To a certain extent, it’s impossible to separate the history of Latin America from political persecution, many times influenced by foreign powers. That oppression, which was initially purely violent before prioritising the financial, evolved along with the global superpowers and their struggles, most notably the Cold War-era that pitted the Soviet Union (East) against the United States (West). And, in the words of Oliver Stone, the persecution has now turned political.
“It’s not just about goods anymore, it’s very political, it’s about the idea of the American Empire,” the legendary filmmaker told the Times in an exclusive December interview at a luxury hotel in the Buenos Aires City neighbourhood of Recoleta.
While the 20th century found Washington supporting bloody military coups across the continent, cementing its economic control of the region, today it’s the “Empire’s greed” that has pushed it to invest heavily into what Stone calls “militarisation and dollarisation.” This, in turn, has led to the emergence of “lawfare,” the term Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has tirelessly repeated of late, even to Stone himself.
‘SOMETHING WILL STICK’
The three-time Academy Award winner was in Buenos Aires recently to work on a new project, a continuation of his multiple documentaries on Latin America’s “progressive” leaders, as he describes them.
Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez were the main protagonists of Comandante (2003) and South of the Border (2009) respectively. The burly director also travelled to meet the likes of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, and Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Buenos Aires.
These trips came at the height of the power of the so-called "Pink Tide," through which Latin America came to be governed by leftist governments, in open conflict with the United States. It was also an era of an unprecedented economic boom, given the commodities super cycle fuelled by China and Asian demand for raw materials, which allowed these leaders to indulge in leftist populism that helped raise millions out of poverty – and fill the pockets of their parties and those who were close to them.
Stone ascribes to the concept of "lawfare," the favoured term of Kirchnerites in Argentina, supporters of Lula and Dilma Roussef in Brazil, and across the continent, where the end of leftist populist governments saw an intensification of judicial investigations into corruption by these “progressive” leaders and their associates.
“When you weaponise laws, sanctions, when you go after people and make accusations, you can assign corruption to anyone,” he notes. “If you throw enough shit at the wall, something will stick.”
Pushed by the Times on how the same judges, along with major media groups across the continent, were at one point supportive of the Cristinas and Hugos they later hounded, the director reveals he has firmly taken a side.
“There was corruption in Venezuela before Chávez. Corruption is human nature, but lifting people out of poverty is an act of government. You need to have that kind of help for the poor,” he said, defending the late Bolivarian leader. “It’s what [former US president Franklin D.] Roosevelt did in the US, it’s what Chávez did, what [Evo] Morales did in Bolivia, here too with Cristina and Néstor.”
He clarifies himself. It’s not that the director condones corruption in an “ends justify the means” argument when it comes to the region. He just isn’t convinced they are ultimately guilty. Stone notes that Rousseff’s 2016 impeachment was based on technicalities, while in the end Lula was put behind bars on accusations without proof.
One of the main culprits, in Stone’s worldview, are the mainstream media outlets which put on a façade of objectivity but are nothing more than subservient to interests, thus manipulating the general population.
“Certain issues are never raised in the American press, they didn’t talk about the coup in Bolivia, it just happened under the radar,” he exemplifies. “In [the US] you can’t get [independent news] onto TV, the networks are just gigantic commercial enterprises owned by rich people and stockholders, the establishment, just as in Latin America.”
TIMES OF CHANGE
The director of landmark films such as Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987), and JFK (1991) agrees there is a generalised disillusionment with the press nowadays, one that has grown in parallel with a technological revolution that has led to a constant bombardment of information at all times. This, along with the stagnation of a certain brand of capitalism that has led to increased inequality as social mobility disappeared while the rich got richer, has generated social flare-ups across Latin America.
Over the past year, Chile unexpectedly erupted into flames, putting into question its supposed economic miracle. Ecuador, Colombia and Peru also saw protesters on the streets. Bolivia had its own dramatic crisis with Evo Morales’ controversial elections for a fourth presidential term.
Only a few days before Stone’s interview with the Times, Morales had just arrived in Argentina as a political refugee. The week of publication, a piece by Bloomberg titled “U.S. Warns Argentina That IMF Deal Threatened By Leftist Allies,” is illustrated with a picture of the Bolivian leader in Buenos Aires.
But the current social crises are not just the consequence of capitalism. Rather the main issue at stake is a certain interpretation of capitalism, one that upholds the trickle-down effect of wealth, which hasn’t produced the prosperity that has many times been attributed to it. Stone says he doesn’t “know [Karl] Marx” well enough and that he doesn’t believe in “abandoning capitalism,” but says for him, it’s a “combination of capitalism and state-planning that works.”
He is, though, critical of those on the left who believe that capitalism is responsible for pollution and climate change, as “we are living in a time of enormous prosperity.” He talks of devising new ways to generate clean energy, probably within a capitalist system.
Stone’s filmography reveals an obsession with power and how it is interpreted by leaders, most of them men. He laughs acceptingly at a reference to German philosopher Georg Hegel, and the idea that historical forces are greater than the will of individual men. But the obsession remains. During his latest visit to Argentina, Stone interviewed President Alberto Fernández and the new vice-president, reuniting with Fernández de Kirchner. He attended their inauguration. While in the capital, he also met social leader Juan Grabois and visited Editorial Perfil, where he interviewed the company’s co-founder Jorge Fontevecchia.
Given this inclination towards power, what about Donald Trump? Stone replies that he thinks “very little” of him, before going on to speculate as to the chances that the US president could lose his re-election bid. Calling the situation in the US “gridlocked” by polarisation – much like Argentina’s own ‘grieta' – he criticises the investigation into Russian electoral interference, branding it “so ridiculous and childish.” There are enough problems, already, he feels.
“[Trump] has broken treaties, broken his word. He got us out of the Iran [nuclear] treaty, the Paris Climate Accord, he has broken a nuclear treaty — which is a huge mistake — he’s put his foot in his mouth,” Stone says of the former reality TV star turned most powerful man in the world.
“People lie, but Trump is exceptionally stupid in the sense of history, which he doesn’t have. It’s embarrassing the way he speaks, he repeats himself four or five times. He’s been a TV host, he knows what works on TV,” he caps off, becoming heated.
But there are some positives to take away. Being an “anti-leader,” Trump has actually “created momentum for climate change [activism],” he argues.
One of Stone’s defining characteristics is being straightforward. With the same violence that is palpable in his Vietnam films, or in the vitriolic Natural Born Killers (1994), he will accuse the United States of being behind a regional conspiracy to politically take out Latin America’s leftist populist leaders, or brand President Trump "a fool," which he does openly – and often – on Twitter. There is little messing about.
He understands the power of being a Hollywood heavyweight and uses it to perform his own type of activism, supporting those who, like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, challenge the might of the United States. That’s exactly what drew him to Latin America nearly 20 years ago, when the fall of the Twin Towers and a war against Saddam Husein in Iraq distracted an increasingly weak George W. Bush, allowing for a resurgence of anti-American leaders throughout Latin America.
The tide appears to be turning again.