When Hugo met Oliver

I am sitting on the floor, back against the wall, of a cramped, stuffy room in a Caracas hotel, waiting for Oliver Stone. There must be 25 other journalists in here – most of them local writers from Venezuela – all waiting to quiz the filmmaker about South of the Border, his new documentary on the rise of the left in Latin America and the phenomenon that is Hugo Chávez. The bright lights from the TV cameras have made the little space hot and uncomfortable but the glamorous female presenters near the stage don’t have a hair out of place. They sit smiling, straight-backed and motionless – in contrast with me, a crumpled mess who has spent the best part of 24 hours getting there.

A woman who will translate for Stone is fiddling with a microphone when the director of Platoon and the upcoming sequel to Wall Street strides into the room. He is wearing a blue suit – the jacket has been tossed over his shoulder, which is wise, given the heat – a light blue shirt and a dark blue tie. He is also sporting a moustache which, together with the suit and parted mop of dark hair, gives him the rakish appearance of a character from one of Graham Greene’s Latin America novels.

Stone takes the stage next to his producer, Fernando Sulichin, a slim, bald Argentine, while a silver-haired moderator who looks like a game-show host tells the reporters they can begin their questions. Reviewers have criticised the documentary for being too positive a portrait of Chávez, and Stone is on the defensive almost immediately, frowning when a young man asks him about the balance – or lack of it – in the film.

“This is a portrayal of a man who Americans do not have access to,” Stone says, firmly. “He is constantly demonised in America.” The film redresses this imbalance, he suggests, tackling what he says are lies spread in the western media. In the opening minutes, the viewer is treated to a string of outlandish claims from Fox News and CNN: in one clip, a presenter giggles that Chávez is a drug addict because he likes to chew coca leaves; he is a dictator and an enemy of the west who offers safe harbour to anti-US terrorists, suggest others.

Now Stone points out to us: “He twice won elections with significant majorities and his process of election was subject to international review by more than one organisation – so we know he is not a dictator. He was elected. But in America we don’t know that. We make fun of him as buffoon, a strongman, a clown. We do not understand and we do not want to understand [what is happening in Latin America]. And we miss the bigger point, which is that Mr Chávez represents … a movement of many countries, a region that is against the American ownership of economic interests in Latin America.”

Time prevented him from interviewing Chávez’s political opponents, Stone says in response to another question; instead, his aim was to start with the Venezuelan president and then speak to other left-leaning politicians who followed his lead, such as Evo Morales of Bolivia, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Néstor Kirchner of Argentina.

But the questions in the press conference persist: what about balance? Stone fails to devote any time in the film to Chávez’s combative relationship with the media, or the withdrawal of operating licences from a group of radio stations, for example. Nor is there any examination of Venezuela’s human rights record: Amnesty International has accused the Chávez government of arresting political opponents. “You get plenty of opportunity to see the other side [with Chávez] in the US,” insists Stone, trying to contain his irritation. He looks up in disbelief after being interrupted by a TV presenter who has decided to start filming her report live from the side of the stage while he is talking. “We had to start somewhere.”

I’m in Venezuela to follow Stone on the first two legs of his grand tour across South America to promote South of the Border, in which he interviews seven of the continent’s leaders. He explores a socialist movement that began with the election of Chávez in 1998 and which spread to Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. I have been promised a rare interview with Chávez, who normally has little time for newspapers or broadcasters, and, if all goes to plan, I will also see Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador – and a key Chávez ally.

Stone is certainly right about the perception of Chávez in the northern hemisphere. The forced nationalisation of large swathes of Venezuelan industry, Chávez’s punchy rhetoric and his willingness to engage with international pariahs such as Iran has for the past decade caused consternation in Washington and beyond. The question Stone raises in the film is: should that matter? Why shouldn’t Venezuela follow its own path under a leader who was democratically elected? Under greying skies, I pondered this on the drive from the airport, as the minibus navigated roads clogged with cars that all seemed to ignore red lights and traffic signs. Every few hundred yards we passed street art hailing Chávez and the movement he dubbed the “Bolivarian revolution”, named after his hero, Simón Bolívar, who liberated a large part of South America from Spanish colonial rule in the 19th century.

