Political Expert Exports Put Their 'Brand' on Bolivia

A rally in Bolivia for presidential candidate Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, whose campaign was run by U.S. consultants including James Carville, below.
A rally in Bolivia for presidential candidate Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, whose campaign was run by U.S. consultants including James Carville, below. (Koch Lorber Films)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 31, 2006

Without asking a single question, Rachel Boynton's superb documentary "Our Brand Is Crisis" asks a number of disturbing questions.

The movie unobtrusively follows some smart operators from the American political consulting firm GCS (for its founders Stanley Greenberg, James Carville and Robert Shrum, all of the successful Clinton election team) as they run the presidential campaign of the Bolivian candidate Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in a close 2002 race. The film crew stays with the winning candidate after his victory, when, alas, all that he won goes away: He's driven from office in smoky turmoil and violence in 13 months. You are there.

Political junkies should love it. It's a super-inside-baseball account of what goes on when the pros take over, full of intimate moments both funny and shocking. I suppose everyone in town already knows this stuff except me, but when a very clever guy says to the clueless candidate just before a TV shot late in the election, "Uh, we see you more in a blazer than in a suit for this one," I couldn't help but laugh. Cue Joe McGinniss!

The movie is full of such mordant details. Poor Sanchez de Lozada has a double misfortune: First of all, he looks like the CEO from hell, a ponderous guy who dresses not in the Bolivian fashion, but in the inside-the-Beltway power-suit tradition, down to the red ties, dark suits and white shirts. He looks like he just raised your BG&E rates. He has a nasty little tendency, also, toward off-the-cuff arrogance (or truth, if you will). When asked, for example, whether he would discuss the sale of Bolivia's natural gas, its most strategic raw material, with that hallowed entity known as "the people," he scoffs, "I would not take a complex problem like that to the people!"

Ouch. You can feel the numbers drop.

His arrogance dovetails with his other problem: Everyone already despises him.

He'd been president before, from 1993 to 1997, when his autocratic style and supposed pro-American bias -- he insisted on working with, not against, multinational corporations -- got him into big trouble with the voters.

In this particular race he's opposed by people on either side of the spectrum. To his right is a mysteriously wealthy ex-military officer named Manfred Reyes Villa, who looks like the young Raphael Trujillo, complete with mustache and swept-back, glossy hair. To his left is the country's first indigenous candidate, Evo Morales, a radical who wants to boot the foreigners out of the country.

It's nip and tuck all the way, and the movie follows as the GCS agents, including celebs G, C and S themselves, fly in for a weekend confab with the more consistent on-the-ground troopers such as Tad Devine and Jeremy Rosner, and try to chart a winning path through the morass of Bolivian domestic politics. Their weapons: the poll, the focus group, the TV advertisement, the press junket.

Being a hopeless melodrama addict, I couldn't help think of the great old John Sturges epic, "The Magnificent Seven" (hmmm, is there anything about Carville that makes me think of Yul Brynner?), in which seven Yank hired guns mosey south of the border to help a small Mexican town fight off banditos, because it's the only war they've got. There's something of the glamour of the foreign mercenary in these handsome, capable guys in their Brooks Brothers blue shirts and Izod polo shirts and their complete unflappability as they bring hard-won savvy to the mountains and arroyos of Bolivia.

It seems for a while their biggest enemy is the candidate himself. His own natural reluctance to self-criticize is a difficult issue, as the Americans want to run a campaign based on the experience he learned (particularly from his admitted mistakes) in his first term. His response: What mistakes? I made no mistakes.

Eventually he comes around to their point of view, possibly because he's paying so much for it, possibly because James Carville has such star power and charisma that when he comes down and simply reiterates what Tad and Jeremy have said, finally "Goni" (as he was called) listens. (Disclosure: Carville and I share the same New York publisher and have met, drunk and kibitzed at two publishing events.)

The larger point -- there's always a larger point, isn't there? -- has to do also with the issues raised, indeed, by "The Magnificent Seven," as well as Operation Iraqi Freedom. There's no doubt that the gringos save the day: They are really, really good. And you can say: Hooray for our team! The good guys won.

But they won for only a little while, because, as we are learning today and as we learned in every contest of the past century, engagements in other cultures are really tricky business. There are too many hidden traps, too many unknowns, too many unpredictables, too many invisible rules. If they won, what did they win? How long did it last? Was it worth it, given how it turned out? Maybe everybody would have been better off if GCS had stayed home.

Our Brand Is Crisis (87 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company