Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's list of Hollywood buddies is getting larger. The latest A-list acquaintance is an intriguing friendship that's sprung up with Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn -- in a trend critics say is aimed at improving the left-wing leader's international reputation.
Penn paid his second visit to Venezuela in mid-October; it was not formally announced and caused more than a few observers to raise their eyebrows in skepticism.
"The [Venezuelan] government takes advantage of these visits from Hollywood personalities," said Rebeca Moreno, a journalist with the independent TV channel Globovision, which has been critical of Chavez.
Other high-profile visits have been made by actors Kevin Spacey, Danny Glover and Tim Robbins, all of whom have been vocal critics of President Bush, Chavez's so-called nemesis. Last year, supermodel Naomi Campbell got a one-on-one with the man for a magazine interview, during which she called him a "rebel angel" and he playfully invited her to touch his muscles.
For both parties, these visits mean one thing --good international PR. Celebrities who want to be perceived as political heavyweights and who are critical of Bush find a sympathetic ear in Chavez, who called Bush a "devil" in a 2007 speech at the United Nations and at other times has referred to him as a "donkey" for what Chavez calls his ignorance on Latin American issues.
Also, it's one way to get a perspective of the issues in South America, a continent in which the U.S. has a rather woeful reputation for upholding dictatorships in the region.
But the Hollywood affinity for anything anti-Bush makes for a strange fascination with the man presiding over a country that has struggled to keep basic products like milk and sugar on its shelves. Among Venezuelans, Chavez's popularity has declined amid the shortage of basic goods, high unemployment and double-digit inflation, despite the country's vast oil reserves.
"Of course there are social projects and cultural missions going on, but there is also poverty, and the president has earned money from all over the place when it could have been better spent elsewhere," said journalist Simon Villamizar from El Universal, Venezuela's top-selling newspaper and a center-right paper that's been both supportive and critical of Chavez at various times. "Sean Penn is mouthing off without knowing the reality."
Independent Press Unimpressed
Outside the official state press, which has covered the high-profile visitors warmly, the celebrity trips leave a sour taste in the mouths of Venezuelan journalists who belong to independent organizations.
And reports of strong-arm tactics from the Chavez propaganda machine suggest his government has clamped down on media organizations. Globovision, for example, has occasionally come under attack by thugs allegedly belonging to his party when it has voiced dissent on the airwaves.
The independent press has been highly critical of the media clampdown, and many accuse the Hollywood actors who come for photo opportunities with Chavez of being, at best, naive about the reality of living in Venezuela under his rule.
In their eyes these celebrity visitors get their information from government cronies and rarely get the chance to speak to Venezuelans outside the organized events.
"On one hand these visits from these stars give [Chavez] a certain legitimacy," said Villamizar. "Clearly Sean Penn has been shown all the wonders and marvels of the setups, and he's buying up what they're selling him, and when he goes abroad he sells our president as a marvelous man."
And it's not just the journalists who are complaining. In September, two staff members from the NGO Human Rights Watch were expelled from Venezuela just hours after presenting a report that detailed Chavez's methods of jeopardizing democratic institutions and human rights guarantees in the country.
With this uncomfortable backdrop, Chavez's cozy chats with the famous have been branded by critics as a fawning front to prevent them from seeing the reality behind the tours. And often, they claim, it is to the detriment of Venezuelans.
"The visits serve to draw attention to ordinary Venezuelans who are so far away from Hollywood, of the unreachable, so every time we see these guys here we think 'wow!'" Moreno told ABC News. "But what we don't know is how much a visit from one of these celebrities is costing the country. We can't even discuss it as we don't have any information about it!"
Chavez Pledges Money for Glover Film
Danny Glover's visits in particular have provoked a strong reaction. During one trip to see the recently opened Villa del Cine film studios, Venezuela's answer to Hollywood, Chavez reportedly pledged more than $18 million to finance Glover's directorial debut. The film, a depiction of the historical Haitian figure Dominique Toussaint Louverture, was not met with approval in Venezuela.
Venezuelan filmmakers claim that Chavez, in his position as patron of the revolutionary arts, denies homegrown moviemakers the same degree of patronage as the big Hollywood names.
Observers also note that it would be very difficult for the likes of Glover -- a strong supporter of Chavez and his policies -- to publicly criticize Chavez for his repressive tactics when Chavez has been so generous with his money.
The latest Penn visit was a reportedly low-key affair. The independent press were kept at bay, "for security reasons," as one journalist reported.
Penn was, according to his representatives, on an assignment for the monthly journal The Nation. Among his assignment duties, Penn was photographed with Chavez visiting eastern Venezuela, where the construction of a gas pipe was taking place.
Penn had fond memories of his trip. In an October 2007 appearance on CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" after his first Venezuela visit, Penn said he found Chavez to be a "fascinating guy, who's done incredible things for the 80 percent of the people that are poor there."
Not all Venezuelans see it that way. While Chavez has introduced social projects aimed at lessening the hardships of the poor in the country, his attempts to create much cheaper produce resulted in a much weaker economy with the highest inflation in the hemisphere. As a result, Venezuela is dependent on Colombian food imports, which in turn has occasionally led to scarcity on the supermarket shelves and higher food prices.
But a carefully constructed image is being carved out for his international audience, said Villamizar. Reaching out to Western celebrities sends a message to the world about Chavez.
"It's also about the exotic," Villamizar said. "We've got a president who sings, who's got his ear to the ground, more so than President Bush, and comes across as exotic to foreigners. … And that's what it's about, really."