The buildings grew bigger and more dilapidated the closer we came to the centre. Most of the tower blocks were built in the 1960s and are visibly decaying, a sign of the economic volatility that has dogged the oil-rich country for decades. Some had been taken over by squatters and the homeless; others were shells and had been abandoned.

The premiere of Stone’s film takes place that evening at the Teatro Teresa Carreño. I get there early and watch Stone and Chávez, arms round each other, being mobbed by photographers on the red carpet. The crowd inside the auditorium is restless before the two men enter, but there is wild cheering when they finally take to the stage: Stone, the taller of the two; Chávez, squat and barrel-chested, wearing a jacket over a red shirt, the colour adopted by his supporters. “Good night, everybody,” he says in booming, broken English by way of an unconventional welcome.

Chávez and Stone then begin the journey from stage to seats three rows in front of me. It takes them a while because Chávez keeps stopping to introduce Stone to friends in the crowd; his progress slows the closer he gets to his seat and a young boy above us on a balcony begins shouting for his attention: “Chávez! Chávez!”

Chávez continues to shake hands and exchange greetings, and still the boy shouts, his cries becoming more desperate. Chávez must have heard him, I think to myself. Others in the crowd are thinking the same; they glance up and murmur as the boy continues, imploring Chávez to acknowledge him.

“Chávez! Chávez!” Still nothing. Then Chávez springs to life, looking up and blowing a kiss: “Si!” he cries, waving. “Hola!” The boy cheers and the audience roars. It is a masterclass in how to work a crowd.

After reaching his seat, Chávez stops to greet Rogelio Polanco, the Cuban ambassador to Venezuela, who is sitting behind him. Then the film starts and we are plunged into a Venezuelan version of an English pantomime. In one scene, Stone and Chávez take a ride in a truck, which slows so the president can shake hands with eager passers-by. The director visits Chávez’s family home and recreates a scene from his childhood when he films the leader riding a bicycle (it cannot withstand the portly president’s weight and breaks in two, leaving him sprawled on the ground). The Caracas audience screams with delight.

It is an interesting and revealing film that challenges conventional thinking about Chávez and South America. But it is indeed a one-sided account and the absence of dissenting voices, aside from the anti-Chávez US news clips, is striking. This makes no difference to the audience at the premiere: there are loud boos and whistles at scenes showing the army generals who tried to overthrow Chávez’s government in 2002 in a failed coup which Stone alleges had the involvement and support of the CIA. There is raucous laughter at Stone playing football and chewing coca leaves with Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, and more cheers when Lula of Brazil says what South America really needs is a pan-continental bank. “My brother,” Chávez says to his Brazilian counterpart in the film, as the two men embrace.

When Stone visits Ecuador, there is applause for Rafael Correa, its president, during the scene in which he explains his decision to close a US military base in his country. “I told them they could keep it open,” he tells Stone in the film, “provided they let me open one in Miami.”

The next day I am supposed to meet Chávez. While I wait for the call from the presidential palace, Fernando Sulichin and I drink coffee in the hotel, looking out at the gloomy Venezuela skyline. Sulichin is the linchpin of Stone’s Latin American adventure, the man who arranged the interviews with the leaders. A canny fixer, he also produced Stone’s two documentaries on Fidel Castro – Comandante and Looking For Fidel. He lives in Paris and keeps a low profile in Hollywood but has considerable clout: when Sean Penn wanted to meet Chávez, it was Sulichin who made it happen. Born into an affluent family, he left Argentina in 1988 for Los Angeles, where he attended film school.

He got his big break a few years later when he organised a film festival in New York; his work caught the eye of the director Spike Lee, who enlisted him to help with his production of Malcolm X. Sulichin was asked to deliver the seemingly impossible: clearance to allow Lee’s crew into Mecca to shoot a key scene. No movie crew had ever been allowed into the holy site.

