It's not a huge surprise that a correspondent for a newspaper that supported the coup that ousted Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would dislike a film that offers a more sympathetic view of Chavez's politics.
That said, Larry Rohter's review (New York Times, 6/26/10) of the new Oliver Stone film South of the Border still manages to surprise–mostly because Rohter's attempt to fact-check the movie is such a failure.
Rohter's first big catch is this:
Mr. Stone argues in the film that Colombia, which "has a far worse human rights record than Venezuela," gets "a pass in the media that Chavez doesn't" because of his hostility to the United States.
Rohter doesn't attempt to demonstrate that this is false; instead, he points out that the Human Rights Watch logo "appears on the screen. That would seem to imply that the organization is part of the 'political double standard' of which Mr. Stone complains. "
Well, that could be. Or it could mean that they've studied the human rights situations in both countries. Rohter goes to the group for a response. And here's what he got:
"It's true that many of Chavez's fiercest critics in Washington have turned a blind eye to Colombia's appalling human rights record," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of the group's Americas division.
So the movie suggests that Colombia's rights record gets far less attention that Venezuela's–a contention that would seem to be true based on the amount of press attention granted to abuses in each country (Extra!, 2/09). Rohter goes to Human Rights Watch, and they…agree with the film's argument that Colombia gets a pass in Washington.
Rohter devotes a lot of space to discussing the2002 shootings in Caracas that preceded the coup. He seems to insinuate that Stone is getting things wrong (arguing that one expert in the film is a biased source, for example), but if there's a lesson here in how Oliver Stone abused the truth–Rohter maligns Stone's "tendentious attitude"– I am unable to locate it.
The movie isn't just about Hugo Chavez; the point is to take stock of the leftward political shift in Latin America. Rohter finds problems here, too (the Ali referenced here is Tariq Ali, who co-wrote the film with economist Mark Weisbrot):
Trying to explain the rise of Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia who is a Chavez acolyte, Mr. Ali refers to a controversial and botched water privatization in the city of Cochabamba.
The problem with that? Rohter explains:
In reality, the government did not sell the water supply: It granted a consortium that included Bechtel a 40-year management concession in return for injections of capital to expand and improve water service and construction of a dam for electricity and irrigation.
Oh, they didn't sell the water supply; they granted a private corporate a "a 40-year management concession."
Stone, Weisbrot and Ali have written a letter to the Times responding to the review. They point out that even some of the more mundane criticisms of the film are wrong:
Accusing the film of "misinformation," Rohter writes that "a flight from Caracas to La Paz, Bolivia, flies mostly over the Amazon, not the Andes…." But the narration does not say that the flight is "mostly" over the Andes, just that it flies over the Andes, which is true.
But they also point out that Rohter's fixation on the shootings and coup might be explained by the fact that Rohter's reporting on those subjects was so problematic:
Rohter should have disclosed his own conflict of interest in this review. The film criticizes the New York Times for its editorial board's endorsement of the military coup of April 11, 2002 against the democratically elected government of Venezuela, which was embarrassing to the Times. Moreover, Rohter himself wrote an article on April 12 that went even further than the Times' endorsement of the coup:
"Neither the overthrow of Mr. Chavez, a former army colonel, nor of Mr. Mahuad two years ago can be classified as a conventional Latin American military coup. The armed forces did not actually take power on Thursday. It was the ousted president's supporters who appear to have been responsible for deaths that numbered barely 12 rather than hundreds or thousands, and political rights and guarantees were restored rather than suspended." — Larry Rohter, New York Times, April 12, 2002
These allegations that the coup was not a coup–not only by Rohter–prompted a rebuttal by Rohter's colleague at the New York Times, Tim Weiner, who wrote a Sunday Week in Review piece two days later entitled "A Coup by Any Other Name" (New York Times, 4/14/02).
South of the Border aims to give viewers a glimpse of Latin American politics that could serve as as antidote to the one-sided, propagandistic treatment in the corporate media. Reviews like Rohter's only remind us of this fact.