Do Americans, even in anxious times, prefer an optimistic leader or an angry one?
After the Venezuelan leader's untimely death at age 58 on March 5, Danny Glover's publicist sent this prepared statement to The Progressive: "In sadness and in tribute to my friend, Hugo Chavez, I join with millions of Venezuelans, Latin Americans, Caribbeans, fellow U.S. citizens and millions of freedom-loving people around the world, in hope for a rewarding future for the democratic and social development charter of the Bolivarian Revolution. We all embraced Hugo Chavez as a social champion of democracy, material development, and spiritual well-being."
Glover, who emerged out of the Black Power movement in the Bay Area during the 1960s, isn't the only leftist Tinseltown talent lamenting the loss of the fiery, feisty socialist who dared denounce Pres. Bush at the United Nations as "the devil."
Director Oliver Stone, who featured Chavez in his 2010 documentary South of the Border, had his publicist send this March 6 statement to The Progressive: "I mourn a great hero to the majority of his people and those who struggle throughout the world for a place. Hated by the entrenched classes, Hugo Chavez will live forever in history. My friend, rest finally in a peace long earned."
The friendship between the Yankee filmmaker and the South American populist is apparent in the doc, wherein Chavez, among other things, playfully rides a bicycle. In a 2010 interview with this author for The Progressive, Stone explained why the dramatist primarily known for Hollywood movies such as Salvador, Platoon and Wall Street made the nonfiction South of the Border about Chavez and Latin America's other left-leaning heads of state: "Because they've been demonized by a combination of their own local media, which is oligarch-controlled by private, rich families, who don't want to see change in their countries along the lines these leaders are proposing. And also by the United States media, which is surprising, considering their distance from the facts. Why? It's amazing; it's across the board in the United States. It goes from right to left; liberal media, too, including many progressive publications, which don't understand the nature of what's really going on down there. So they make a big issue about Chavez."
During the Q&A Stone discussed Chavez's concept of "21st century socialism": "Free market economics did not work in South America. It drove, the per capita growth rate in South America averaged 9% from 1980 to 2000. Whereas it averaged from 1960 to 1980 somewhere like 62% growth rate. After the 2000 period, if you look at the per capita growth rate in these countries with these new leaders, it's much, much better. And it's because they've pursued their policies of semi-socialism and nationalization. Nationalization, by the way, is not expropriation. These people have been paid off. Chavez is very clear about it -- he compensates the companies that have been nationalized in Venezuela, which is a distinction lost often on the American media."
The three-time Oscar winner went on to say: "The World Bank statistics clearly show that Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador have all benefited from their administrations. Particularly in Venezuela, the gross national product, the economy, has grown 90% from 2003 to 2008. Ninety percent! That's one figure they can never -- I guess all these critics can't get away from that figure. Another thing that has happened is that poverty was cut 50%. Extreme poverty 70%. These are World Bank statistics, not made up by Chavez, as they claim. So, when he gets democratically reelected in 2006 they all gripe and complain, but people are voting for him because they're pleased, he's actually delivering on his pledge. I don't understand this constant harping about this or that, when the man has actually done what he said he was going to do. Because why? He grew up poor, he knows what it is to be poor. It's unbelievable to me how blind we are in our criticism, how picky and nasty. Whereas in our own country we ignore the poor, we make them... go off and fight in foreign wars that we create."
Sean Penn, who co-starred with Jennifer Lopez in Stone's 1997 film noir U Turn, also knew Chavez and in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter likewise saluted his companero: "Today the people of the United States lost a friend it never knew it had. And poor people around the world lost a champion. I lost a friend I was blessed to have. My thoughts are with the family of President Chavez and the people of Venezuela. Venezuela and its revolution will endure under the proven leadership of Vice President Maduro."
At the front page of his website documentarian Michael Moore posted several stories about the Venezuelan president and a photo of himself shaking a smiling Chavez's hand. The Academy Award winner, who reportedly met Chavez in 2009 at the Venice Film Festival, wrote via Twitter that they spoke for more than an hour: "He said he was happy 2 finally meet someone Bush hated more than him."
On March 5, Moore Tweeted: "Hugo Chavez 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 ... You won't hear much nice about him in the US media in the next few days. So, I thought I'd say a couple things to provide some balance."
Moore added: "Before they cheerleaded us into the Iraq War, the US media was busy cheering on the overthrow of Chavez. 54 countries around the world allowed the US to detain (& torture) suspects. Latin America, thanks 2 Chavez, was the only place that said no."
After a 2006 private screening of producer Rory Kennedy's Street Fight, about Cory Booker's then upstart campaign to become Newark's mayor, this reporter attended a Santa Monica reception for the documentary. I sat with Dolores Huerta, who is being depicted by Rosario Dawson in an upcoming biopic about Cesar Chavez, and I asked the United Farm Workers' co-founder about that other Chavez. Huerta had just gone on a fact finding trip to revolutionary Venezuela with activist/actor Danny Glover, PBS-TV talk show host Tavis Smiley and Princeton Prof. Cornel West, where the delegation toured the cooperatives' complex called the Endogenous Development Nucleus Fabricio Ojeda, and met for six hours with el Presidente, Hugo Chavez. It was during this visit that singer/Civil Rights icon Harry Belafonte made headlines by calling Pres. George W. Bush "the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world."
I asked Huerta then, "What was Venezuela like?" The UFW veteran fixed her gaze on me: "Do you remember all those things we dreamt of in the '60s?" Huerta said, referring to people's programs such as free health clinics, schools, housing and the like. "Well, they're doing it now in Venezuela."