,” which is exactly the problem here.
In the face of what is uncontestable evidence, Weisbrot is now attempting to argue that his mistake is “irrelevant” or inconsequential. This too is false, for at least two reasons. First of all, this effort to bend, twist and distort irrefutable statistics about oil is indicative of a reckless disregard for the facts that is much broader and, in fact, pervades all of South of the Border. If Stone, Weisbrot and Ali can’t get even the simplest details correct, why should any filmgoer or scholar believe any of their other assertions?
More importantly, the notion of Venezuela as the chief source of OPEC oil for the U.S. is a fundamental building block in one of Stone, Weisbrot and Ali’s larger and more important arguments. In the movie, Hugo Chavez is quoted as follows, speaking of himself in the third person: “The coup against Hugo Chavez had one motive, oil. First, Chavez, oil. Second, Saddam, Iraq.” Stone endorses and furthers this idea by saying onscreen that “the same strategy as Iraq was applied to the upheavals in South America.”
In reality, the reasons for the April 2002 coup that briefly overthrew Chavez remain a matter of intense dispute even now. Opposition groups and Venezuelan military officers contend that they acted because Chavez was making an unconstitutional power grab and may have ordered troops and his own supporters to fire on unarmed protestors. In an effort to shift the focus from that counter-argument and snooker viewers who have not followed the rise, fall and resurrection of Hugo Chavez, Stone and Weisbrot have had to inflate Venezuela’s declining global importance as an oil producer.
A second leg of this same argument is that Chavez incurred the wrath of the United States and the oil industry because under him “the government got control of the oil industry for the first time,” a phrase Stone repeats more than once in the film. This too is false. Venezuela nationalized the oil industry in 1976, when Carlos Andres Perez was president, and folded all foreign-owned companies into a single state-run entity. But Hugo Chavez despises Carlos Andres Perez, who jailed him after Chavez’s failed coup attempt in 1992, and never passes up a chance to undermine his image or attack him. As Chavez’s faithful stenographers, Stone and Weisbrot merely parrot Chavez’s argument, without bothering to check to see if it is true. It is not.
South of the Border is riddled with other errors and misinformation like this, but Stone and Weisbrot refuse to acknowledge them. They continue to insist, for instance, that Chavez’s main opponent in the 1998 election was not Henrique Salas Romer, the former state governor who got 40 percent of the vote, but Irene Saez, the beauty queen who received a mere 3 percent. By that novel and bizarre standard, George Bush’s main opponent in the 2000 election was not Al Gore but Ralph Nader, and Ronald Reagan’s main opponent in the 1980 election was not Jimmy Carter but John Anderson. Their defense is to refer to early 1997, when Chavez and Saez were the only candidates of note. But the election was held in December 1998, not in January 1997, and in any case they never at any time mention Salas Romer, thus conveying to viewers the false impression that the election was from start to finish a contest between “beauty and the beast.” As far as they are concerned, Salas Romer simply doesn’t exist, but hey, never let the facts get in the way of a good story line.
Speaking of Jimmy Carter, it’s worth noting that the non-partisan, international election monitoring commission that he headed issued an official assessment of the 1998 vote that is identical to mine and completely contradicts the characterization Stone, Weisbrot and Ali have concocted in South of the Border. It is ridiculous at this late date that the three of them are trying to rewrite history and challenge an assessment endorsed by all of the participants in the 1998 election, including Hugo Chavez himself. Here is the relevant passage from the Carter Center’s report:
“The leading candidate, according to latest polls, was Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez, a 44-year-old charismatic populist who was the most fervent in his commitment to make drastic changes in the political system. His major challenger was Henrique Salas Romer, a Yale graduate who also promised to change the existing political structure.
Chavez had led an unsuccessful coup attempt against the incumbent government in 1992, was incarcerated, never put on trial, and later released by President Caldera. He seemed to appeal to a poorer constituency than Salas, and was feared by the elite establishment, while still enjoying some support from the business community.
The other candidates seemed to rank quite low in the polls, including Irene Saez (former Miss Universe endorsed by the COPEI party) and Luis Alfaro (77 year old leader of the Accion Democratica Party.”
In their letter to HNN and other websites, Stone and company complain that “Rohter was presented with detailed and documentary evidence of the United States’ involvement in the 2002 coup” against Chavez, which they describe as “a major point of the film” that has gone unreported in the mainstream press. They complain that I “simply dismissed all of this evidence out of hand, and nothing about it appears in the article.” This is false. In reality, I examined their “evidence” thoroughly, and discovered that the document Stone, Weisbrot and Ali cite as the main proof of their argument actually contradicts and undermines what they have to say. Their claim is thus specious and disingenuous, at least on the basis of the “evidence” they provide, which is why no mention was made of this subject in my original article.
But I’m perfectly willing to have that debate now, because it says something about how Stone, and especially Weisbrot, continually attempt to hoodwink the unwary viewer. In the movie, the image of the cover of a U.S. government document appears briefly on the screen as the April 2002 coup is being discussed. When I asked Weisbrot about that, he said that it was a State Department study in which State acknowledged its “involvement” in the coup. Specifically, he pointed to this passage: “NED (the National Endowment for Democracy), Department of Defense (DOD), and other U.S. assistance programs provided training, institution building and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chavez government.”