“I went to Cairo with $100,000 in a bag,” recalls Sulichin. “I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t even know the language.” Within a few months, he and Lee had brokered a deal – Denzel Washington and a small crew were allowed into Mecca to shoot. By way of an encore, Sulichin persuaded Nelson Mandela to play a cameo at the end of the film.

He has worked with Stone for several years. What, I ask, is the motivation behind films about the likes of Castro and Chávez? “I could always go back to Argentina and be a grand bourgeois,” he says. “But we want to see things with our own eyes. We can … so why not?”

The meeting with Chávez is scheduled for 4pm, but by early evening we still haven’t heard anything. I order a double espresso after one of the Stone crew says the hotel serves the world’s strongest coffee. The sun sets and Sulichin, ear glued to his phone, reassures me that we are on track. At 10pm, he gets the call from the presidential palace. We hurry to the lobby of the hotel and Stone, who has been absent all day, suddenly appears. He is wearing an open-necked shirt with a chunky silver chain around his neck and suede loafers, and looks like he has just woken up. My heart is pounding from the espresso, as strong as billed – and we are off, Stone travelling with Sulichin, and the rest of us in a minibus.

There is little street lighting around the palace when we arrive and after being held up by security outside, we are allowed off the bus to walk in the dark through a security checkpoint. Inside the grounds, there are several tall trees with trunks painted in the yellow, blue and red of the Venezuelan flag. The palace is surrounded by ugly tower blocks, most of which have seen better days, as has the palace itself. It has a faded glamour: the ceiling of the small reception room we are led into is beautifully ornate and inlaid with gold, but parts are peeling badly.

Stone scurries off to see Chávez with Sulichin and the crew while I am left to wait. Eventually I am brought into a brightly lit room: there are members of the Venezuelan military and secret service milling about as well as members of Stone’s team. On the wall is a grand portrait of Bolivar. There are framed photographs of Chávez with his family on a shelf; then I see him deep in conversation with Stone. We are introduced and shake hands.

“What is your name?” Chávez says in faltering English, his voice strong and deep.

“Matthew,” I reply.


“Matthew. Like Matteo.”

“Si, si. OK, Matteo.”

His daughter, Maria, wanders by and he introduces us. She smiles sweetly. Then Chávez and I sit down with his interpreter. During our conversation, people are constantly moving around us – at one point, Stone pulls up a stool to listen in – yet Chávez remains focused on me, holding eye contact intently and leaning forward to tap my knee when he wants to make a particular point.

He is avuncular and good humoured but says he is saddened to be the object of so much scorn in the US and Europe. “A huge number of people in the north are being abused – their good faith is being abused because they are being bombarded with lies and manipulations,” he declares. “And I hope this film will contribute to a different image.”

But who does he hold responsible for these lies and why he is viewed so negatively in the US and Europe? “The media! The Financial Times, BBC, CNN … they are bombarding [the people] with lies [about me].” The lies, he adds, “are to defend the interests of those who want to continue being the masters of the world”.

I suggest that one of the things that doesn’t help his image is the inflammatory rhetoric he seems so fond of. A few years ago, he was accused of being an anti-Semite when he said in a Christmas address that “the descendants of those who crucified Christ, the descendants of those who expelled Bolivar from here … they took possession of the planet’s gold”.

Is he an anti-Semite? He shakes his head vigorously. “It’s a lie! I am not an anti-Semite. The World Jewish Congress supported me and said that I am not anti-Semitic. But there are still accusations that I am anti-Semitic, a fascist, a drug trafficker, whatever. But who is accusing me? Intellectuals are not accusing me, artists are not accusing me, students are not accusing me. It is the owners of power – they see me as a threat because we have liberated Venezuela from them.”

