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By Terrence McCoy
You have to feel a little bit sorry for ousted Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, regardless of your personal political leanings. At least that's how documentary filmmaker Rachel Boynton sees it. "You've spent millions on your campaign to be elected president, to solidify your legacy as the FDR of Bolivia," Boynton muses incredulously, "and then you get kicked out of office by people that want to legalize cocaine!"
Boynton was at Sánchez de Lozada's side for weeks, capturing fly-on-the-wall campaign-trail footage for her new film Our Brand Is Crisis, which debuted earlier this month at the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival in Austin, Texas. Yet sitting with Kulchur after a packed screening of her movie, she remained somewhat dazed by the very events she'd watched unfold, still trying to make sense of Sánchez de Lozada's dramatic October 2003 fall from power. Of course, Boynton may not have been quite as dazed as Sánchez de Lozada himself.
He'd won his election a year earlier, but following a month's worth of bloody protests against his administration, which left 59 people dead, Sánchez de Lozada chose to resign his office and embark on a northward journey that has become all too familiar for his continent's statesmen. Instead of a hallowed page in his nation's history books, he became merely the latest deposed Latin American leader to suddenly find himself sitting on the tarmac at Miami International Airport, blinking in disbelief as he contemplates his new life.
In initial interviews after hitting Miami, Sánchez de Lozada remained in denial, refusing to believe the massive protests against him were homegrown. He cast blame on all manner of foreign bogeymen, from American anti-globalization activists acting under cover of supposedly peaceful aid organizations, to guerrillas on loan from Peru's Shining Path and Colombia's FARC. "Around indigenous leaders you get Trotskyites that cannot get used to the idea that the Berlin Wall came down," he griped to The Wall Street Journal. "I'm very worried because the man-eating tiger has had a taste and he thinks he can do it again."
Yet the reality in Bolivia was no less surreal than Sánchez de Lozada's specter of a resurgent Fourth International. Indeed the bulk of the marchers against his government had fully embraced capitalism. It's just that their commodity of choice was problematic: In the United States, the notion of a cocaine-farmers union smacks of a fantasy lifted from the pages ofHigh Times magazine. In Bolivia, however, it's an association that is not only very real but also very well organized, and as led by Evo Morales (often described as the more innocuous "union leader" in American accounts), it was the chief architect of roadblocks that brought the country's economy to a near standstill.
And the more Sánchez de Lozada tried to reason with these forces, to explain the hard science of international markets, the more irrational -- and xenophobic -- these protests became. "Only in the United States can people's minds be changed by communication," he sighs in one of Our Brand Is Crisis's final scenes, just prior to being forced out.
Consider Boynton's film a timely warning, one that Latin America's beleaguered democrats -- as well as Miami's -- should heed, at least if they want to stanch the social crisis that threatens to create a Little La Paz alongside our exile enclaves of Little Haiti, Little Managua, Little Buenos Aires, and Little Havana.
Beyond Latin affairs, though, Our Brand Is Crisis also serves up a gripping account of American politicking in action. Hoping to return to the presidency he'd been term-limited out of in 1997, Sánchez de Lozada enlisted the consulting firm of Greenberg-Carville-Shrum, whose namesakes have become best known for their stewardship of the presidential bids of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry. Overseas, however, the firm has offered its strategizing-for-hire to candidates from Ireland to Venezuela, touting what James Carville calls "progressive politics and foreign policy for profit."
For those seeking an insider's peek into these mandarins' strategy sessions, Our Brand Is Crisis doesn't disappoint. The access Boynton was given is often astonishing. "The things we were filming are the same things that happen back [in the United States], but which we're never allowed to see -- what reallygoes on in the smoke-filled back rooms in D.C. or Miami," Boynton explains.
This being Bolivia, the cigars in question are genuine Cuban Cohibas, but the same focus groups, the same meticulous testing of TV ads, and the same heated closed-door meetings are easy to imagine with Kerry sitting in for Sánchez de Lozada -- particularly when Carville delivers one of his singularly homespun homilies to dismiss talk that his candidate's momentum is cresting too early before Election Day: "Campaigns are like intercourse -- you don't have absolute control over when you peak."
Boynton is weighing her next project, but Sánchez de Lozada's life already has the makings of a sequel. The Bolivian Supreme Court indicted him last month for "genocide" over his decision to order army troops into the streets during the bloody October 2003 protests. With the support of the Bolivian Congress, the Supreme Court is demanding his extradition from his home in Washington, D.C.