On closer examination, though, it becomes clear that Weisbrot is quoting selectively, simply cherry-picking parts of the document to make them conform to his otherwise-unsupported theory and leaving out those sections that do not fit. Here is the entirety of the statement from the State Department review of policy toward Venezuela during the period Nov. 2001-Apr. 2002 that Weisbrot quotes from: The Office of the Inspector General “found nothing to indicate that U.S. assistance programs to Venezuela, including those funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), were inconsistent with U.S. law or policy. While it is clear that NED, Department of Defense (DOD), and other U.S. assistance programs provided training, institution building and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chavez government, we found no evidence that this support directly contributed, or was intended to contribute, to that event.”
At another point, the same State Department policy review also explicitly addresses the Stone-Weisbrot argument that the United States government was “involved” in the coup and rejects it outright. Stone and Weisbrot, however, fail to cite any part of this section of the document, and I think I know why. They are engaged in the age-old practice that Latin Americans call “vendiendo gato por liebre,” or “selling a cat as a hare,” and it simply won’t do to introduce any evidence that would reveal their theory to be based on a manipulation of the facts. But here is what the same State Department study that Weisbrot cites as the foundation for this “major point of the film” actually has to say:
4. “Did opponents of the Chávez government, if any, who met with embassy or Department officials request or seek the support of the U.S. government for actions aimed at removing or undermining that government? If so, what was the response of embassy or Department officials to such requests? How were any such responses conveyed, orally or in writing?”
Taking the question to be whether, in any such meetings, Chávez opponents sought help from the embassy or the Department for removing or undermining the Chávez government through undemocratic or unconstitutional means, the answer is no.
Chávez opponents would instead inform their U.S. interlocutors of their (or, more frequently, others’) aims, intentions, and/or plans. United States officials consistently responded to such declarations with statements opposing any effort to remove or undermine the Chávez government through undemocratic and unconstitutional means. These responses were conveyed orally.
Weisbrot obviously needs to go back to the dictionary and look up the meaning of “involve.” Does he provide any evidence whatsoever that the United States was “drawn in as an associate or participant” in the coup? He does not. Instead he suggests a nebulous standard that, if applied in other situations, would work something like this: if I teach a course in finance, and a year after the conclusion of that course one of my former students robs a bank, I am somehow “involved” in the robbery. This is not just ridiculous, it’s also dishonest.
The second half of South of the Border deals with a group of South American presidents who Stone argues are cut from the same cloth as Chavez and are part of a Chavez-led movement “away from the IMF and the United States’ economic controls.” But here too Stone, Weisbrot and Ali play fast and loose with the facts. Their treatment of each of the six countries they look at is filled with errors and misrepresentations, but I will confine myself to the one issue about which they were most dismissive in Stone’s letter to HNN: the attempted privatization of the water supply in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
In my original article I pointed out that, contrary to what Tariq Ali claims, the Bolivian government did not “sell the water supply of Cochabamba to Bechtel, a U.S. corporation,” and did not pass a law making it “illegal for poor people to go out onto the roofs and collect rainwater in receptacles.” In reality, the government granted a forty year management concession to a consortium that included Bechtel, in return for injections of capital to expand and improve water service.
Tariq Ali maintains I am “really reaching” because “for practical purposes” there is no essential distinction between owning a company and having a contract to manage it on behalf of its owner. This is nonsense. One of the foundations of any civilized society is the rule of law, which includes explicit definitions of ownership of property and other assets. When you lease an automobile from a dealership, you don’t own the car. When you rent a flat from a landlord, you don’t own the apartment. It’s as simple as that, and when a government grants you the right to manage a water company, you don’t own the company. The government does, and can terminate the arrangement if the managers don’t fulfill the contract, which is what happened in Cochabamba. In the real world, anyone attempting to argue that “for practical purposes” there is no difference between a lease and a sale would be laughed out of court. I suppose it is not surprising that Tariq Ali, an editor of the New Left Review who describes himself as a “former” Trotskyite, should be fuzzy on concepts of private property, but is Stone and Weisbrot’s excuse?
When I asked Tariq Ali the source of his information about the botched water privatization in Cochabamba, he said that he had heard of it from Bolivian activists at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. I was about to ask Ali, who actually is a historian and therefore ought to know better, why he hadn’t bothered to verify the information, when Oliver Stone impatiently broke into the conversation to complain that I was trying to “porcupine this thing to death.” But history is about nuance, and the devil is in the details. Stone, however, isn’t interested in facts or nuance: he wants only to tell a story, even if it is grossly inaccurate, that will draw viewers into the theater.
President Obama spoke recently about those who suffer from what he called “willful blindness,” who are unable to recognize or admit facts that cannot be contested and instead spin elaborate fantasies based on cherished beliefs they cannot abandon. He was talking about North Korea and perhaps also indirectly about the Tea Party types who believe he is a socialist born in Kenya. But Stone, Weisbrot and Tariq Ali suffer from this very same disease, and their willful blindness has fatally infected South of the Border. They can attack me as much as they like, and I suspect they are likely to continue to do so, but that is just a smokescreen. Nothing, including insults and smears, can change the facts, one of which is that they have made a tendentious and dishonest film whose arguments collapse when subjected even to the slightest bit of scrutiny.