I ask him about relations with the US, which were terrible under George W. Bush. Has there been an improvement under Barack Obama? “In some cases, the relationship is worse,” he says, pointing to a recent expansion of the US military presence in Colombia, which has exacerbated regional tensions following a tense stand-off between Colombia and Venezuela two years ago. “The seven bases are a threat not only to Venezuela but to all of South America. I do not perceive any positive change with Obama.”

What about his choice of friends, I ask, thinking of his willingness to engage with Iran. “Our policy is to deepen the relations with all the countries in the world – monarchies, kingdoms, large powers – we want to respect all differences and have our relationships based on mutual respect.” The same applies to the US, he adds. “Mutual respect! That’s what it takes to be friends.”

He has a growing group of friends in Latin America – other left-leaning leaders, such as Evo Morales and Rafael Correa, who share his concerns about capitalism. The recent financial crisis was a vindication of sorts, he says. Large parts of the economy have been nationalised and support for the poor has increased. This, he says, has sharply reduced Venezuela’s poverty rate. And yet the country’s economy is struggling. Inflation has hit 30 per cent and there are regular power cuts because of electricity shortages. Chávez defends his economic record and concedes current conditions are tough. “But what about the disasters in Europe and the US? We don’t have the mess of those places.”

He mentions Marxist theory in dealing with crisis but does not elaborate – I see Stone shaking his head – and says he has faith in Venezuela’s socialist model, which he insists is not deterring companies from investing in the country. So capitalism has a future in Venezuela? “The future of capitalism in Venezuela,” Chávez says, speaking slowly and with emphasis, “is in the cemetery.”

We shake hands, he poses for photographs and then sits down to be interviewed by Stone again for footage that will be included on the DVD. It is almost 1am when we eventually leave the palace. Stone’s crew is upbeat; Stone is too. “I can’t believe that he mentioned Marx to the Financial Times,” he laughs.

I have to check out of my hotel at 4am to catch a flight to Quito, where I will rendezvous with Stone and his team on the second leg of their tour (they are flying by private jet, naturally). There hardly seems any point in going to bed.

The flight to Quito goes via Bogotá and on the final leg into Ecuador we fly over the Andes and the Pichincha volcano, which is ominously close to the city. It takes several minutes to fly over Quito but from above the thousands of small, square buildings in the city’s old town seem to cover the undulating ground like a carpet.

Stone and his team arrive at our hotel three hours after me. They would have been there earlier if they had flown directly over Colombia but they were not allowed through its airspace, forcing the pilot into a lengthy detour. Stone later claims he was targeted because of his friendship with Chávez, who is openly hostile to Colombia’s right-leaning leadership.

I ride with Stone and his crew to a college auditorium where the film will be screened. Groggy and breathless from the altitude, someone hands me a cup of coca-tea, which is legal in Ecuador. After polishing it off, I feel much revived. At the college, Stone and Correa introduce the film to hundreds of cheering students; as it begins, I meet Correa backstage, in a small, windowless room.

Athletic and square-jawed, he looks tough – like a boxer – but his face creases into an easy smile when we are introduced. The president’s entourage tumbles in behind us, minders and security guards jostling for space. We sit down on a low sofa, knees almost touching, but everyone else in the room is standing up, blocking out what little light there is, camera flashes illuminating the gloom.

Correa is less bombastic than Chávez and yet he and the Venezuelan president are cut from the same cloth: Stone’s film tells “the truth” about Latin America, Correa tells me through an interpreter. (He spent four years studying for a masters and a doctorate in the US and speaks perfect English but prefers to answer my questions in Spanish.) Ecuador, like Venezuela, has had “an awakening” following “200 years of somnolence, of stupor” in which the country was exploited by business owners and the political elite.

Chávez’s election was the catalyst for change, the first domino to fall in the continent, Correa says; after the victory, voters in Ecuador and the other countries that followed Venezuela’s lead recognised “the total failure of neo-liberalism and the Washington consensus”.

Like his friend in Venezuela, Correa has extended the role of the state. He has also reset its relationship with the US by closing the military base that it operated in Ecuador. “The US is very important in the world but it’s not the only important country in the world,” says Correa. “I demand respect … we want relations with all the countries in the world but in a framework of mutual respect.”

