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Review: The War On Democracy: a film by John Pilger (August 2007)

9 September 2007

JM Thorn 

In his latest documentary film - The War on Democracy – John Pilger tackles the growing social and political struggles in South America and the response of the US to them. 

The film opens with a long introduction into the social and political changes that have been taking place in Venezuela since the 1998 election of Hugo Chavez.  Pilger uses his well-established technique of focusing on the stories of a number of individuals to illustrate what is happening in broader society.  So we have interviews with grassroots activists like barrio resident Mariela Machado who is organising her neighbours to take political decisions into their own hands for the first time ever.  This is contrasted by interviews with members of Venezuela’s wealthy elite who are contemplating fleeing to Florida.  Taken together these give the impression that indeed a revolution is underway in the country. 

Pilger punctures this oversimplified view to some extent by pointing out that capitalism in Venezuela is actually thriving and that conspicuous consumption by the capitalist class is at record levels.  Wealthy Venezuelans appear comical, sitting in their luxury villas and apartments, as Pilger listens with mock concern to their fears that communism is sweeping over them.  However, this is not just a case the paranoia of a few individuals.  Such fears are widely held among ruling classes throughout Latin America.  They are totally uncompromising and unable to contemplate the most modest of reforms in favour of the poor. 

The centrepiece of the first part of the film is an interview with Hugo Chavez.  Pilger questions him on his policies and what type of society he wants to bring into being in Venezuela.   Some of this questioning is extremely soft (“You are deeply committed to the Venezuela people. Where does that come from?”).  When he does ask about the persistence of poverty and inequality he allows Chavez to get away with an evasive answer.  The strongest part of the interview is when Pilger encourages Chavez to talk about the role of the US in opposing his Government’s modest reform programme.  On the relationship between the US and Venezuela Chavez makes the critical point – “to have a revolution without crashing against the empire – it’s impossible”.  This provides the theme for the second part of the film. 

Pilger documents the various attempts of the US to overthrow the Chavez government, in particular the 2002 coup attempt.  The material in this section draws heavily from the earlier film, “The Revolution will not be Televised”, and will be familiar to anyone who has taken an interest in Venezuela in recent years.  However, it is worth seeing again, as it demonstrates that it was mass action by the poor that defeated the coup and brought Chavez back to power when his own policy had left him wide open to the right-wing plot. 

Pilger uses the example of the coup attempt in Venezuela as the springboard for the main argument of his film - that the US has always intervened in the region to protect its economic interests.  Under the hegemony of what he describes as the American Empire “whole countries have been privatised, put up for sale, their natural wealth sold for peanuts.” 

Despite US propaganda that portrays itself as a promoter of democracy it as always been prepared to overthrow democracy in South American if it produced the “wrong result”.  Starting in 1954 with America’s overthrow of Jacabo Arbenz, a moderate reformer in Guatemala, Pilger goes on to explore Washington’s complicity in the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973.  He recounts the coup and the period of oppression that followed through interviews with people who suffered under the military regime.  Pilger also shows that despite the restoration of formal democracy in Chile in 1990, the general political and economic order established by the coup remains in place.  This is very much a critique of the “respectable left” of South America who have been counter posed to the firebrands and populists like Chavez. 

As a contrast to Chile, Pilger offers the example of Bolivia where there have been major struggles against neo-liberalism and the election of the indigenous coca farmer Evo Morales as president.  Again this story is told through the testimony of grassroots activists.  Such people are always the heroes of Pilger documentaries.  And where there are heroes there are also villains.  Taking on this role are the various CIA agents who are interviewed.  They range from the repentant (Phillip Agee) to the unashamedly proud (Duane Clarridge).  Clarridge, the CIA’s chief in Latin America from 1981 to 1984, is the primary villain.  A loathsome individual, who expresses himself in the bluntest terms, he is the perfect representative of US imperialism.   When Pilger challenges him over American destruction of democracy and support for state terror, Clarridge shrugs his shoulders saying - “In the CIA we didn't give a hoot about democracy".  Some more gentle baiting from Pilger and Clarridge lets rip.  Asked how he justified such actions Clarridge snarls “national security interests”. In his final salvo he shouts at Pilger - “we are going to protect ourselves and we are going to go on protecting ourselves . . . like it or lump it.”  This is the best interview in the film because it reveals the nature of US imperialism.  Despite his crudeness Clarridge is the authentic voice of US ruling class.

At the end of his film Pilger comes back to his interview with Hugo Chavez who elaborates on his vision of 21st century socialism.  Chavez concludes by citing Victor Hugo’s famous quote that “nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”  Though he warns that there were leaders in the past who have made promises and went on to disappoint their working class supporters, Pilger is clearly in sympathy with the Chavista movement. In the moralistic framework applied by Pilger to political subjects, Chavez and Morales are good men leading a worthy struggle against the evils of imperialism.  While imperialism is an undoubted evil, and Pilger’s documentary is at its strongest when exposing this, the politics of the populist left emerging in South America are not subjected to any scrutiny. 

Pilger leaves his viewers with the positive assertion that: “Those who see the world through the eyes of the powerful should be warned. People are rising from the tyranny and oblivion to which we in the West have consigned them.”  As the credits role to the sound of Sam Cooke’s “A change is gonna come” a sense of hope is engendered.  But there is also a nagging doubt that this may be another false dawn. 

The burning question that confronts Pilger, and also socialists trying to understand the changes taking place in Latin America, is not “should we trust Chavez?” Rather we need to understand the extent to which the working class has organised on its own behalf, independently of populist leaders.  The rose-tinted spectacles through which Pilger views his subject prevent an answer. 


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