Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Our Brand Is Crisis
Just as the news about populist uprisings across the Arab world brings uncomfortable reminders of our government’s ties to the despots involved, a 2005 documentary shows us how American businesses can meddle in other country’s politics, gaming the democratic process in the name of democracy.
Our Brand is Crisis follows a K Street political consulting firm as it engineers Bolivia’s 2002 election, winning a second shot at the presidency for Goni (Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada), a U.S.-friendly businessman. As the film informs us, Goni privatized state-owned resources and welcomed foreign investors during his first term in office. That was a controversial move, and it became even more of a political lightning rod when his successor sold the rights to the country’s water to foreign companies, which then began charging exorbitant rates. When he ran again in 2002, Goni was part of a field of 11 candidates that included current president Evo Morales, a former coca farmer who was then consolidating power behind his promises to nationalize the country’s resources and redistribute some of the wealth to the poor.
Filmmaker Rachel Boynton opens with harrowing footage of the deadly rioting that broke out soon after Goni began his second term, after he announced plans to export Bolivian gas to the U.S. and Mexico despite a shortage within the country itself. Then she takes us back to the beginning of his campaign, showing how he won.
Goni’s consultants are Greenberg Carville Shrum (the Carville was Clinton war room general James Carville), a group of seasoned DC kingmakers who used expertise they’d gained in this country to run political campaigns abroad. As Jeremy Rosner, the firm’s main representative in Bolivia, puts it, GCS specializes in “progressive politics and foreign policy for profit…. We believe in a particular brand of democracy – market-based democracy.”
The group treats Goni like any other product in need of marketing. They run focus groups, probing for information on how people see the candidates and what they want from their leader. They create messages and taglines (the film’s title comes from the organizing principle they develop for the campaign). They choose a campaign color – pink, which is supposed to make their man seem warmer. And they come up with ways to undermine the competition.
The message from those focus groups is clear: most Bolivians see Goni as arrogant and out of touch, loyal not to them but to his wealthy peers in other countries. But if the candidate is arrogant, his consultants are no better, remaining stubbornly convinced that they know what’s best for Bolivia, regardless of what Bolivians may think.
Boynton shows both candidate and consultants insulated from reality in their swanky environments. She often films from a distance, to emphasize the locked iron gates, the long polished tables, and the uniformed servants silently toiling away in the background, but she can get surprisingly close when she wants to. She’s at the strategy meeting where one of the consultants tells Goni it’s time to go negative on his main opponent – but through an outside group, so they can deny any connection to the attack. She’s in the room when Goni’s campaign manager snipes at the consultants, blaming them for the candidate’s eroding numbers. And she gets a carelessly candid Carville to chortle about how clients think he has “some kind of silver bullet” – and explain how he capitalizes on that myth.
Asking keen questions from behind the camera in her soft, unthreatening voice, Boynton quietly builds a damning case against her subjects. GCS’s campaign can’t hide Goni’s sense of entitlement or his cavalier dismissal of popular concerns, which turn off so many voters that he just barely wins office in a runoff, then he flees a year later, defeated by death threats, strikes, and bloody showdowns in the streets.
In the end, the firm’s self-created mandate to export its favorite brand of democracy to other countries just looks like one more form of arrogant self-interest: imperialism in a “progressive” mask.
Written for TimeOFF