The War Room Goes to La Paz
BY BARBARA BELEJACK
n The War Room, the documentary by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus that follows James Carville and George Stephanopoulos during Bill Clinton’s first run for the White House, there’s an electric moment that occurs as Carville gathers the troops for one last time on the eve of the election. Choking back sobs and reminiscing about the first time he went to Washington (he was 33) and the first time he won an election (he was 42), Carville looks around the room and congratulates his flock. You have changed forever the way elections are conducted in America, he tells them. It’s a scene you might think about as you’re watching Our Brand is Crisis, a documentary by first-time director Rachel Boynton that premiered last month at Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival. With the kind of access that Pennebaker and Hegedus could only dream of (they only had direct access to the consultants; for scenes of the Clintons they relied on network news footage), Boynton followed the 2002 Bolivian presidential campaign of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, more commonly known as “Goni.” In the middle of the campaign, Carville and various permutations of pollsters, adsters, and strategists arrived in La Paz to boost Goni’s sagging numbers. With numbers like these, Goni says half-jokingly at one point, “maybe we should all be drinking Kool-Aid.” From time to time Carville appears on screen to provide comic relief with a joke about a bunch of lawyers going to La Paz (“they won’t know whether to wind their asses or scratch their watches”) or a faux confession. (“I can’t say this on the air,” he tells Boynton, before launching into an analogy: “A political campaign is like intercourse. You don’t really have a whole lot of control over when you peak.”) Carville may be the jester, the trickster in the film, but it is Jeremy Rosner—“the chief strategist”—who is the real protagonist. Blessed with the kind of boyish good looks that were once described as “Kennedy-esque,” he speaks in the measured tones of the rationale man about “500 years of oppression of indigenous rights,” “the have-nots of globalization,” “the silver mines of Potosí,” “the treasure trove of natural gas.” Like Carville, he has worked on political campaigns from South Africa to Israel, from England to Peru. Goni, he concedes early on, will be a bit of a hard sell. Not only did most Bolivians dislike the candidate, but “for 55 percent… the only question was ‘how high should the gallows be.’” Nevertheless, Rosner is convinced that Goni is the man of the hour. “We choose to work with some of the world’s most progressive politicians,” he tells Boynton. “We believe not just in democracy, but in a particular brand of democracy.” Judging by Goni’s c.v., that particular brand of “democracy” is not all that different from the one currently sitting in the White House. A millionaire mining magnate, Goni was raised in the United States and educated at the University of Chicago. Even though he speaks Spanish with a dull gringo accent, he managed to become president of his country from 1993-1997. Widely perceived as having sold off the national patrimony by implementing a privatization scheme called “capitalization,” he spent his final days in office trying to push through a controversial Enron-Shell project to pipe gas to Brazil. To borrow a phrase from the inimitable Gabriela Bocagrande (see “Pipe Dreams a la Boliviana,” November 7, 2003), Goni is up the wazoo with mining and energy investments—and a whole lot of gas. He is also a very apt pupil. After considerable coaching (“In every question you want to see how few words it takes to get back to your point,” Rosner advises), and endless rounds of focus groups, Goni learns to say the magic words. He promises jobs and an end to crisis (“We must own crisis. We must brand crisis,” says one of the consultants, soon after arriving in La Paz.) After ditching his original campaign slogan (Goni es la solución), his mandarins crib a page from a 1960s playbook: Sí se puede! From now on, whenever he is asked about his first term in office, he will repeat the mantra: I have learned from my mistakes. “As long as he says, ‘I know. I fell short,’” Rosner whispers to polling expert Stan Greenberg, as they huddle together. He does—repeatedly. And in June 2002, Goni squeaks by with 22 percent of the vote in a field of 11 candidates. Two months later, after winning the run-off by congressional vote, he becomes president. And that’s when things really start to get interesting. At the urging of the IMF, Goni tries to push through a steep tax increase, sparking a round of protests and road blockades. He then announces another controversial project, a pipeline to transport natural gas to the United States and Mexico via Chile. For all sorts of complicated historical reasons—a war with Chile in the late 19th century left Bolivia without a coastline—the project was not popular. When a coalition of unions, indigenous groups, and coca growers take to the streets and shut down the country, Goni hides out in La Paz and calls out the troops. During the “Gas Wars,” at least 60 protestors lose their lives. In October 2003, just 14 months into his presidency, he resigns and flees to the United States. We listen to him as he zips by familiar landmarks—“I haven’t driven a car in 15 years”—and watch him sitting on a bench, looking out at the Washington Monument. oynton begins with a powerful sequence of a riot in La Paz. As shots ring out and ambulance sirens screech, the camera zooms in on the body of a young man slumped against the wall, his shoes surrounded by a pool of his own blood. “So, what went wrong?” we hear Boyton ask, as she begins to work her way back in time, trying to tell the story of the Goni campaign as “a political thriller,” while she looks for the big-picture implications. Boynton moves seamlessly from Washington, D.C. to La Paz, from tables set with fine crystal goblets to desolate, dusty roads in the altiplano, with an eye for detail and an ear for dialogue. (Both Goni and his vice-presidential candidate, Carlos Mesa, are former filmmakers and are happy to have her along.) She is there when Goni lights a cigar and a consultant advises him on how to use the press to start a negative campaign against one of his opponents. Her microphones capture the conversation between the American advertising consultant and his Bolivian counterpart during the filming of a campaign spot in a shanty-town sewing factory. “They seem to be a little shy,” the gringo says of the Indian workers. “Their eyes are down. Try to get them to look at his eyes when they’re talking.” The film is beautifully crafted and superbly edited. But it does have some serious flaws. Boynton never seems to have a grasp on the indigenous rights movement that has been growing in Bolivia for more than a decade, preferring to let the obvious, painful discrepancies in income and standard of living speak to the issue. She either misses or chooses to avoid the larger economic questions—the role of the World Bank and the IMF, as well as connections between the consultants, the candidates, and the corporations. Instead she leaves us with Rosner’s big-picture questions at the end of the film: “Can you export your brand of democracy to such a divided country? If democracy can’t bring benefits to the average person, you better find ways to see that it build benefits pretty soon.” But she also leaves us with something else. It’s just a moment. Not an electric moment, but a small moment. It’s a scene that takes place in La Paz between Rosner and his translator when riots break out after Goni announces the tax increase. The consultant sweeps into the office and takes his seat behind a two-way mirror, ruffling through a stack of papers as still another focus session is about to begin. “Can you believe it, Jeremy?” the translator asks him. Throughout the film, she has been his eyes and ears. We have no way of knowing what she’s really thinking as she faithfully delivers the words of the participants in the focus groups. Rosner answers with taut questions. No, Jeremy, she says gently, when it appears that he is either unaware or misinformed about the amount of the tax increase and whom it will affect. Didn’t he remember the one thing that that came out the focus groups? Does he have any idea what that amount of money means to the average Bolivian? During the entire time they are talking, he continues ruffling his papers, looking at the charts and numbers. He never looks up at her —not once.