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.
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.