The War On Democracy is the 58th (or so) documentary made by filmmaker John Pilger, and is his first feature length made for cinematic release. Piltger has been a TV director/producer since 1958, and has built a reputation and following for his investigative journalism into some of the world’s most difficult human problems.
The War On Democracy is a history lesson tied to the present by Pilger’s bounding interest in the political potential of poor communities to transform national politics. His geographic scope in this film is the so-called “backyard” of the United States: Latin America. And this shy bit of Orientalism (in calling a continent with 20 or so counties, more than half a billion people, a combined GDP of 2 trillion, and hundreds if not thousands of cultures far older than the American Republic a “backyard”) goes to the heart of this compelling indictment of American foreign policy. America has been at war against democracy in the region seemingly since America began. Pilger’s catalyst for telling this not so new story now is the resurgence of popular democratic movements across Latin America fueled in large part by the charismatic and deep-pocketed leadership of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
We meet president Chavez, along with an eclectic array of historians, activists, former victims of various regimes, and former CIA senior planners. This is a retelling of how America has fought against the formation of democratic governance and accountability throughout Latin America and at great, tragic cost. The debate between Pilger and one former CIA executive about the number of the dead in Chile under Pinochet reinforces any lingering doubts about the pigheaded and callous disregard some American officials have had and certainly continue to have for human life, especially among the poor and indigenous. We learn some of the tragic stories of Bolivia, Guatemala, Nicaragua and the all too familiar story of Allende’s fall under an American backed coup lead by Pinochet. What emerges is a clear and murderous disregard by American administrations for democratic principles and national sovereignty.
But we also get a glimpse of the social transformation taking place in Latin America, one of Pilger’s main theses in this film. In Bolivia, rural villagers exerted their collective strength and chased an ill-conceived and bad faith attempt to privatize their water resources. In Venezuela, after Chavez was kidnapped by an American-backed consortium of dissident army leaders and industrialists in 2002, it was the demands of the hundreds of thousands of poor from the barrio hillsides around Caracus who had taken to the streets and surrounded the presidential palace, that eventually forced the hand of “empire” to return Chavez to the presidential palace unharmed.
This notion of “empire” is another of Pilger’s central themes: that America is better understood as empire — an aggressive political, military and economic entity of oppression, domination and expansion. It is an argument that, despite not being new, continues to be well suited to the times. Films like Pilger’s will perhaps do their bit to help move into the mainstream this persistently under-recognized and expanded notion of what it means to be an American.