With the passing of Hugo Chavez, the media is reporting on the plight of celebrities who mourn him as a champion of the poor. The Hollywood Reporter has the requisite mournful cries of Sean Penn who offered them a statement: “Today the people of the United States lost a friend it [Sic] 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.”
The Hollywood Reporter turned to director Oliver Stone for his take on the Venezuelan dictator’s passing. He obliged their request for a statement with a plaintive moan and predictably overwrought message: “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.” Stone concluded with the true pretentiousness one might expect: “My friend, rest finally in a peace long earned.”
Like most dictators who oppress people, exploit mineral and resource wealth, and decimate what passes for a free press, Chavez was “a man of the people.” He sold Hollywood’s elite on the idea that he was dedicated to the poor and underprivileged. It was a farce, even by left-leaning Human Rights Watch’s standards. Their discussion of Chavez’s Authoritarian Legacy includes references to his assault on judicial independence, press freedoms, and blatant disregard for human rights scrutiny.
Hollywood’s fascination with celebrity activists and their perceived influence, or lack thereof, on policy makers is legendary. Few celebrities have truly garnered the respect of the public, activists, policy makers, and the press. Intellectual laziness combined with the traffic-driven nature of today’s web-based journalism has produced some truly ridiculous reporting. Dennis Rodman’s bizarre trip to watch basketball with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, followed by an even more bizarre appearance on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos demonstrates this weird new reality rather clearly.
Some have defied this perception. George Clooney’s work to bring awareness and an end to the genocides in Sudan is meaningful. Numerous trips to the country and a personal investment in satellite technology to develop evidence against the indicted war criminal in power – President Omar al Bashir – is a break with Hollywood’s dictator-friendly reputation. Clooney is the real deal. Angelina Jolie’s work with refugees inspires many young women, including my own daughter, who sees Jolie’s transformation from Hollywood wild child to humanitarian and philanthropist (as well as wife and mother) as miraculous. It is. Few would deny the healing power of time, maturity, and finding a moral center to our life.
Unfortunately, there remains a third way. Javier Bardem is the poster child for this approach. Today, he is screening a film — Sons of the Clouds: The Last Colony — at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. He will appear alongside Aminatou Haidar, one of the RFK Center’s favorite activists. Not a dictator, just an activist made famous for a hunger strike and her outspoken opposition to ever so many things in the Western Sahara. Bardem and Haidar claim to want justice for the Sahrawi. But like Sean Penn and Oliver Stone, they are ignoring a serious problem.
The Sahrawi are held hostage, largely, in refugee camps on Algerian soil. The Polisario Front that “administers” life in the camps has ties to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and other jihad-friendly affiliates. Morocco offers autonomy and self-determination, Algeria clamps down on negotiations. Given the failure of the Arab Spring to bring about democracy or even reformation inside radical governments and terrorist organizations, it’s absurd to assert a group with ties to terrorists currently fighting in Mali will bring about peace.
For years reports of trafficking and kidnapping have leaked out. Conservative commentator SE Cupp has documented it extensively. She recently noted:
New reports emerged this week from the Malian foreign minister Tiéman Coulibaly suggesting that Polisario fighters are among the terrorist groups to overtake northern Mali, where numerous Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-related groups have gathered in an acknowledged effort to turn the territory into a Sharia state.
Bardem’s activism on this issue mystifies. He has lent his name, given of his time, and demonstrated considerable empathy to the women of the Democratic Republic of Congo where the rate of sexual violence is the highest in recorded human history. Why sully that here?
Eurozone politics, Spain versus France, Algeria versus the secular world, and jihadists against everything but evil, are all powerfully persuasive narratives. Who among us doesn’t want to make a difference?
The strife in Mali, and indeed much of Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa, requires a thoughtful approach devoid of partisan politics and moral relativism. Right and wrong should govern the path forward, not right and left. Hollywood meddling is almost as old as Hollywood itself. The celluloid reality isn’t real at all.
Bardem should ask deeper questions. He is a father, a husband, and a philanthropist with a decent track record. When you work on humanitarian causes, whether as an activist or as a missionary, there is always the potential difficulty in separating our empathy from the need for good policy.
Rocking a Che Guevara t-shirt, or professing concern for Fidel Castro’s health and praising the Cuban health system does not a humanitarian make. Michael Moore, the 9/11 truther and director, has made millions off of praising a dictator. It’s absurd. True equality is about the equality of opportunity, freedom, and access to justice.
The celluloid image cooked up by Sean Penn, or Oliver Stone, or the RFK Center should never be confused with the realities on the ground and the right way to influence policy makers.
This column originally appeared on RICOCHET.
[Dislosure: I'm the Managing Director of Global Advocacy at Just Consulting in Alexandria, Virginia. The firm is a registered foreign agent for the Kingdom of Morocco.]