Venezuela’s longtime president, who died of cancer March 5, was one of the world’s most vocal and persistent critics of the United States. The “North American empire,” Hugo Chavez said, was “the biggest menace to our planet.” Capitalism was “the road to hell,” and George W. Bush was “the devil” himself. (Barack Obama was merely “a clown” and “an embarrassment.”)
Yet some famous Americans, made rich by the system that Chavez reviled, were drawn to him nonetheless. Sean Penn flew to Caracas to attend Chavez’s funeral in person.
"The people of the United States lost a friend it never knew it had,” Penn said in a statement released to The Hollywood Reporter. “And poor people around the world lost a champion. I lost a friend I was blessed to have."
Actor Danny Glover lauded Chavez as "a social champion of people-centered democracy.”
"Hated by the entrenched classes, Hugo Chavez will live forever in history," wrote Oliver Stone, director of the pro-Chavez documentary South of the Border."My friend, rest finally in a peace long earned."
Chavez’s other celebrity comrades over the years have included Naomi Campbell, Susan Sarandon, and Harry Belafonte.
But Chavez had plenty of friends outside of Hollywood too. Politically, he idolized Cuba’s Fidel Castro and was good pals with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who received a standing ovation at his funeral. (Did Penn applaud?) The repressive Belarus of dictator Alexander Lukashenko, Chavez said, was “a model of a social state, which we are also building.” He spoke similarly of the Syria’s mass-murdering Bashar al-Assad: "We have the same political vision and we will resist together the American imperialist aggression.” He considered Libyan strongman Muammar al-Gadhafi “a great fighter, a revolutionary and martyr.” His praise for foreign killers and despots extended to Zimbabwe’s brutal Robert Mugabe (“a freedom fighter”), convicted terrorist Carlos the Jackal (“a dignified bearer of the biggest struggles”), and even Ugandan psychopath Idi Amin ("We thought he was a cannibal. ... I don't know, maybe he was a great nationalist, a patriot").
It is not surprising that Chavez found common ground with despicable strongmen around the world. Despite differences in philosophy and degree of dictatorial control, they shared a violent hatred for America, capitalism, and, of course, the Jews. (“Some minorities, descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ…took all the world's wealth for themselves,” Chavez said in a 2006 speech.) And like his friends in Syria, Iran, and Belarus, Chavez systematically repressed his own people.
During his 14 years in power, Chavez used the rhetoric of populism to justify an increasingly autocratic cult of personality. He rewrote Venezuela’s constitution to consolidate his power. He silenced dissident voices in the media, arresting critical editors and journalists and closing down television channels that refused to broadcast his rambling propaganda speeches. His iron-clad control of the media kept many Venezuelans in ignorance of the reality that, as The Economist noted, Chavez’s administration was “a corrupt, mismanaged affair”:
“State takeovers of farms cut agricultural output. Controls of prices and foreign exchange could not prevent persistent inflation and engendered shortages of staple goods. Infrastructure crumbled: most of the country has suffered frequent power cuts for years. Hospitals rotted: even many of the missions languished. Crime soared: Caracas is one of the world’s most violent capitals.”
In other words: By lending their star power to Chavez’s self-aggrandizing anti-Western stance, American celebrities are not just turning their backs on the United States. They are also betraying the people of Venezuela, whom Chavez has abused and endangered — not to mention the people of Syria, Zimbabwe, Iran, and other countries to whose cruel leaders Chavez has lent his own star glamour.
There is a long tradition of American public figures allying themselves with anti-American thugs, from the deluded intellectual humanists who defended Stalin’s Soviet Union to the cultural bigwigs who embraced “radical chic” in the 1960s and 1970s. Jane Fonda’s infamous 1972 photo op with a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun remains a milestone of misguided movie-star activism. In many cases, the stars in question, such as Fonda, later expressed remorse for their advocacy.
But this tradition continues among would-be progressives of America’s famous class. We saw it in 2010, when Sharon Stone, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, and Mickey Rourke were among those applauding stupidly when Russia’s Vladimir Putin sang “Blueberry Hill” in St. Petersburg. We saw it last week when the dim-witted Dennis Rodman returned from his ego trip to North Korea with effusive praise for the country’s chief madman, Kim Jong-un —“He's just a great guy if you sit down and talk to him”—just days before a North Korean general threatened to reduce Washington, D.C., to “a sea of fire” in a preemptive nuclear strike.
To people like Putin and Chavez, these well-meaning celebrities serve as what used to be called, in the Cold War era, “useful idiots” (or, in Rodman’s case, just plain “idiot”). They believe that they are taking brave stands in favor of a better, more equal world, in which the poor are freed from suffering. But those of us who grew up in the places they talk about from their cushy soapboxes — in my case, the crumbling old Soviet Union — know that high-flying socialist rhetoric does not often translate into positive change. Usually, as in Venezuela, it is political theater that masks repression, corruption, poverty, and violence.
But American celebrities fall for the theater, because they are show business people, after all. Hugo Chavez had charisma to spare. He also had impressive costumes and dramatic dialogue. And fashionable public leftists appreciate that; they’re like the hipsters who wear Che Guevara T-shirts because they think they admire Guevara’s struggle, but really because he looks hot in that image. As Chavez’s glow wears off, the damage he did to Venezuela gets clearer every day. His Hollywood apologists, if they’re honest with themselves, may come to regret the consequences of his and their charisma.
MICHAEL LUCAS is the creator of Lucas Entertainment, one of the largest studios producing all-male erotica. He lives in New York City. This article is the opinion of the writer and not The Advocate.