Thursday, December 18, 2008

Syndicated Latino columnist takes on Sean Penn's defense of Raúl Castro, Hugo Chávez

Earlier this month I posted an item on an essay written by actor Sean Penn for The Nation on meeting Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez and Cuban leader Raúl Castro which came under criticism by James Kirchick in the pages of the gay publication The Advocate. Kirchick argued that Penn was tainting the acclaim he has received for his turn as gay-rights pioneer Harvey Milk in the Gus Van Sandt movie "Milk" by kowtowing to despots whose governments still violate the rights of LGBT individuals.

Now comes an OpEd column by Sergio Muñoz Bata in which he takes Kirchick's essay and does a more incisive job in taking Penn to task for defending Castro and Chavez. Muños Bata is a former editorial member of the Los Angeles Times and a former Executive Director of La Opinión and his weekly column runs weekly in a dozen leading Latin American newspapers including Colombia's El Tiempo and Mexico's Reforma.

I have seen it pop up all around Latin America but haven't seen an English-language version so let me translate the last few paragraphs from the version that was printed in El Salvador's La Prensa Gráfica ("When Art Imitates Life", Dec. 18, 2008).

In the first half of the essay Muñoz Bata gives some background on the "No on Prop. 8" battle in California, the life of Harvey Milk, and the parallels between Milk's gay rights battles and today's battles. He then launches into his own critique of Penn:
The convincing performance by Penn in the movie, as his incessant political activism in real life, in support of certain causes of the Left, have created a certain cult of personality. Within the gay community, however, there have also been complaints that have questioned his devotion to human rights.

In an essay published in The Advocate, a bi-weekly magazine aimed at the national gay community, James Kirchick reproaches Penn for - on the same day that the movie premiered - publishing an article exalting dictators such as Fidel and Raúl Castro and their mechanical extension, Hugo Chávez, guilty of egregious violations of the human rights of Cubans and Venezuelans.

What doesn't escape Kirchick is the irony of the historic duplication which Penn inadvertently revives in playing the role of the "useful idiot" of whom Lenin spoke to describe those who - thankful for an invitation to the Soviet Union - hid the "Gulags" and horrors committed against dissidents and trumped up the glories of the "new workers' paradise".

In his love letter to Chávez and Raúl Castro, Penn describes the small details of his travels with Chávez in the presidential airplane. He also writes about his stay at homes set aside for foreign dignitaries in Habana, and the entertainment, between toasts and meals, provided by the younger of the Castros as he allowed him an 'exclusive interview' which stretched to seven hours make Penn's "journalistic" work easier.

In reaction to Kirchick's essay, Cleve Jones, the gay activist who fought next to Milk and now does it next to Penn, has published a failed rebuttal to Kirchick's arguments. Jones seems to ignore that despite the evident advances that have occurred since the days in which Fidel Castro defined homosexuality as a "deviation from nature", Cuba remains a country in which gay people are denied the right to congregate because they are considered a risk to the national security.

Worse yet, in his plea, Jones avoids confronting the central issue, that which concerns us all, those of us who are not gay and those who are, the undisputed and nonnegotiable universality of the respect for the human rights of individuals.

I think that Kirchick is right when he suggests that it is hypocritical to have a selective vision of how, where and when human rights are respected.

An aside: Miami's El Nuevo Herald, a sister publication to the Miami Herald, also published the column ("When arts imitates life", Dec. 17, 2008) but it's an edited version that does not include four of the last five paragraphs I translated above.



libhom said...

The Castro brothers are more lgbt supportive than Bush or Obama. We should focus on the bigots at home under these circumstances.

Pure Cocoa said...

Nothing in any of the translated article criticizes Sean Penn for openly supporting the leaders' stance on LGBT rights.
As to Kirchick portraying Sean Penn as a "useful idiot" one gets the feeling that he has somehow found a dishonest way to praise himself.
The Castros and Hugo Chavez have done much to improve the lot of many of their countrymen, even though we may not agree with the way they went about it. But like gay people they have the right to their own way of self-determination.