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Oliver Stone Interview: There’s a Specter Haunting Latin America, the Specter of 21st Century Socialism

Ed Rampell: “Frankly, we’ve opposed the poor. We’ve opposed the poor not only in those countries but in our own country. The Vietnam War was a war against the poor people of Vietnam, it was also a war against our own selves, by sending our poor people to fight that war.”
Oliver Stone and Hugo Chavez

Oliver Stone and Hugo Chavez

Ed Rampell interviewed Oliver Stone for The Progressive Magazine, which published part of the Q&A in its September issue. For the first time the LA Progressive and Hollywood Progressive are publishing the entire interview in order to observe Cinema Libre Studio’s release of the DVD version of Stone’s new documentary South of the Border on October 26. On that same day the left-leaning Cinema Libre Studio is also dropping the DVD of another documentary, The Best Government Money Can Buy?, a behind-the-scenes expose of Washington lobbying. (For more info on both docs, go here.) The Progressive Magazine’s November issue features Ed Rampell’s interview with the new U.S. Poet Laureate, W.S. Merwin.


The Motorcycle Diaries is about young Ernesto Guevara’s 1950s Latin America road trip, which eventually led him to Guatemala, where reformer Jacobo Arbenz was president. Three-time Oscar winner Oliver Stone makes a similar sojourn in South of the Border with one significant difference – today, to paraphrase Che, “one, two, three many Arbenzes” have been created in South America. In this provocative documentary Stone interviews the region’s left-leaning leaders: Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Brazil’s Lula da Silva, Argentina’s Christina and Nestor Kirchner, Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Cuba’s Raul Castro.

oliver stone

Oliver Stone (Photo Ed Rampell)

As with 1991’s groundbreaking JFK, which challenged the Warren Commission’s lone gunman theory, Stone has dared to make a “counter-myth” to the establishment’s official line on these Latino leaders, directing a sort of alternate people’s history of the southern hemisphere. One of Stone’s biggest betes noires, the corporate-owned news media in both North and South America, is excoriated in South for spreading disinformation about the reformist presidents and their Bolivarian movements to alleviate poverty and challenge the Yanqui colossus. Ecuador’s Correa asserts, “knowing the North American media, I would be more worried if they spoke well of me.” Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Morales, declares: “The media will always try to criminalize the fight against neo-liberalism, colonialism and imperialism. It’s almost normal. The worst enemy I have is the media.”

Predictably, MSM has hurled brickbats and barbs at South. A cinematic storyteller who won a screenwriting Oscar for 1978’s Midnight Express, Stone apparently realizes that the bourgeois press likewise shapes stories to dramatize content with viewpoints expressing the interests of their corporate owners and U.S. foreign policy. This propagandistic process is a sort of inversion of Truman Capote’s notion of the so-called “nonfiction novel,” using fictional methods to present actuality as news media manufactures consent and muffles dissent.

Although best known for the 1986 and 1989 Indochina War movies Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, which won this Vietnam vet two Best Director Academy Awards, South is not the first time Stone has cinematically ventured to Latin America. In 1986 he directed the Central American death squad drama Salvador, which took on Reagan’s policies there and scored James Woods a Best Actor Oscar-nomination and Stone a Best Writing nom. Stone co-wrote the 1996 musical Evita starring Madonna as Argentina’s Eva Peron and Antonio Banderas as Che. In 2003 the feature filmmaker turned to documentary, directing the Fidel Castro biopic Comandante, which Stone laments HBO has never aired, followed by 2004’s Looking for Fidel, which is less flattering to Castro and the cable channel has played.

Stone with Argentina's Cristina Kirchner, "South of the Border"

Stone with Argentina's Cristina Kirchner, "South of the Border"

On Sept. 24 Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps -- Stone’s sequel to 1987’s Wall Street – opened, with Michael Douglas returning as Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko, the role that won Douglas a Best Actor Oscar and Golden Globe. In Stone’s critical re-take on the recent financial meltdown, the avaricious insider trader finds out that “now it seems [greed] is legal because everybody’s drinking the same Kool-Aid.”

On June 25, L.A.’s lefty Cinema Libre Studio began its national theatrical release of South near Wall Street in Manhattan, where it earned the weekend’s top per-screen average of $21,000. South’s cinematographer is cinema verite pioneer Albert Maysles (co-director of 1970’s Gimme Shelter); it was co-written by Mark Weisbrot and Tariq Ali, who’d inspired Mick Jagger to write Street Fighting Man and has now gone from Rolling Stones to Oliver Stone. As a feature filmmaker Stone previously eschewed the title of “cinematic historian,” preferring instead to be dubbed a “dramatist.” But now that he has forayed into nonfiction filmmaking, Stone can justifiably be called a cinematic historian – with documentaries such as South of the Border he is shooting the first draft of history, corporate media be damned.

Bolivia President Evo Morales

Bolivia President Evo Morales

Q: Why did you make South of the Border?

