The Devil and Jeff Spicoli: A Response to Sean Penn and Hugo Chavez

Mr. Hand: Am I hallucinating here? Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?
Jeff Spicoli: Learning about Cuba, and having some food.    – from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Sean and Hugo: It's like the blind and dumb leading the blind and dumb, only with guns and petroleum.

Like his stoner counterpart, Sean Penn has been spending time learning about other countries, often with food involved. 

Not only is he learning about Cuba, but also Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua, Bolivia…

The problem is that Sean’s been paying a little too much attention to his Marxist hosts, and thus spreading a deciding one-sided view of these socialist “paradises”.  He is actually making some more gullible folks think that these places are actually “better” than us.  Better than the United States that raised him, gave him a film career and allowed him to speak his mind in between his insufferably self-serving film roles. 

Nowhere is Sean more deluded than in the bailiwick of his friend Hugo Chavez, Venezuela.

Unlike most socialist shitholes, I have a visceral connection with Venezuela.  In the 1950s and 1960s, a slew of European immigrants, largely from Spain and Italy, came to Venezuela to work on their burgeoning public works projects.  Many Italians from all over the country left postwar Europe for rosier opportunities in Latin America.

Some of these Italians included my grandparents, my uncles, my aunts, my cousins and my father, who spent six years in Caracas before emigrating to the US.

The best recurring themes from my kin are the days when Venezuela was—gasp—not a shithole.  To Italian immigrants, Venezuela was a promised land with perfect weather and endless job opportunities thanks to a government that welcomed outsiders.  It made sense: the name of the place means “little Venice”, after all—too bad the only things the two places have in common today are a fetid stench and a constant sinking feeling.

So my view of Venezuela’s situation is decidedly cloudy.  I still have family there, and the situation there worries me on a personal level that could obscure my judgment.

 That doesn’t mean, however, that Sean Penn isn’t full of shit.

This week, Sean appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO and discussed his efforts in Haiti (Very commendable).  Inevitably, the subject turned to Hugo Chavez and media coverage of his regime (not so commendable).  In essence, Sean wants the media to provide more favorable coverage to this balloon head, and to jail any reporter who says otherwise.

How un-democratic. 

It’s time for me to be the Mr. Hand that finally straightens out Jeff Spicoli.  Sean made three points that are particularly irritating considering his subject matter.  Let’s tear them apart one by one.

Lie # 1: Chavez should not be called a “dictator.”

The first, and arguably the most bogus, is the whining about the media continually calling Chavez a “dictator.”  The dictionary defines a dictator as “a person exercising absolute power, especially a ruler who has absolute, unrestricted control in a government without hereditary succession.” 

Chavez, a former coup plotter, was elected president in 1998.  He then ordered a massive revision of the constitution in 1999, granting him sweeping new powers and packing the legislature and courts with his supporters.  He suppresses free expression.  He rigs judicial procedures against political opponents.  His favorites control the armed forces.  His political apparatus resembles a totalitarian surveillance regime that is slowly creating a police state.

Sean, if that’s not a dictator, I don’t know what is.  If you don’t like the term, here are a few that you may like:

Chancellor, First Consul, Princeps, Chairman, Prime Minister, General Secretary, or Generalissimo

These titles were worn proudly by such democratic luminaries as Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Caesar Augustus, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Josef Stalin and Francisco Franco.  All of them dictators, almost all of them rotting in a dank corner of hell.  Pretty much all of them would re-assess their role as being truly a dictator, if given the opportunity.  Hitler may be reluctant, but Joe Stalin would straighten him out.

Don’t believe me?  Human Rights Watch, not exactly a bastion of conservatism, stated in their country report on Venezuela in January that

“President Hugo Chávez and his supporters have effectively neutralized the independence of Venezuela’s judiciary. In the absence of a judicial check on its actions, the Chávez government has systematically undermined journalists’ freedom of expression, workers’ freedom of association, and the ability of civil society groups to promote human rights.”

He even uses the guise of democracy to exercise his dictatorial control.  Many left-wing pundits laud a certain aspect of the regime as the epitome of participatory democracy—the “Bolivarian circles”, and later the “Bolivarian Missions.”  The regime would have you believe that these circles are community groups coordinated to solve common problems.  The missions, furthermore, are outreach organizations to other areas of Venezuelan life.

Don’t be fooled.  I’ve seen these “circles” and missions before.  They are very effective in identifying and reporting on political opponents, much like the block captains and revolutionary committees in Cuba. 

