Sean Penn has had no shortage of compliments and pats on the back from some of the world’s most hated and ruthless figures.
Name some of the world’s most antagonistic figures, and avowed enemies of the United States, and the actor-turned-interviewer – who now is in the headlines for having met with then-fugitive Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in Mexico – has hobnobbed in one way or another with many of them.
“He’s a left-wing extremist,” said Israel Abreu, a leader in the Cuban exile community in New Jersey and former political prisoner under the Fidel Castro regime. “He’s an apologist for oppressors of human rights, he defends totalitarian regimes.”
“Meeting with El Chapo treating him in such a reverential, fetching way is unacceptable,” Abreu said. “It’s inconceivable to me that he gives this kind of reception to a man who was being searched high and low for his atrocious activities. Sean Penn is anti-democracy, he seeks out the company of people who have no basic decency, no principles.”
Tariq Aziz, the late Iraqi President Sadam Hussein’s top aides – found guilty of deliberate murder and crimes against humanity – met with the actor, who traveled to Baghad to express his opposition to wars and aggression to the Iraqi official. Aziz was gratified, expressing his admiration for Penn.
Penn’s denunciations of U.S. foreign policy, which he saw as bullying, endeared him to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez, known for cracking down on freedom of speech in his country and harassing opposition leaders, met with Penn and later said he’d make a great ambassador to Venezuela.
Penn also paid homage to Fidel and Raul Castro, going to Cuba to meet them both. In 2006, he traveled to Cuba, hoping to interview Fidel Castro for a story he wanted to write for Vanity Fair.
He attended Chavez’s funeral in 2013.
His high-profile ties to Chavez and support for his government led to a showdown in a Los Angeles airport between him and former “Colors” co-star Maria Conchita Alonso, an avowed opponent of the Chavez regime and the socialist policies in her native Venezuela.
Alonso claims she has approached Penn, after having previously writing him a letter objecting to his sympathizing with Chavez’s iron-first style, to discuss her views. But Penn, she said, called her a “pig” and she called him “communist.”
Penn said he didn’t recognize Alonso.
“I only knew that a hostile woman was nonsensically berating me,” he told reporters at the time.
Penn traveled to Cuba in 2008 and interviewed Raul Castro for The Nation. Castro told Penn he’d be willing to normalize relations with President Barack Obama and that any discussion between the two presidents was best held on neutral ground, such as the Guantanamo Base.
Abreu, the Cuban exile leader, said he doesn’t fault Penn for, in his role for Rolling Stone Magazine, pursuing the opportunity to meet with El Chapo.
“It’s a big ‘get’ for a news organization,” Abreu said. “I’m sure even the most serious journalists would have made some concessions in order to gain access to this man, he wanted around the world.”
But Penn’s history as a provocateur, and one that his critics see as glorifying outlaws and ruthless leaders, changes the context from one of a journalistic effort to one of a spotlight-seeking celebrity looking to shock and upset once again, Abreu said.
“It’s more about the kind of person Sean Penn is,” he said. “He has no credibility.”