Over the last few months, we’ve seen that a whole gallery of American celebrities are fans of Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro. Last year Bobby and Ethel Kennedy’s oldest son, Joseph P. Kennedy II, who’d lent his name to some Massachusetts power-supply initiative (presumably to burnish his image in his family’s home state), effusively thanked Maduro (who’d made a token contribution to the effort in order to burnish his image in America’s bluest state), for “answer[ing] our call to provide heating assistance to the poor.” Also last year,Danny Glover, Oliver Stone, Tom Hayden, and several other clueless Hollywood luminaries signed a letter to the U.S. Congress singing Maduro’s praises.
Why are we serving up this reminder? Because of a Daily Beastarticle in late September whose headline asked a head-turning question – namely, “Has Venezuelan President Maduro Gone Insane?” Maduro, wrote Jeremy Kryt, “has grown so erratic some are calling him ‘the South American Hitler.’” In the course of a few weeks, he’d “come to the brink of war” with both Colombia and Guyana. He’d turned Venezuela into “an Orwellian dystopia, complete with the highest inflation rate in the world,” not to mention rampant violence, crime, and kidnappings, and shortages that are “so severe that it’s sometimes impossible to buy a roll of toilet paper in Caracas.” He’s told the media in all seriousness that he receives “advice from the deceased Chavez via a talking bird” – a claim that brings to mind the off-the-wall statements by the victorious leader of a coup d’êtat in a fictional Central American country in Woody Allen’s 1971 comedy Bananas. (“From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish.”)
Maduro’s paranoia has led him to jail popular opposition leader Leopoldo López. It’s led him to order “the use of deadly force against demonstrators he sees as a threat to his regime.” Adam Isaacson of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) told Kryt, “If he believes a lot of what he’s saying about the conspiracy theories against him, then he’s not the sanest man in the world….Internationally there’s no trust of Maduro at all….He says things that aren’t true, and he’s quite erratic….Something very ugly could happen in the next few months.”
To top all this off, on November 10, Haitian officials arrested two nephews of Maduro’s wife and turned them over to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which flew them to New York for arraignment on charges of drug trafficking. Longtime observers of chavismo weren’t surprised: in today’s Venezuela, the principal activities of the leaders and their families are raiding the treasury, laundering money, and selling narcotics.
But were Kennedy, Glover, Stone, and Hayden surprised? Have any of them said anything about any of this? Not that we know of. As far as we’re aware, they’re all still in Maduro’s corner. What, one wonders, would it take to shake their faith in the caudillo? The mind reels. For such people, it’s clear, ideology will always trump reality.
Today the people of the United States lost a friend it never knew it had. And poor people around the world lost a champion.” That’s Sean Penn, Oscar-winning actor, political activist, and ex-spouse of Madonna, upon hearing the news of Hugo Chávez’s death. “I lost a friend I was blessed to have,” Penn lamented, adding that “Venezuela and its revolution will endure under the proven leadership of vice president Maduro.”
On the same occasion, Michael Moore tweeted: “Hugo Chávez declared the oil belonged 2 the ppl. He used the oil $ 2 eliminate 75% of extreme poverty, provide free health & education 4 all. That made him dangerous. US approved of a coup to overthrow him even though he was a democratically-elected president.”
We’ve already surveyed Oliver Stone‘s tributes to Chávez, which included not only any number of embarrassingly fulsome press releases but two classic examples of film agitprop. But in addition to this trio of ill-informed Hollywood stooges (whose equally deplorable Fidel fandom we’ve previously covered), the putatively humble-yet-heroic Hugo – and his less colorful but equally vile successor, Nicolás Maduro – have also accumulated praise from people who actually should know better.
