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A campaign in Bolivia that's made in America

Political documentaries don’t come any more shaming than Rachel Boynton’s terrific ‘‘Our Brand is Crisis,’’ a barely straight-faced account of what happened in Bolivia in 2002, when a group of US consultants helped a candidate win the presidency only to see the country slide into near-total chaos.

Globalism extends to the American way of campaigning, it seems, and the hubris of the gringo strategists — earnest ex-Clintonistas employed by James Carville’s Greenberg Carville Shrum group — would be hilarious if human lives and a country’s political will weren’t at stake.

It’s a galling and provocative experience to viewers of any political persuasion, and a reminder to the left of how easily idealism can run amok.

The Carville boys were hired by Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, a.k.a. ‘‘Goni,’’ a patrician Bolivian businessman who served a rough term as Bolivia’s president in the mid-’90s. Goni’s legacy was an unsuccessful program of ‘‘capitalization’’ (i.e., he welcomed foreign investment and watched foreigners get all the jobs).

By 2002, the time of filming, unemployment is through the roof and rural campesinos are agitating for political representation. Goni is old news and his poll numbers are dismal. Enter Jeremy Rosner, Greenberg Carville Shrum’s point man in Bolivia, an articulate manipulator of mass moods (and a fellow who bears an uncanny resemblance to Seth Meyers of ‘‘Saturday Night Live’’ — reality parodies itself here better than any comic could).

Rosner and his minions hold focus groups, print bar charts, and quickly decide on Goni’s campaign theme: crisis. The country’s falling apart, so who will you turn to? The candidate’s longtime campaign manager, Carlos Morales, has his own polls and research, but they’re arrogantly shunted aside.

It’s an uphill battle, nevertheless. ‘‘Over half the electorate really can’t stand you guys,’’ admits one of the consultants.

Against Goni are Evo Morales, a socialist firebrand who represents the country’s coca growers but who denies he’s a drug lord or a terrorist, and Cochabamba mayor Manfred Reyes Villa, a thoughtful pragmatist with a charismatic head of hair. Villa leads in the polls, so Rosner and company decide he must be taken down.

It’s a measure of the trust filmmaker Boynton built with the Americans that they happily discuss negative campaigning with the cameras rolling — either that, or they’re willfully blind. Management consultant Tal Silverstein insists ‘‘we have to turn [Villa] from a clean candidate to a dirty one,’’ and articles go out fretting about his military experience and digging into his finances. ‘‘Tomorrow they’ll probably say I’m an associate of Osama bin Laden,’’ Villa shrugs in an interview.

Wrong. They tie him to the Moonies.

Goni’s own response is that of a plump tuna surrounded by sharks. ‘‘Mine not to reason why,’’ he sighs and goes out to insult the electorate and bobble softball questions lobbed by the hostess of a morning chat show. When Carville himself arrives from the states to rally the troops, he gleefully gives Boynton the lowdown on media manipulation and chuckles that ‘‘campaigns are like intercourse: You don’t have that much control over when you peak.’’ TMI, Ragin’ Cajun, TMI.

Goni wins by the narrowest of margins in a severely split field. He does little for several months (other than plan to ship Bolivia’s natural gas from a port in enemy Chile), then decides to raise taxes. Cut to riots in the streets. Over a hundred people died in the ensuing months, and Goni eventually fled to America. In late 2005, Morales won the presidency with a historic 54 percent of the vote. You could argue that the Carville consultants helped drive Bolivia into his arms, since the centrist Villa would likely have won in 2002 without their intervention.

Not that Rosner’s taking credit. Gently asked by Boynton what went wrong, he stares into space and stammers that ‘‘there are conditions that democracy can’t deal with.’’ It’s the confusion of a privileged child whose toy has blown up in his face.

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