Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gulag, takes on the newest generation of American political pilgrims in Slate (For a thorough exegesis of fellow-traveling American intellectuals and celebrities, see Paul Hollander's classic study Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society):
In fact, for the malcontents of Hollywood, academia, and the catwalks, Chávez is an ideal ally. Just as the sympathetic foreigners whom Lenin called "useful idiots" once supported Russia abroad, their modern equivalents provide the Venezuelan president with legitimacy, attention, and good photographs. He, in turn, helps them overcome the frustration John Reed once felt—the frustration of living in an annoyingly unrevolutionary country where people have to change things by law. For all his brilliance, Reed could not bring socialism to America. For all his wealth, fame, media access, and Hollywood power, Sean Penn cannot oust George W. Bush. But by showing up in the company of Chávez, he can at least get a lot more attention for his opinions.
As for Venezuelan politics, or the Venezuelan people, they don't matter at all. The country is simply playing a role filled in the past by Russia, Cuba, and Nicaragua—a role to which it is, at the moment, uniquely suited. Clearly, Venezuela is easier to idealize than Iran and North Korea, the former's attitude to women being not conducive to fashion models, the latter being downright hostile to Hollywood. Venezuela is also warm, relatively close, and a country of beautiful waterfalls.
An explanation of the waterfall reference can be found here.
The fractured and listless opposition seems to be finally gaining steam in Venezuela, buttressed by by former defense minister Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel, a close Chavez ally who helped reinstate the president after the 2002 coup, who publically broke with the government and called the proposal to rewrite the already rewritten consitution "in effect a coup d'état" and a "nondemocratic imposition that would put us into tragic retreat." As Simon Romero wrote in yesterday's New York Times, the government is increasingly worried about student opposition groups: "Apparently alarmed by the intensity of student-led street protests in recent weeks, the president described student leaders as 'rich bourgeois brats' and said authorities could restrict permits for future demonstrations." Venezuelan blogger Miguel Octavio has details on the student protests here. Another Venezuelan blogger, Daniel Duquenal, on Gen. Baduel's stunning about-face here.