He agrees with Chávez about the causes of the recent financial crisis. “It was not a temporary crisis of the capitalist system – it is a structural crisis”. Socialism – not capitalism – is driving positive change in Latin America, he says. “When you live in a democracy in such an unequal region as Latin America, you need to have a socialist vision.”

I live in the US, where to be a socialist is to commit political suicide. Yet the second leader I have met in two days has embraced socialism, convinced it is compatible with the challenges of the 21st century. “I believe in economies with markets – not in market economies,” says Correa, pausing for emphasis and smiling. “There is a difference.”

After speaking with Correa, I encounter an exhausted-looking Stone in the corridor. We find a place to sit down, a bottle appears and two glasses of red wine are poured. People keep coming into the room and interrupting us, breaking his chain of thought. Eventually the door is closed, we drink some wine and he relaxes.

He has had a busy year. His most famous character, Gordon Gekko, returns in Wall Street II: Money Never Sleeps in September. Meanwhile, he is finishing a 10-hour documentary series – Oliver Stone’s Secret History of America – which has already vexed some critics after the director said he wanted to put the likes of Hitler and Stalin “into context”. He is used to such controversy. From his exploration of CIA-backed death squads in Salvador and his trilogy of Vietnam war films, to JFK, Nixon and W, his recent biopic of George W. Bush, no other director has been so influenced by geopolitics – or so willing to challenge conventional wisdom. Still, he says he has given up trying to change the world with his films. “Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven & Earth were a sustained effort to bring [the] Vietnam war to the American people,” he says, sipping his wine. “They seemed to accept two of them very well – but look what happened: we went right back to war with Panama, we had the first Iraq war, the second … it was the same story.”

And yet South of the Border seems to have reinvigorated him. “The other night at the premiere with Chávez and 2,000 people, I felt renewed … they were booing the heroes and cheering the villains. So maybe film does have this power.”

Stone looks frazzled but still has huge energy, riffing on subjects at 100mph and spinning off at sharp tangents. He smiles nervously at times and then will suddenly frown, gesticulating to make a more serious point. I mention that Fox News comes in for criticism in the movie – and yet Fox, part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, is distributing the Wall Street sequel. He explains that the rights belonged to Fox. “That’s the only way it got made,” he shrugs. “You,” I point out, “are a product of the Hollywood system, and…”

“I am not a product of the system,” he interrupts me. “I am an independent contractor who works within the system. Natural Born Killers, in 1994, was my last studio film.” Fair enough, I say. Now what about Chávez? Do you share his political views – are you a socialist?

He shakes his head. “I’m a benign capitalist. My father said: between communism and capitalism, communism looks great on paper but it doesn’t work. Capitalism is ugly – but it works.” But there is something in Chávez that clearly resonates with Stone. They both served in the military – Chávez in the Venezuelan army, where he launched a failed coup in 1992, only to be elected in 1998, and Stone in Vietnam, an experience that shaped the rest of his life. And they are both rebels – Stone in Hollywood with his choice of subjects, Chávez for more obvious reasons.

It is time for dinner. I leave with Stone and his crew and we find what must be the only Japanese restaurant in Quito. Sushi arrives, wine and sake is drunk. The crew will leave the next day for Brazil and go on to Cochabamba in Bolivia, where Evo Morales, the president, and 8,000 indigenous Bolivian Indians will watch the film.

Stone leaves me with a final word. “Films might get to you and your subconscious and make a little difference,” he says. “But when the vigilante drum beats, the mob screams and the conformists go along with it. There have to be people who are non-conformists.” In Hugo Chávez, Hollywood’s own great non-conformist has found the perfect subject.

Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s Los Angeles correspondent. Watch his interviews with Hugo Chávez and Rafael Correa at www.ft.com/chavez

Oliver Stone’s ‘South of the Border’ is released on July 30

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