One of them is ex-Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II – JFK’s nephew; Bobby and Ethel’s oldest son – who today runs a green-oriented nonprofit called Citizens Energy. In February 2014, under the headline “A Kennedy Shills for Maduro,” Sohrab Ahmari reported in the Wall Street Journal that TV ads for Citizens Energy were praising Maduro for providing free heating fuel to underprivileged Bay Staters. Calling the commercials “an almost-perfect exercise in demagoguery,” Ahmari described one of them as follows:
“The cold can overwhelm even the toughest amongst us,” Mr. Kennedy says, as a sad piano tune plays and images of children with cancer fill the screen. “The heating bills just keep piling on,” Mr. Kennedy goes on, and we see him hugging a young cancer survivor, who smiles but also seems slightly uncomfortable. Then, following a burst of upbeat music, Mr. Kennedy says: “The people of Venezuela and President Maduro are once again . . . the only country to answer our call to provide heating assistance to the poor.”
As Ahmari noted, the ads didn’t mention such “other hallmarks of the Maduro regime” as outrageous corruption, soaring crime, shortages of food and medicine, and the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo López. “Given the situation at home,” Ahmari summed up, “Maduro must be thrilled that he can count on useful idiots like Joe Kennedy to sing his praises to the world.”
Then there’s Belén Fernández, who in February 2014 published an article at the Al Jazeera website that was one long sneer at the “absurd hysterics that typify the Venezuelan opposition,” a.k.a. the “doom-and-gloom squawking of the elite.” Fernández’s case in point: a Caracas blogger, Emiliana Duarte, who’d written about having to visit ten different supermarkets in order to find all the ingredients she needed to bake a cake.
Duarte’s account nicely illustrated the impact of chronic shortages on everyday Venezuelan life; but for Fernández, it was nothing but an “elite right-wing…sob story” and a “less than persuasive evidence of the supposedly brutal tyranny under which Duarte and her socioeconomic cohorts are forced to reside.” Of course, the story wasn’t intended to provide evidence of brutal tyranny but of economic mismanagement; in any event, Fernández had nothing to counter it with but mockery. For her, plainly, anycriticism of anyaspect of chavismo is nothing but elitist treason, motivated by a longing for (as she put it) “the deliverance of Venezuela into the imperial [American] embrace.”
Or take “social-justice” activist Dan Kovalik, who has called Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution “the most benevolent revolution in history.” In a piece that ran at Huffington Post on February 20, 2014, Kovalik spun chavismo this way: it’s benefited “the very poor and those of darker skin tone,” so if the U.S. government and media smear Venezuela as a “basket case” and condemn its “alleged lack of democracy,” it’s because they’re racists who “openly side with the white, wealthy elite – such as Kenyon and Harvard trained right wing leader Leopoldo López.”
Kovalik’s mention of López was, alas, not well-timed: two days before Kovalik’s article appeared, López was put under arrest; he’s been behind bars ever since, and both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch consider him a political prisoner. (HRW described his detention as exemplary of “the classic tactics of an authoritarian regime.”)
As for the Venezuelan economy, Kovalik called “claims of ‘economic collapse’…quite exaggerated,” citing as evidence import and export figures that proved nothing. (The shortages went unmentioned.) And the country’s high level of violence? Kovalik attributed it – with a straight face – to opposition agitators, and even maintained that “the Venezuelan government has exercised great restraint” in its response to that violence.
Sheer fiction. Kovalik’s piece made one thing clear. For him, as for Fernández, any criticism of chavismo, however legitimate, should be recognized as part of a perfidious effort to “reverse” Venezuela’s “liberation” from U.S. domination – and, consequently, even the most deceitful response to such criticism is justifiable as a blow for the glorious revolution.
Oh, and by the way: in April, 2015, the Fusion website reported that some hotels in Venezuela were now asking foreign tourists to bring their own toilet paper and other basic supplies. “For over a year,” lamented one hotelier, “we haven’t had toilet paper, soap, any kind of milk, coffee or sugar. So we have to tell our guests to come prepared.” Another hotel owner admitted that in all good conscience, she couldn’t advise visitors from abroad to come to Venezuela: “As soon as they get off the plane they will encounter risks.”