I've just arrived in Caracas for the South American premiere of my new documentary South of the Border. I've arrived as a media war is heating up in Venezuela, spurred on by national elections in the fall and widespread reports in the international press that President Hugo Chávez is cracking down on the political opposition and the country's financial institutions. Some are even alleging that he is a sponsor of terrorism.
President Chávez is a polarizing figure to be sure, widely demonized by U.S. reporters and cable news anchors who have broadcast claims that he is more dangerous than Osama Bin Laden. But is there any truth to these extreme assertions?
I was first invited to Venezuela to meet President Hugo Chávez during his aborted rescue mission of Colombian hostages, held by FARC, during Christmas of 2007. As is often the case, the man I met was not the man I'd read and heard about in the U.S. media. In the US I kept hearing he was a dictator, a bad guy and a menace. But I found him to be a charismatic and dynamic figure, bent on helping his country emerge from the crushing weight of US political interests.
So in January 2009 I returned to Caracas and spent three days speaking with him. Our interviews were relaxed and informal. We sat around and talked, or ventured into the countryside touring agricultural areas, housing projects and factories that have flourished since he took office. And a side of the man emerged that has rarely if ever been glimpsed in the U.S. media.
I then set out across South America to interview his allies in the region -- President Evo Morales of Bolivia, Lula da Silva of Brazil, Cristina Kirchner of Argentina, as well as her husband and ex-President Nestor Kirchner, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Raúl Castro of Cuba. Leader after leader seemed to be saying the same thing. They wanted to control their own resources, strengthen regional ties, be treated as equals with the U.S., and pursue their own national economic and foreign policies. Out of these interviews emerged South of the Border, a political road movie that offers a portrait of a continent at the cross-roads of change and a new generation of political leaders with a collective determination to set their own political course.
Over the course of the next week, we'll premiere the film in public venues across the continent, including the Plaza Bolivar in Caracas, and the first ever film premiere in the Cochabamba region of Bolivia -- making good on the promise we made to the leaders in the film: to return to all of these countries to screen the film for their people.
So is President Chávez really the anti-American pariah we've read about for years? Is he really all that different from the other democratic, left-of-center leaders who now govern most of the region? I don't believe so, but I encourage you to see South of the Border when it comes out in the US in June and make up your own mind.
For more information, you can go to www.southoftheborderdoc.com
This will be the first in a series of 'dispatches from South of the Border' that will be filed over the next eight days by the filmmaking team providing insights and color as Oliver fulfills a promise he made to the leaders featured in the film that he would return to share "South of the Border" with the people.