One mission, the Mission Miranda, is particularly disturbing.  It is a civilian militia trained to defend the country in an emergency.  More likely, he’s arming his poor, deluded supporters into being cannon fodder in case the “inevitable” US-backed right-wing military coup was to take place.

Lie # 2: elections in Venezuela are “free and fair.”

Sean stated on Monday that Chavez was elected in the freest election in the hemisphere.  On the surface, he seems to be right.  In the elections between 2002 and 2009, political opponents were able to field candidates and campaign.  A lively debate ensued.  Outside monitors were in place to make sure everything was on the up-and-up. 

Yet Sean, in his naïveté, refuses to acknowledge that old Hugo would subtly stack the deck in his favor—and often not so subtly.

The 2002 and 2006 presidential elections, the 2005 legislative contests, and the 2009 referenda on constitutional amendments were all deemed “free and fair” by various international groups, including the Carter Center.  Yet each had widespread allegations of vote tampering, harassment of opponents, oppressive and biased media coverage, constitutional arm-twisting, and outright fraud.

The best example of this is the 2005 legislative election, in which seats for Chavez’ rubber stamp national assembly were contested.

After the 2002 elections, an attempted coup briefly deposed Chavez.  He quickly regained power and exerted even harsher pressure on opposition candidates than before.  Due to this more repressive climate, as well as tactics by the national election board to tamper with voting machines and disqualify candidates on trumped-up charges, the majority of the opposition boycotted the 2005 elections in protest.

The result was a “free and fair” election with just 25% turnout.  With the consent of a fraction of the Venezuelan people, with political opponents boycotting the proceedings, Chavez’s cronies gained 116 of the 167 seats in the legislature—enough to change the constitution at will.

Would we allow this in any other setting?  Would Duke automatically win a national championship if Kentucky forfeited in protest because of biased ACC officials?  Would the Red Sox simply be given a World Series ring because other teams refuse to play in a hopelessly biased Fenway Park? 

The election itself may have been conducted correctly—orderly lines, few machine mishaps, a transparent tabulation system.  Yet the circumstances behind that election show that many Venezuelans had no illusions that this system was either free or fair. 

But what about 2007, you may ask?  The 2007 referendum defeat that would have given Chavez unlimited terms of office and even more powers?  Let’s just say Hugo wasn’t going to overreach twice.

What few people realize is that Chavez got those term limits lifted, albeit quietly, in February 2009, in a referendum that many Venezuelans claim violated the very constitution Chavez forced down their throats ten years earlier. 

Yeah, Chavez really loves to play by the rules.  You have to admire a guy that is so hungry for power, he’s willing to break the same rigged rules he put in place before.

Lie # 3: Opponents of Chavez are content with oppression of the poor

Finally, Sean seems to think that Chavez is something of a zero-sum argument.  If you don’t support him, then you don’t support the poor, and you’re some kind of capitalist monster.  I would prefer not to be lumped with Ken Lay and Bernie Madoff, thank you.

Let’s be fair.  Something had to be done about the poverty in Venezuela, and numerous administrations since the 1920s have done little, if anything, to provide even a modicum of hope in their desperate lives.  Chavez, at least on paper, is an advocate for Venezuela’s underclass and counts on them as a base of support—one that has turned out in droves for him at the polls.

Now let’s see what he delivered.  There have been, I’ll admit, modest improvements in the quality of life of some poor Venezuelans: NOT all, but some.  Yet the cost of this “revolution” is disastrous.

Venezuela’s crime rate is at its highest point in its history.  The gap between rich and poor, rather than shrinking, is now wider than ever.  Nationalization measures have wrecked havoc in all major industries—even PDVSA, the state oil monopoly, which dared to defy Chavez a few years back with a threat of a strike.  2010 will be the second year in a row in which the Venezuelan economy has contracted.  Its once-vaunted infrastructure is crumbling to ruins, with rolling blackouts and abandoned roadways.  What little revenue exists is placed in pet projects, corrupt politicians, and ill-advised “relief” programs that the country cannot afford.

He’s been in power since 1998.  That’s twelve years.  We don’t give our presidents 100 days to fix things, and he’s been given three of our presidential terms.  Don’t you think the poor should be fed up with this?

Yet why don’t the poor rise up to throw out Chavez?  It’s probably because the opposition has their thumb up their butts, too.  The official opposition is a loose conglomeration of about a dozen parties, mostly the groups that used to run the show before 1998.  Not only is their opposition fractured, their message is one not even conservatives in the US want to hear: a return to the “good old days” of pre-1998. 

