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Celebrities for tyranny
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Sean Penn spent a week playing journalist in Venezuela. He was in the company of Hugo Chavez, a man with such abiding respect for journalism that he tries to shut down any news operation critical of his move toward tyranny.
Chavez did manage to shut down RCTV, the country’s oldest and most popular television network, by denying the renewal of its broadcast license. RCTV then switched to cable. And now Chavez is trying to close it down there too.
But for now RCTV is still in operation, even if with a greatly reduced audience and under threat. Its status is indicative of where Venezuela is under Chavez — a nation whose democratic forces sometimes win and sometimes lose in a struggle to prevent a president from governing with unrestricted powers and without public challenges to his policies.
How much of that is going to end up in whatever story Sean Penn writes?
Penn claimed he was in Venezuela to take in what was going on and then write about it. Nothing wrong with that, ostensibly. It’s what journalists do.
But journalists are not supposed to let themselves be used for propaganda. Which is what happened with Penn’s visit.
The actor and the dictator-wannabe traveled around the countryside in an open jeep, cameras rolling. Together they attended rallies where Chavez made much of the similarities between his politics and Penn’s, while Penn mostly smiled and nodded before the cameras. And when Penn visited Miraflores — the Venezuelan White House — he didn’t head to a little desk in the pressroom but was given a public welcome and tour. Cameras rolling, of course.
So Penn simply became one more in the line of celebrities who think dictators are all right, as long as they are on the left.
Hugo’s list also includes Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte. But the Venezuelan strongman has a long way to go before he can match the master.
Cuba’s Fidel Castro’s list has Steven Spielberg, who called his dinner with Castro “the eight most important hours of my life.” It has Jack Nicholson, for whom Castro is a “genius.” It has Ed Asner, Naomi Campbell, Kevin Costner, Leonardo DiCaprio, Woody Harrelson, Spike Lee, Shirley MacLaine, Kate Moss, Sidney Pollack, Robert Redford and Oliver Stone, who made an embarrassingly bad hagiographic film about the Maximum Leader.
Those celebrities helped forge the international image of the romantic revolutionary leading his poor but proud country against the imperialistas from the north. That legend, so powerful it lives on even with Castro so sick he can no longer rule Cuba, played no small role in allowing the regime to survive 48 years and counting, and in letting it crush dissent with impunity.
Now some celebrities are starting to empower Chavez in a similar way.
Penn can shake things up, though, if the article he eventually writes takes a clear-eyed, critical look at the dictatorship that looms over Venezuela.
But will anybody be shocked if Penn ends up writing an embarrassingly bad hagiographic article about Chavez?

Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology. v
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