Our Brand is Crisis is basically the prologue to the film Cocalero. But in my opinion, it’s a far superior film to that one. The movie follows the twisting curves of the 2002 Presidential Election in Bolivia. In particular, Boynton’s film focuses on the candidate Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who is popularly known as “Goni.” Goni was raised in the United States during the political exile of his father, and he actually served as President of Bolivia for one term in the mid-90s. During his presidency, he instituted several reforms, including the controversial privatization of five key state-owned industries, which is often cited as broadening the gap between rich and poor in that country. In 2002, Goni campaigned with the help of the US marketing firm GCS (Stan Greenberg, James Carville, and Bob Shrum). Using US-style campaign strategies, the GCS folks focused on a brand for Goni that portrayed the country at a crossroads, a moment of crisis. Their slogan was “¡Sí se puede!“—“Yes, we can!” (also used by Barack Obama in his Spanish-language promotional material, but first used as a slogan by the United Farm Workers back in the 70s).
To this viewer, watching US political consultants gather focus groups, develop branding strategies, and market a candidate in an election in a developing South American nation was just plain weird…and really, really scary. They decided to hit their biggest competition in the election, Manfred Reyes Villa, with a barrage of negative ads questioning his intentions, his wealth, and his ties to the military. But this was coming from a group of folks who were relatively unfamiliar with the country, don’t speak Spanish (!), and are in the political game to make a profit—though they pay lip service to supporting only “progressive candidates.” All of this set up a devastating period in Bolivia’s history (bloody riots from 2003 are shown in the set-up sequence at the beginning of the film) that paved the way for Evo Morales’ ascension to power. Although Morales didn’t win the 2002 election, the fighting between Manfred and Goni caused him to sneak solidly into the top three of the election. In 2005, he would win in a landslide. Meanwhile, Goni lives in the US once again and faces extradition back to Bolivia to face charges of crimes against humanity. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “so it goes.”