A month ago I got my first look at an amazing new documentary, Our Brand is Crisis. The film, by New York filmmaker Rachel Boynton, offers a stunning up-close look at how James Carville and company ran Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada’s winning 2002 Bolivian presidential campaign. Here is a link to today’s New York Times article on the film.
The film is a portrait of how a team of savvy, Machiavellian US political consultants parachuted into a country they knew nothing about and designed a strategy to return one of the nation’s most disliked political figures to the country’s highest office. When polling and focus groups show that Goni is unlikely to win any more than a quarter of the vote, the visitors from the US implement a strategy to knock down the support of anyone who might win more than that – in this case then-Cochabamba mayor Manfred Reyes Villa.
As someone who spent a good deal of my life engaged in US political campaigns, I was not surprised at how calculated it all was. Like it or not, that is standard operating procedure in political campaigns. What I was stunned by was that Goni and his US handlers let themselves be filmed close-up doing it. Bolivians I know who have seen the film are stunned to see such overt manipulation in action, especially at the hands of foreigners.
I admit that one of my favorite parts was watching Goni complain about the perpetual campaign problem of having Bolivians put fine confetti (mixtura) in his hair. It doesn’t even come out when you shampoo, he complains on camera. This provoked a suggestion from my wife that perhaps Goni antagonists in the US might want to sneak up on him occasionally at his Bethesda Maryland home-in-exile and put a new supply of bright pink confetti in his hair.
Levity aside, the biggest impression I got from the film was how utterly out of touch Sanchez de Lozada was with average Bolivians. That came to a head in February 2003 when, under pressure from the IMF to reduce Bolivia’s budget deficit, Goni opted for a tax increase on the working poor instead of on foreign oil producers. The politics that led to that and the 34 deaths that resulted are documented on our book, Deadly Consequences.
Boynton’s film opens with raw footage of the bloody conflicts provoked by Goni’s tax proposal. It is lucky for Carville and his colleagues that they are masters at the art of rationalization. They will surely need to employ a heavy dose of it to excuse themselves of responsibility for the deaths that were the end product of their program to manipulate Goni’s one point victory at the polls.
A Note to Readers: Our Brand is Crisis opens this week in New York and elsewhere but I have yet to find a solid schedule of where it is playing. If anyone has one, please post it as a comment to this post.