Civil Liberties

Sean Penn, Chavista

Understanding the Hollywood star's fatuous defense of Hugo Chávez


In the essay bookending his translation of Plato's Republic, Allan Bloom argues that Socrates' intention in philosophizing about the best regime was not to inspire his interlocutors to commit acts of revolution for achievements' sake, but rather to moderate their passions, and hence expectations, by showing that the best city is not, as Bloom's well-known teacher would say, actualizable. Bloom describes this ardent passion to actualize the perfect city as "the infinite longing for justice on earth" and insists that Socrates "constructs his utopia to point up the dangers of what we would call utopianism."

I was reminded of this passage—as I often am when listening to fanatically committed idealists—during Sean Penn's most recent, and by far most absurd, defense of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. During a brief segment on Real Time With Bill Maher, Penn explained that the mainstream news media in the United States regularly lies about Chávez by designating him a dictator, and that "truly, there should be a bar by which one goes to prison for these kinds of lies." Such a sentiment is likely (or do I mean hopefully?) not Penn's measured view on matters of free expression, but it is eerily close to the kind of threat Chávez uses to intimidate members of the opposition and elicit self-censorship within the Venezuelan media. Knowing that Penn's father was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist, I sat befuddled, and slightly incensed, at such a public display of civil irresponsibility. 

Penn also asserted, fatuously, that the Chavista project represents concrete hope for 80 percent of Venezuelans, and that, to crticize Chávez, one would have to be content with merely 20 percent of the population having a voice in their country's affairs. In Penn's argument about the justice of Chavismo, which is really the old argument about the imminent consummation of total justice, of justice for the poor and downtrodden, you're either with the innocent impoverished majority or with the heartless oligarchic minority. Poll results published in January of this year by the respected Venezuelan polling firm IVAD, however, belie Penn's utopian assertions. The numbers suggest that nearly as many Venezuelans define themselves as opposition (33.4 percent) as Chavista (36 percent)—26 percent do not indentify with either tendency and the rest did not respond. With respect to the upcoming legislative elections in September, roughly 30 percent of those asked said they planned to vote for Chavista candidates, 20 percent for opposition candidates, and 34 percent for independent candidates who are not publicly aligned with either bloc (the remainder are undecided).

Such figures (which are getting progressively worse for Chávez) reflect the toll that the líder revolucionario's image is deservedly taking amid electrical and food shortages, water rationing, an economy strangled by nationalization, and petrifying rates of lethal crime that I have, try as I might, never been able to adequately describe to my American friends. Despite his continuing fall in popularity, however, I would never deny that Chávez is still the country's most popular politician, just as I would never deny that prohibiting one of the opposition's most charismatic and young politicians from running for elected office (Leopoldo López) and persecuting the leader of the most popular social democratic party into exile (Manuel Rosales) are among the surest ways to stay popular. But the 80 percent support level that Penn says Chávez enjoys, or somehow represents, is, to put it kindly, a delusion; or less kindly, an irresponsible lie. I should add that the IVAD poll did reveal that 80 percent of Venezuelans are in agreement about one thing: The rate of lethal crime is by far the biggest problem facing the country. 

Penn also needlessly asserted that Chávez had "gone through fourteen of the most transparent elections on the globe." First, this would mean Chávez has been through more elections than years in office, but this might be a mental typo on Penn's part, so let's move on to the question of the transparency of Venezuelan elections. This is by no means a settled matter. I know of several groups of brave (and dare I say, progressive) university students who decamped to voting centers during the 2007 and 2009 constitutional referendums to prevent Chavista redshirts (i.e. Chavismo's version of Brownshirts) from intimidating voters and registered election monitors. In addition, it is a well-known fact that the Centro Nacional Electoral (CNE), Venezuela's highest electoral body (and theoretically a separate branch of government), is staffed by Chavista loyalists and has been since 2004. To illustrate this point, I will only add that the president of the CNE during a dramatic referendum vote against Chávez in 2004, Jorge Rodriguez, was later appointed vice president of the republic by Chávez. Imagine Dick Cheney presiding over any electoral body in the US, let alone the highest. What would Penn think of an election carried out under such auspices? 

Despite such a reality, I do not believe Chávez has committed systematic election fraud. I remain convinced—though I might one day be proven wrong—that he's actually won a solid majority in all of the elections he's won. But Chávez' repeated acts of redshirted intimidation and his use of public funds to finance his and his party's campaigns, among other acts of flagrant despotism, should not be forgotten by any fair-minded person who wants to discuss "Venezuelan democracy." Yes, it's true that Chávez' powers of persuasion, his preternatural talent for demagogy, his unequivocal commitment to a cause he declares he's ready to die for, and his vast oil wealth all combine to make one long-lasting, elected populist. But to say that Venezuelan elections are among the most transparent is, again, either simply deluded or an outright fabrication. 

But why does Penn continue in this manner? How can the man who starred in All the Kings Men—which focuses on the seductive nature of populist demagogy—and the same actor who made a remarkable cameo appearance in the anti-Castroite film Before Night Falls, remain oblivious to what is in front of his nose? 

But perhaps Penn does not want to know the truth about Chavismo. Intent on seeing his perfect city erected, perhaps he has no choice but to remain acquiescent towards Chávez' tyranny. Like all political utopians, he must tacitly understand that certain sacrifices are excusable, even unavoidable, if revolutionary policies, which are supposed to herald the irruption of a new world, are to be faithfully carried out. If one believes that Chávez really does offer the hope of such a radically new and just order, one will be ready to believe, or ready to make oneself believe, whatever one needs to believe in order to keep the possibility of such a world alive. This longing, as Bloom correctly noted in his study of Socrates' political teaching, really is infinite. It is an indefeasible part of human nature. And part of what it means to become truly educated is to learn to domesticate such longings and give them a proper direction. In other words, a good political education gives men a good reason to be moderate in their expectations and actions. But for many, the love of total justice and the belief in its actualization represent higher callings, against which moderate impulses are merely bourgeois cop-outs. 

That's probably why Penn doesn't seem to care about the plight of political prisoners in Venezuela or know the names of prominent Venezuelan exiles; that's why Penn doesn't mention, or perhaps doesn't even know, that there is currently only one television station left in Venezuela that openly criticizes Chávez' government, but amid ever increasing pressure and intimidation. Perhaps that's why Penn doesn't care to bring up the 16,000 Venezuelans, mostly poor, who were murdered last year in everyday acts of crime amid what is supposed to be a socialist revolution; that's why Penn doesn't worry about Chávez' growing alliance with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or his alleged ties to FARC and ETA, or the fact that Chávez believes 9/11 was an inside job. While Penn continues to believe that Chávez can really give 80 percent of Venezuelans justice, in the deepest and most permanent sense of the word, he will continue to forgive all Chavista sins and distort the truth for his American audience. 

And though it might be impossible to persuade Penn, he should at least be made to realize that if Americans who lied about Chávez on the mainstream media were really sent to jail, he would be the first one in.

Antonio Rumbos, a native of Venezuela, is a writer living in Washington, DC.