Our Brand Is Crisis


Review by Willard Manus

Rachel Boynton's documentary on the role of American political consultants in a Bolivian presidential election proves a cautionary tale. Boynton, a young, New York-based filmmaker, went behind the scenes to record the antics of a company called GCS when it was hired by Gonzalo Sanchez de Lazada (a.k.a. "Goni") to help him become Numero Uno in Bolivia.

Facing tough competition, Goni (who had been President of Bolivia from 1993-97) ran on a reform ticket that emphasized neo-liberal, free-market principles. GCS was brought in to help sell his message to the masses. Calling itself a proponent of "progressive capitalism," GCS jumped at the chance to portray Goni as the FDR-like savior of Bolivia's economic and political problems (70 % of the country lives below the poverty line).

Boynton was able to bring her camera into GCS' policy sessions as it discussed the ways and means of manipulating public opinion--which at first was dead set against Goni--and turning a political loser into a champion. GCS' machinations, revealed in specific detail by Boynton, fooled the populace into believing Goni was a man on a white horse.

Goni won the hard-fought election by the narrowest of margins, prompting the GCS team--which included ex-Democratic Party strategist James Carville--to celebrate gleefully on camera. The party did not last for long, though. When Goni privatized Bolivia's tin mines--the country's main source of income--and also announced plans to build a natural-gas pipeline in Chile (Bolivia's traditional enemy), the populace revolted. Demonstrations and riots followed, resulting in serious deaths, injuries and property damage.

American techniques of political salesmanship--building a candidate into a brand name, selling him as a friend of the people--not only backfired but led to a revolution. Goni was ousted and a new President was ushered in, one who rejected market economics and free-trade agreements in favor of socialism and protectionism.

"The machinations of Goni's campaign gave me a unique way of looking at how our system works back home," Boynton said in the film's production notes. "I realized our concept of democracy and our concept of capitalism are so closely intertwined that our technique of political salesmanship--how we sell a candidate--mirrors how we sell any product. In an election the goal becomes to get voters to 'purchase' a candidate, rather than to create dialogue. And without real substantive, two-way discourse, politicians are left out of touch and the people are left with an insufficient understanding of complicated issues (be they the reasons for selling gas through Chile or the true reasons for going to war in Iraq)."