Taking Sean Penn to Task

On the Advocate.com, James Kirchick sees major contradictions in the praise Sean Penn is getting for playing Harvey Milk and the actor’s recent interviews in the Nation with Cuban leader Raul Castro and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

In the piece, “A Friend to Gays and Antigay Dictators Alike,” Kirchick, an assistant editor at the new Republic, writes of Penn’s dinner with Castro, “It’s only in the closing moments of his otherwise adulatory, seven-hour interview that Penn bothers to ask about human rights abuses on the island, and just the “allegations” of abuses at that. The lack of interest in individual liberty, hardly surprising for a far-left fellow traveler like Penn, is nonetheless ironic given the Cuban regime’s treatment of gay people, a subject that one suspects Penn might have some interest in given his critically acclaimed performance in Milk. Not long after the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro ordered the internment of gay people in prison labor camps, where they were murdered or worked to death for their “counterrevolutionary tendencies.”

“Over the gate of one of these camps were the words “Work Will Make Men Out of You,” an eerie homage to the welcome sign at Auschwitz instructing Jews on their way to the gas chambers that “Work Will Make You Free.” (The plight of gays in the Cuban revolution is movingly told in the novel “Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas, made into a film starring Javier Bardem. Playing a gay character in a film that has both an antitotalitarian and pro-gay message, Bardem is an “ally” less morally compromised than Penn.) In the early years of the regime, Raul Castro was notorious for ordering the summary execution of its opponents, including people whose only crime was their homosexuality. This is the man with whom Penn was “in stitches” knocking back glasses of red wine.”

As Kirchick points out, you only need to watch the movie “Before Night Falls,” starring Javier Bardem, to see the treatment of gays in the early years of the Castro regime.

He’s just as critical of Penn’s meeting with Chavez, who is accused of an array of human rights abuses by the state department.

I doubt that this throws a wrench into Penn’s Oscar hopes, but Kirchick is the first to connect the actor’s performance with foreign policy. Penn can argue that he merely went to both countries and met with their leaders as a journalist, albeit he held back of just didn’t get to some questions.

Penn writes in his piece, “The hour was getting late, but I didn’t want to leave without asking Castro about allegations of human rights violations and alleged narco-trafficking facilitated by the Cuban government. A 2007 report by Human Rights Watch states that Cuba “remains the one country in Latin America that represses nearly all forms of political dissent.” Furthermore, there are about 200 political prisoners in Cuba today, approximately 4 percent of whom are convicted of crimes of nonviolent dissent. As I await Castro’s comments, I can’t help but think of the nearby US prison at Guantánamo and the horrendous US offenses against human rights there.

“”No country is 100 percent free of human rights abuses,” Castro tells me. But, he insists, “reports in the US media are highly exaggerated and hypocritical.” Indeed, even high-profile Cuban dissidents, such as Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, acknowledge the manipulations, accusing the US Interests Section of gaining dissident testimony through cash payoffs. Ironically, in 1992 and ’94, Human Rights Watch also described lawlessness and intimidation by anti-Castro groups in Miami as what author/journalist Reese Erlich termed “violations normally associated with Latin American dictatorships.”

“Having said that, I’m a proud American and infinitely aware that if I were a Cuban citizen and were to write an article such as this about the Cuban leadership, I could be jailed. Furthermore, I’m proud that the system set up by our founding fathers, while not exactly intact today, was never dependent on just one great leader per epoch. These things remain in question for the romantic heroes of Cuba and Venezuela. I consider mentioning this, and perhaps should have, but I’ve got something else on my mind.”

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