Oliver Stone: Because they’ve been demonized by a combination of their own local media, which is oligarch-controlled by private, rich families, who don’t want to see change in their countries along the lines these leaders are proposing. And also by the United States media, which is surprising, considering their distance from the facts. Why? It’s amazing; it’s across the board in the United States. It goes from right to left; liberal media, too, including many progressive publications, which don’t understand the nature of what’s really going on down there. So they make a big issue about Chavez.

Q: The New York Times published a very negative piece by Larry Rohter about your documentary, and [Times film critic] Manohla Dargis wrote disparagingly about Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Stone: They’re two different issues. She certainly has a right to an opinion. But he was the bureau chief of the New York Times in Brazil, and he covered Chavez negatively. He also incidentally covered the Contra war against Nicaragua – he was against the government of Sandinistas. He’s, I would say, a typical New York Times correspondent in that region. He’s – and for some reason, and this is historical, it goes way back to the 50 interventions that the United States has done in Central and South America, and generally with the support of the New York Times. They’re not a progressive newspaper, calling for reform in South or Central America. They’ve taken the sides of the bad guys constantly, covered up so many of the abuses. In Argentina, in Chile; yes, years later, the New York Times has come out and condemned some of this behavior. But at the time it was going on -- no.

Q: What do you want viewers to take away from this documentary?

Stone: Well, listen: I think it’s a “101,” an introduction course to something that’s going on which is historically significant. Because never before, in the history of this region, have six countries at the same time elected democratically leaders for change, for control of resources of their own country for the benefit of their own people. Historically, each one of these leaders has been picked off, one by one by the United States. In this case, this is harder to do, and we are working actively to get rid of these people, no question. And to disunify them; to break ’em off, one from the other. But they have stood firm; I think this is an important moment. And I hope that they will last, because they have done good for their countries, despite what you hear. The economies in all these countries have improved radically for the poor.

Q: How surprised were you when former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner told you George W. Bush had said to him, “The best way to revitalize the economy is war, and the U.S. has grown stronger with war.”

Stone: Well, this is a typical comment made by Bush. But I believe [he said] it. I think he believed it in Iraq. We were at war with Iraq at the time the comment was made. Bush, we know, is not historically, uh, educated. His is a perception often expressed in rightwing and Republican circles, that was is good for the economy. After World War II the business leaders were terrified that we’d slip back into a Depression unless we maintained our wartime spending.

But it’s not true. In my opinion, and I think many economists support that the concept of an economy is to be a full employment economy in the positive sense. It’s good for society; war is destructive to society. It has wounds, it coarsens the nature of a society, it also destroys other societies. War is a very destructive thing, and is not good for the economy, except in some weird short-term process for arms manufacturers and the like.

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Q: Once again, as you literally showed in W., Bush took his eyes off the ball. In South of the Border the viewer gets the sense that in some of these countries, like Bolivia, finally the president reflects the people, either by coming from a poor background or by being indigenous. How important is that?

south of the border

Stone: It’d be nice to see that happen in the United States, where we have an educated elite run this country. It seems that you have to go to Yale, Harvard and be approved by the Washington establishment to actually run anything in this country. So we have a very top down heavy establishment control in the United States. This is a breakthrough in South America. Normally the establishment is in control; the rich families control it no longer.

Q: You talk about the role of the IMF in Latin America. What has that been? And how have the countries depicted in your film broken that stranglehold?

Stone: The International Monetary Fund, which is allied very strongly with the United States Treasury Department, has been making a form of loans to South America for years now in which the terms are those of what they call the “neo-liberal Washington consensus,” which require them to not only pay back the loans, but to conform their economies to such things as a privatization of business interests. Privatization is a key word here because, as we know in America, we are privatizing our own hospitals, our military, our prisons. “Privatization” is the buzzword – it did not work in South America, and had disastrous consequences, as it did in Russia.

So what they did essentially in the last 10 years, they threw off the tyranny of the IMF. Each of them fought battles against it. They did not want to bargain. In the film Lula da Silva of Brazil talks about rejecting the IMF, who wanted to roll over their loan to Brazil. He said “no;” he paid them off. Argentina paid off the IMF and got rid of them. Bolivia did, too. Ecuador did, too… There was about $20 billion in loans out to South America before these new leaders took office; now it’s $1 billion. That’s very good for them, because they are more self reliant and independent.

Q: How does South of the Border relate to your previous work on Latin America, including Salvador, Evita, Comandante and Looking For Fidel?

Stone: Well, it’s an evolution. Salvador had a Central American theme, but you’ll see some of the same problems exist: It’s the heavy hand of the United States. In Central America it was the Contras against the Sandinistas. We’ve always opposed, frankly, we’ve opposed the poor. We’ve opposed the poor not only in those countries but in our own country. The Vietnam War was a war against the poor people of Vietnam, it was also a war against our own selves, by sending our poor people to fight that war.

