The President and Mr. Blowfly
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 of High 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 really goes 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.
A spokesman from the Miami law firm Steel Hector & Davis, which Sánchez de Lozada has hired to defend him, declined to discuss legal strategy with Kulchur. But one can easily imagine the advice the attorneys are offering their client, or rather their client's wife: Study hard for your upcoming finals at Georgetown University. The only thing presently keeping Sánchez de Lozada in the United States is his F2 visa, awarded to the spouses of students. Should Mrs. Sánchez de Lozada flunk her exams, the result could be much more severe than summer school.
The South by Southwest music festival, unfolding simultaneously with the confab's film component, featured three South Florida acts, each hoping to make an impact on the gathered ranks of the industry: Miami's X-rated soul singer Clarence Reid (a.k.a. Blowfly), Fort Lauderdale garage band the Heatseekers, and fellow Broward resident Vanilla Ice, still gamely trying to resurrect his hip-hop career.
Although Clarence Reid first established his funky bona fides as a songwriter for such storied crooners as Betty Wright and Sam & Dave, not to mention a string of memorably gritty Seventies R&B singles under his own name, it's his foul-mouthed alter ego Blowfly that's garnering attention from SXSW's predominantly Anglo hipsters these days. And while the sight of a 59-year-old black man donning a top hat and tights to wax scatological and rework Otis Redding's signature tune as the decidedly less subtle "Shittin' on the Dock of the Bay" may verge on a minstrel show, of such spectacles are comebacks made.
Thanks to the efforts of his new manager -- drummer and self-described "master of ceremonies" (as well as New Times contributor) Tom Bowker -- Blowfly landed a prime SXSW showcase slot in which to introduce songs from his forthcoming Fahrenheit 69 collection, set for a June release on ex-Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label.
For Bowker the trip to Austin was an unqualified success, complete with a Hollywood cameo: "There were 500 people screaming our name when we came onstage, including Frodo -- Elijah Wood -- shaking his ass and trying not to be recognized. The splash we made was tremendous!" Still Bowker sees his task as simply rejuvenating and then expanding Blowfly's longstanding cult appeal. For Miami's untested groups, he counsels caution. "Some people go to South by Southwest to get signed," he scoffs. "That hasn't happened since 1993. The only reason to go is to sell your wares and promote your new album."
Accordingly, Heatseekers drummer Chuck Loose -- whose band has just broken into the four-figure sales level -- approached SXSW with a downsized vision of rock-and-roll stardom. "The dream of getting signed is not going to happen," Loose agrees, "but there's still a framework for plenty of other business opportunities on a sublevel."
"The sleep-in-Motel 6, load-your-own-equipment-into-your-van sublevel," he laughs.
Vanilla Ice, however, was brooking no such talk. His manager was doggedly networking throughout Austin with hopes of landing a fresh major-label deal. But even the frosty rapper's Nineties role as critical punching bag appears to have played itself out. Despite VH-1 casting him in a reality show, industry reaction at SXSW was a collective shrug.
It's unclear why exactly Ice needs such a deal. If he's held onto even a fraction of the $18 million he's previously claimed to have amassed from the success of his "Ice Ice Baby" days, financing and distributing a new CD should hardly be an issue.
Ice himself did not return Kulchur's call, but given that he describes his new music as "high-energy skate-rock dance," that may be for the best.
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