HOLLYWOOD – FOXNews.com readers may remember the film "Team America: World Police," a puppeteer's parody about the American government, its foreign policy and its home-grown critics in Hollywood. One of the puppets lampoons Oscar-winner Sean Penn, who, in the film, laments the invasion of Iraq by harking back to the time it "was a happy place. They had flowery meadows and rainbow skies, and rivers made of chocolate." Penn was so angry about the film's message that he wrote the film's creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, a blistering public letter signing off with a scatological reference. I thought perhaps Penn’s temper had mellowed since then and was eager to speak with him on Oscar night at Elton John’s party.
I assumed Penn was probably ignorant about the human rights record in Venezuela in that he broke off relations with the San Francisco Chronicle in mid-January calling them a "lamebrain paper" over their use of the word "dictator" to describe Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Penn was in Caracas late last year where he went to do research for an essay he says he is writing about Chavez. On David Letterman's show Penn gushed about Chavez as a "fascinating guy" who had done "incredible things" for Venezuela's poor. Letterman remarked that Chavez had shut down a television station, RCTV — something that should trouble a self-styled journalist. Penn looked at the camera and misled the audience, stating that for years RCTV "had been encouraging the assassination of Chavez every day." But there was not a single instance of such behavior by RCTV. It's as if the Sean Penn puppet in "Team America" came to life as a propagandist.
Ironically, it was President Chavez who has repeatedly threatened — even with death those in the media who disagree with his policies. Reporters covering government functions must wear bullet-proof vests and dozens in the media have been assaulted and beaten for disagreeing with the official party line.
On Oscar night Penn and I had an unpleasant exchange about the political prisoners of the Chavez government which he ended by walking away and repeating, like a mantra, the name of one of the evening’s Academy Award recipients, “Daniel Day-Lewis,” over and over again in what seemed like the equivalent of a child putting his hands over his ears and belting “la-la-la-la-la-la! I can’t hear you!” Undaunted, I scribbled a note inviting him to learn more about the appalling stories of Venezuelan dissidents in prison for doing nothing but criticizing the government. The invitation is still open.
Penn isn't alone in displaying ignorance or deception while defending the Venezuelan president. He joins an all-star cast of Chavez admirers including actors Danny Glover and Kevin Spacey, musician Harry Belafonte, supermodel Naomi Campbell, director Oliver Stone, activist Cindy Sheehan, and Princeton University Professor Cornel West.
A multi-billion dollar public relations campaign, complete with Potemkin villages and a lucrative international initiative that includes heating oil distributed by Joe Kennedy to America's needy, has managed to paint a romantic picture. However, a shift has begun in the widely-held perception about Venezuela as a place transforming into what Chavez describes as a socialist "terrestrial paradise."
Regionally, Chavez has exemplified imperialism by intervening in the internal affairs and elections of Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. He began a continental arms race complete with submarines, 100,000 new AK-47s and fighter jets from Russia. His government has provided a safe haven, cash, and military supplies to the leaders of the FARC terrorist organization of Colombia — whom his government considers as allies and heroes. Just imagine if the Canadian or Mexican governments provided cash, lodging, and supplies to Al Qaeda to get a sense of what Colombia must bear.
Domestically, the unbendable reality about Chavez is that he is on record authorizing the use of lethal force against unarmed civilians who protest. Thanks to massive oil revenues, he has presided over the richest government in Venezuelan history, yet living standards continue to decline and food shortages are a weekly phenomenon. Corruption is worse than ever before and street crime has grown under his government to the point that Venezuela has one of the top five per capita murder rates in the world. And in December the people so overwhelmingly rejected his proposed plan to stay in power indefinitely that despite a manipulated voter roll, voting machines made by a company once secretly-owned by the government, and control of the electoral commission, the vote revealed that Venezuelans aren't sitting out the elimination of their freedoms. Since May of last year, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly students, have been marching in a continuous peaceful protest. The quick count and polls indicate Chavez lost by a wide margin of more than 8 points. Election night saw a tense negotiation between Chavez and his high command who informed him they would not go along with his plans to announce victory. The electoral body tried to lessen the blow by announcing preliminary numbers indicating Chavez would lose by less than one point. As of this writing, the Venezuelan electoral body has yet to publish the official results of the vote.
So why, despite his atrocious human rights record, does Chavez enjoy the support of high-profile actors and activists?
What tickles Penn and his ilk is that Chavez is the world's most visible opponent of the United States and the U.S. government. Many foreign leaders differ with President Bush, but none of these leaders openly use profane and scatological language. In this, Chavez is identical to his cheerleaders.
Whether by embracing Iran's leader, cozying up to Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko or even supporting Saddam Hussein by becoming the last elected leader to visit him in Iraq — Chavez will do the opposite of President Bush and the American government.
After calling George W. Bush the "greatest tyrant in the world," Harry Belafonte declared to Chavez: "Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people... support your revolution."
Kevin Spacey kept a low profile regarding his three-hour visit but he was happy to enjoy a lengthy photo-op, and then tour a new film facility. Chavez told his supporters that Spacey had approved of the revolutionary process.
Glover received a cash reward for his endorsement: $20 million in financing for two films now in development. It is a tragic irony that the man who portrayed Nelson Mandela in the HBO classic is celebrating and coddling Chavez as he dismantles democracy and persecutes dissenters.
Naomi Campbell's motorcade drove into Caracas as water cannons, tear gas, and bullets were used on students marching for equal rights. After spending some time with Chavez and shaking him down for a charitable contribution, she joyously described the "love and encouragement" she witnessed in the welfare programs of Venezuela. “Viva la Revolucion!”
On December 30 Oliver Stone joined the chorus by announcing he was thinking of making a movie about the Chavez revolution. He said this and much more as he stood next to Chavez to celebrate a "humanitarian mission" to free hostages held by the FARC terrorist organization — a Marxist-Leninist organization that has terrorized Colombia with kidnappings and murder for decades while funding its operations from billions of dollars garnered from cocaine trafficking. The mission was a miserable failure and Stone went home without a minute of footage.
By virtue of the media attention garnered, what Hollywood's cheerleaders do and say matters — profoundly. One instance of impact across the world is Abu Nasser, chief of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades terror group in the West Bank. He told author Aaron Klein how Campbell's visit "presents a slap in the face to Bush and his government and his policy. The fact that she respects Chavez, and his ideals, can bring more people to follow this step." Several terrorists explained to Klein how the solidarity received by Chavez from high profile individuals is a terrific boost to their morale.
Tragically, none of these so-called social justice advocates care to know about political prisoners like Humberto Quintero, an army lieutenant colonel in charge of an anti-terrorism and anti-kidnapping border unit who caught Rodrigo Granda, the "foreign minister" of the FARC terrorist organization and handed him over to the Colombian authorities. Granda had been living in baronial splendor in Caracas with the protection of the Chavez government. For his courage in trapping a man wanted all over the world, Quintero was not celebrated but instead arrested on January 12, 2005. He is in prison for treason, abuse of power, and dishonoring his uniform. I visited him in Ramo Verde prison where he provided me with the grotesque details of the torture he suffered for having served his country. The prison, a rat-infested dungeon miles away from any major road, has no running water, no daily rations for prisoners, and no medical attention of any kind. Quintero is virtually unknown outside of Venezuela. If Penn, Stone, or Campbell chose to live up to their stated commitments, they would make time to visit Quintero or any of the political prisoners forgotten in Venezuela’s prisons.
Thor Halvorssen is a film producer and President of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation.