Dispatch from South of the Border

The Caracas premiere for South of the Border on Friday May 28, the first of a series of special screenings that will bring director Oliver Stone and the film's producers to Quito, Ecuador; Sao Paolo, Brazil; Cochabamba, Bolivia; and Buenos Aires, Argentina in the span of one week -- was a true homecoming for the film. There were banners promoting the film in the streets of Caracas and commercials all over the airwaves. Inside the theater at Caracas' huge and beautiful Theresa Carenno cultural center, President Chavez introduced the film. Sitting amid leading cultural figures, ambassadors to Venezuela from all over the world, and the country's championship women's softball team, dozens of Chavistas in red shirts made the film feel like a live concert, cheering raucously throughout, and booing when footage was shown of the 2002 coup that briefly removed the president from power.

We embarked on this tour of South America not just to screen South of the Border for local audiences here, but to promote debate around the ideas contained in the film -- the media's amazing misrepresentations of South America, the damage done by the IMF's neoliberal economic policies throughout the region, and the common goals of South American independence and regional integration espoused by the presidents we had interviewed, including Chavez, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, Bolivian President Evo Morales, Lula da Silva of Brazil, the Kirchners of Argentina, and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay.

Those ideas were sharply debated in our first press conference in Caracas Friday afternoon, as more than 70 reporters, equally divided among those loyal to President Chavez and those opposed to him representing the range of polarized opinion in the country, jammed a conference room at the Hotel Melia and grilled Oliver, economist and co-writer Mark Weisbrot and myself about the film's portrayal of the president and his policies.

The US media has claimed that Chavez has sharply curtailed press freedoms in the country. But anyone attending that press conference, or watching the daily attacks on the government and Chavez in the major media, can attest to the continued existence of a strong and vibrant oppositional media culture in Venezuela. In fact the majority of the media in Venezuela is opposed to the government, often in a highly politicized way. The president himself demonstrated a fresh willingness to debate his critics in the international media on our last night in Caracas, conducting lengthy interviews with the BBC, CNN and the Financial Times from his office at Miraflores Palace.

As we left Caracas on Sunday for Ecuador and Brazil, it was clear that the sharp interest and debate surrounding our documentary was rapidly spreading well beyond Venezuela. In Quito, President Correa introduced the film to an audience of hundreds of people at the Teatro de La Escuela Politecnica National, saying it tells the truth about President Chavez and Latin America, and noting "it's outrageous that anyone would call Chavez a dictator or Venezuela a dictatorship. This is what the media wants you to believe." Oliver drew a cheer from the crowd when he described President Correa as looking like "a typical IMF bureaucrat," whose economic deftness has nevertheless helped Ecuador to weather the storms of the recent world recession.

And with the Buenos Aires premiere still a few days off, HuffPost published a clip from the film showing the former Argentine Prime Minister Nestor Kirchner's testimony that in 2004, George Bush had argued to him that war was the best way to grow the U.S. economy.

At every stop, journalists want to know how Washington's policy toward Latin America has changed under the Obama administration. At this stage it's still hard to say. As Oliver said at our press conference in Quito, "When President Obama was elected, there were great hopes among all the presidents we interviewed that U.S. policy in the region would change. But so far, it hasn't happened."

Hopefully this film and our travels across South America will increase awareness of the problems in current U.S.-Latin American relations and spark debate about ways these governments can work together, despite the political and geographic barriers that divide them.