The United States has been a corporate-controlled country, increasingly so since World War II. The concept of a national security state plays into that concept of us as a mega-corporation, we’re super-sized. I view the Pentagon essentially as a huge corporation now, not really concerned with the people of this country. In fact, opposed to the good of society. The United States has moved into a corporate gridlock and now the gridlock controls us. We don’t seem to be able to go away from the power of the lobbyists, banks, oil companies, pharmaceuticals…

Q: What is “21st Century Socialism” and what do you think of it?

oliver stone

Stone: Well, listen: Socialism has existed in Europe in various forms ever since the 19th century. It certainly took effect after World War II when the United States, we were fighting in our Cold War with this “Communist threat.” Socialism was seen by many in Europe as the middle road, because it provided to a very concerned and frightened people who had been devastated by World War II, with a concept of a society taking care of its people. And that has always worked well -- sometimes it hasn’t, it’s not always a perfect thing. It was an experiment, it’s still going on in Europe, whatever they say.

After Reagan triumphed in 1980 we had this embrace of the free market – the free market is not a free market, really it’s a fixed market. Because monopolies tend to dominate it and they tend to come to the fore and they push everybody out of the way, and basically, they thrive. So, it’s a kind of a rigged playing field like we saw in 2008, with the banks and Wall Street, we saw the concept of the banks getting bigger and bigger, we saw like six banks take over the whole world economically and basically run the casino. And they had the inside information and they were able to do what they – to play the game both ways. Sell long, go long and short at the same time basically. The banks thrived and the economy got killed. And when it fell apart the banks got socialized, so to speak, they were bailed out. And the taxpayers paid for it.

So, it’s a rigged game. I say “rigged” – and free market economics did not work in South America. It drove, the per capita growth rate in South America averaged 9% from 1980 to 2000. Whereas it averaged from 1960 to 1980 somewhere like 62% growth rate. After the 2000 period, if you look at the per capita growth rate in these countries with these new leaders, it’s much, much better. And it’s because they’ve pursued their policies of semi-socialism and nationalization. Nationalization, by the way, is not expropriation. These people have been paid off. Chavez is very clear about it – he compensates the companies that have been nationalized in Venezuela, which is a distinction lost often on the American media.

Q: Would you say that Chavez and some of the other leaders have bailed out the poor, instead of the elites?

Stone: Oh yeah. The World Bank statistics clearly show that Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador have all benefited from their administrations. Particularly in Venezuela, the gross national product, the economy, has grown 90% from 2003 to 2008. Ninety percent! That’s one figure they can never – I guess all these critics can’t get away from that figure. Another thing that has happened is that poverty was cut 50%. Extreme poverty 70%. These are World Bank statistics, not made up by Chavez, as they claim. So, when he gets democratically reelected in 2006 they all gripe and complain, but people are voting for him because they’re pleased, he’s actually delivering on his pledge. I don’t understand this constant harping about this or that, when the man has actually done what he said he was going to do. Because why? He grew up poor, he knows what it is to be poor. It’s unbelievable to me how blind we are in our criticism, how picky and nasty. Whereas in our own country we ignore the poor, we make them go to war, we draft them – we don’t draft them anymore, we encourage them to join the military, which is a form of draft if they don’t have any money, and go off and fight in foreign wars that we create.

Q: Regarding Wall Street and your sequel, Money Never Sleeps: Were you surprised that the “greed is good” mentality led to the banking crisis?

Stone: I was surprised. I was surprised that it went on. I did the first film in 1987, I thought that era was going to come to a close because it was extremely excessive, extremely excessive. Instead, I found that it went on, and the millions of dollars we were talking about in the eighties became billions. The people like [Gordon] Gecko were no longer the large players on the scene because all of a sudden, you know what? The banks started to play that game. The banks were no longer the banks that I knew when I was a kid. They were no longer holding deposits and making loans, they were suddenly becoming gigantic casino players, buying and selling for themselves and the client be damned. So it was a whole different mentality and the 2008 – and by that time, capitalism… had a triple bypass, really a major heart attack. It was a tremendous warning to us, our system was really on the edge. It continues to be on the edge. Every day is volatile, if you read the newspapers, even the most slanted viewers, from the Wall Street Journal to the most liberal, say nobody has an idea what will happen next. I’ve never seen this unpredictable volatility in my life. And my father was a broker too, so I grew up in that world.

Q: Maybe America will eventually have some kind of “21st Century Socialism”?

Stone: Well, we are there, too. The United States government is a major player in our economy, they control so much, and they’re bailing out people left and right. The Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac situation is a huge strain on the economy. So are the wars. These are all forms of socialism, our deficit is driven by – it is socialism. It is the government paying for everybody, and above all paying the most amount of money to the rich.

Our system is gridlocked. How do you get out of it? This is a tough question. You say we have to go to socialism, we have to go to a better form of socialism than we’re in now. We’re a prisoner of socialism, but it’s a corrupt socialism. And socialism can be as corrupt as capitalism.

ed rampell

I do, personally, as the son of a stockbroker, believe in markets and the power of markets to redistribute things in an equitable fashion, but that has to be a regulated capitalism. Regulated – well-regulated, not badly regulated.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”