The one thing that Chavez did that should be acknowledged is to bring the plight of Venezuela’s poor into sharp focus.  Whoever succeeds him, whether they are from the left or right, must take their situation as part of the agenda, not shunt it aside as in generations past.

So Sean, you have every right to say what you say.  That’s the beauty of America.  It’s also something you can’t do at your buddy’s country.  Yet I also have the right to respond you your inane nonsence.

Therefore, my response to you is this: you may be right that Chavez is an advocate of the poor, but that does not mean their “liberation” comes at all costs. 

If you were dictator of the good ole’ U S of A, Sean, would you be willing to sacrifice our Constitution, our basic civil rights, our infrastructure, our financial base, our military preparedness, our popular culture, YOUR lavish lifestyle, the lifestyle of your friends, artistic and intellectual freedom, and our standing in the world—simply to make it look like you care for the little guy?

Are you willing to give up your mansions, press junkets, interviews, signing fees, bloated contracts, agents, managers and publicists for the poor and destitute?

I didn’t think so.

Class dismissed, Mr. Spicoli.


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7 responses to “The Devil and Jeff Spicoli: A Response to Sean Penn and Hugo Chavez

  1. Lots to talk about here.

    First though, I’m not keen on Sean Penn, or any actor getting involved in politics. I’m all for them expressing their art, but when they start giving me lectures on politics I start to worry.
    Not because I think he is wrong. I don’t know if he is wrong, he may have seen evidence that convinces him. My problem is that he has not gone through the scrutiny of journalistic and public review, to prove his ability to evaluate the facts and make the right political decision.

    Some would argue that there are many politicians and journalists that haven’t gone through enough review as well. Thats true, but I tend to listen to them with the same disdain.

    I hate the way that people polarise politics. Many people suggest you are either one or the other. Why would we think that is the case. I believe in free markets, but that doesn’t mean I want to keep the toxic monetary gap between rich and poor. I don’t believe in trickle down economics at all. Why should the rich get richer, whilst still insisting we help them out every time there’s a recession.

    Given a choice I would prefer the “Corporation” to change. I see no reason why shareholders of a corporation shouldn’t bear the responsibility of their own company. If you knew that owning a holding of 10% in Enron would mean 10% of any sentence passed down through the courts, you would make damned sure your company was not breaking laws. It might reduce your profits, but if the laws on corporations changed globally, people would still invest, and they’d still make money. Okay, I admit it has problems, but it still makes more sense to me than what we have.

    The reason I mention all this is because you seem to have tried to polarise the situation in these South American countries, when it just isn’t as simple as that.

    I’m not a big fan of Chavez. I think his rhetoric is too confrontational, and he is too protective of his power. I dont like it when people “disappear”. Chavez’s inevitable american coup tenet however, is based on the fact there have been several American coups in South America and also many political infractions in the political elections in South American countries.

    We all too often forget how we managed to get so rich. In the US, wealth was achieved with the same covetous imperialist zeal that drove India to revolt from the British empire, and North Africa to fight the French off. The US conspired against South American countries rich in minerals to bleed their wealth by enforced privatisations and favourable import/export tax terms Americans would never dream of accepting, and also political influence bought with excesses of oil they conveniently claimed from Mexico.

    I’m not saying the US just stole it, there was a huge amount of investment, planning and ability to put it all together, but to ask the british if their empire was unethical, they would splutter an embarrassed undeniable yes.

    Nor am I saying the US owe something to these countries, well perhaps a little respect and the decency to stay out of their affairs might be reasonable, but other than that the US did what was best for the US. It just happened to be to the detriment of South American countries. As the richest and most powerful nation on the planet, I think it’s time to say we have taken enough though.

    I don’t like the way you seem to be throwing words like Chancellor or Prime Minister as equivilents of dictator. France and the UK have Prime Ministers, Germany has a Chancellor. These countries don’t have dictatorships. One does not conclude the other.

    As for free elections, it’s really not something that Americans can argue. We all know the system in the US has been under siege from people wishing to subvert the democratic process for decades now on both sides. Not an election goes by without shouts of false representation, or losing votes. Personally, I would like to see an independant world body responsible for free elections.

    To be honest, I can see a benefit of a world system for many issues such as multi-national corporatism, internet crime, terrorism and smuggling. It’s probably an idea before it’s time, but someone has to start supporting it, so why not me.

    You said…
    “He is actually making some more gullible folks think that these places are actually “better” than us. Better than the United States that raised him, gave him a film career and allowed him to speak his mind in between his insufferably self-serving film roles. ”

    It’s an incredibly arrogant and priviledged thing to say. Being born in a wealthy nation doesn’t make me BETTER than someone born in a poor country, just luckier. I did nothing to deserve it. I am not a better person because of the country I was born in, I am better because of what I do, surely.

    That’s terribly dehumanising.

    I would hate to be so unlucky as to be born in Zimbabwe, to the Congo, or perhaps Venuzuela. Maybe we should all consider that the next time we presume we are the best just because of our birthplace or the opportunities that exist for us.

    Inherantly though I agree with you. Sean Penn is an ass.

    I’m not convinced Chavez is, and I do think he deserves a lot more attention than polarising him into the socialist’s are scum corner. I don’t like his practices much, his principles have worth though, and we shouldn’t be so concerned by someone who can do us no serious harm and who is suggesting a possible alternative solution to problems we have in our societies. His “missions” may not work, or may not work for western countries, but we can still learn a lot, if we put aside our pride and jingoistic zeal.

    There is a huge amount to be learnt from the many up and coming nations around the world each trying different economic strategies. We would be foolish not to look, even if it is just to reassure ourselves we are doing the right thing.

    • ldorazio1

      I’m fully aware of US involvement in Latin America, for good or ill. Yet even if his paranoia is “justified”, wouldn’t Chavez’ energies and resources be better spent solving the problems he set out to ameliorate, rather than create an atmosphere of fear?

      “I don’t like the way you seem to be throwing words like Chancellor or Prime Minister as equivilents of dictator. France and the UK have Prime Ministers, Germany has a Chancellor. These countries don’t have dictatorships. One does not conclude the other.”

      You miss the point entirely. Of course these countries don’t have dictatorships. Yet these titles have been used as a front for dictatorships. I was merely pointing out that changing the name does not mean changing the system.

      Even though I agree that we can learn from other countries, on this front I have too much firsthand experience, from eyewitnesses and primary accounts. From what we can see, the system does not work. It may improve some lives temporarily, but it would ruin a country and a system.

      • eggplantinspace

        I agree that a change in name doesn’t mean a change in system. More often than not it means a change in intent. even if the intent fails to fulfill it’s potential.

        You may well be correct that an atmosphere of fear isn’t positive, but it is a well recognised method of pushing through some strong policies. We all need to look at the Iraq war to see how fear is used the world over.

        I’d prefer if he didn’t use fear. I’d prefer if he wasn’t paranoid. I’d prefer if he had a fixed term in office, but it’s not my country.

        When we look at other countries we rarely see their good side. News bullitins tell us of drama and crisis abroad. Investigative journalism reports on meddling in voting systems and shooting in the provinces.

        There is very little that you see in south american countries that you dont see in the US. Poverty, crime, drugs and prostitution are not Latin American traits. We all have these issues.

        As for an economic system, we have rarely seen socialism allowed to work. Communism is very different to Socialism despite what we are told by chicago economists and fanatics on the far right. And any chance that socialism has had, has been stamped out by American embargoes or covert action, or World Bank and IMF influence on international trade and nationalisation.

        Poor countries are never allowed the opportunity to exercise socialism, and rich countries are run by the select few rich people who quite like things the way they are.

        The truth is that I don’t really know how you can say it will ruin a country. And as for the firsthand experience, I have primary accounts of fleeing refugees from Chile in the seventies. That was US covert action at it’s most violent. We are none of us innocent.

  2. SPenn

    Yeah, I’m wrong about 70% of the time so you can practically ignore me 2/3rd of the day. I will try not to speak out against Israel and Lindsay Lohan. My next film, directed by Nick Casavettes, is called She’s Got It Goin’ On. It will be my first mainstream film since playing 2/3rd’s tard on I Am Sam deal.

    • ldorazio1

      Funny Sean, I thought your meetings w/ Chavez were like playing 2/3s tard. LOL

      • eggplantinspace

        Don’t be a dick, Idolazio.
        SPenn is being self-depreciating. He isn’t attacking you, there’s no need to attack him.

  3. ldorazio1

    No one’s attacking anyone, it’s a joke…just like the SPenn posting.

    I don’t know what’s so surprising, eggplantinspace, the fact that you can’t see a joke when you read it (hence the LOL), or that you really think this SPenn character is the genuine article (considering the whole thing’s a joke since no celebrity in this day and age would risk using the word “tard” to describe anything.)

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