Chávez Takes ‘Crazy Battalion’ of Supporters on the Road
SIMON ROMEROThe New York TimesJuly 4, 2007LA FRIA, Venezuela, Aug. 3 — "Surely they will take photos of us by satellite," said President Hugo Chávez, referring to intelligence agencies from the United States, as his Airbus touched down Friday in this Andean city with the actor Sean Penn, a clutch of cabinet ministers and visiting dignitaries from half a dozen countries in tow.
"They"ll say, "There goes Chávez with a crazy battalion containing Africans, Canadians, Cubans," " the president continued as he broke into a meandering riff on political relations between the United States and Venezuela. "Even gringos!"
Mr. Penn"s visit to write about Mr. Chávez follows others by Hollywood luminaries like Danny Glover, public intellectuals like Tariq Ali and film directors like Argentina"s Fernando Solanas, all of whom have recently traveled to this country to take in the transformation of Venezuelan society that Mr. Chávez calls a "Bolivarian revolution."
Ver opciones avanzadasBut rarely has the reception of foreign actors and writers been as warm as it was this week for Mr. Penn, whom Mr. Chávez, perhaps smarting from international condemnation over his government"s treatment of critics in the local news media, hailed as "valiant" for his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq and other policies of the Bush administration.
After sending Mr. Penn on guided tours of Villa del Cine, the state movie studio near Caracas created to weaken Hollywood"s grip on the film industry, and the Afro-Venezuelan city of Barlovento, the president dined privately with the actor on Thursday before whisking him away Friday for a jaunt into western Venezuela.
What followed, for a handful of journalists given the rare opportunity of accompanying Mr. Chávez on such a trip, was a glimpse into his government"s use of imagery and pomp to court public opinion both at home and abroad.
During the flight, Mr. Chávez regaled Mr. Penn with lectures on Venezuelan history and tales of his own past as a soldier, between talking politics with other travelers on the spacious Airbus with leather seats. The border region in Táchira State where the plane landed, Mr. Chávez warned, "was very close to where the C.I.A. is," a not-so-subtle dig at the close political relationship between Colombia"s government and the Bush administration.
As for the United States, Mr. Chávez predicted that widening budget and trade deficits portend a financial crisis that could cause it to "explode from within."
"There could be a revolution in the United States," Mr. Chávez said. "We"ll help them."
Mr. Penn took in most of Mr. Chávez"s comments with a warm smile, some nods and few intelligible utterances. "He"s a quiet man," Mr. Chávez reassured other passengers, gesturing to Mr. Penn. "But he has fire within him."
Mr. Chávez, it can be guaranteed, likes to be in the driver"s seat in such forays — literally. On the tarmac of the airport in La Fria, he climbed behind the wheel of a Tiuna, a Humvee-esque military vehicle assembled in Venezuela, put Mr. Penn in the back seat and proceeded to drive through picturesque Andean villages.
A trip that normally takes 90 minutes to Pueblo Encima, a small farming community where Mr. Chávez was scheduled to celebrate the opening of a fertilizer facility and the arrival of dairy cows from Argentina and Uruguay, took more than four hours as the president stopped the Tiuna dozens of times to greet supporters on the side of the road.
A truck carrying journalists traveled in front, lurching ahead as desperate news cameramen and photographers yelled at the driver to start or stop. At times they cheered, as when they got shots of Mr. Penn urinating on the side of the road.
Chaperoned by Andrés Izarra, the president of Telesur, the regional news network backed by Venezuela"s government, Mr. Penn looked somewhat pained when asked about his impressions of the country. In a brief interview at one of the motorcade"s many stops, Mr. Penn declined to discuss any similarities that might exist between the president in the driver"s seat of the Tiuna and the Southern populist, loosely based on Louisiana governor Huey Long, that Mr. Penn played in the recent film adaptation of Robert Penn Warren"s "All the King"s Men."
Instead, Mr. Penn produced a business card from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which he said he was representing during his Venezuela trip.
"I"m going to write about this experience, so I"m a little hesitant to talk about it," Mr. Penn said, dressed in a T-shirt and wearing dark aviator sunglasses. (Mr. Penn has written similar dispatches following trips to countries like Iran and Iraq.) "It"s been extraordinary so far."
Then, with the same quiet intensity Mr. Chávez had referred to earlier, the actor proceeded to try to find someone with a match for a Marlboro Light.
Undaunted by criticism from some Venezuelan actors and directors who deride the warm ties between some of their foreign counterparts and Mr. Chávez, the president hailed Mr. Penn"s presence at each stop of the trip.
At a speech in Pueblo Encima, before hundreds of followers clad, like Mr. Chávez and much of his entourage, in the red of his political party, a cold mountain rain caused the entourage from tropical Caracas to shiver as Mr. Chávez broke into song in praise of dairy cows.
He celebrated Venezuela"s alliance with Cuba in the presence of Ricardo Alarcón, the president of Cuba"s National Assembly. He welcomed dignitaries from Burkina Faso, Canada and Belgium who spoke in favor of his policies.
And with the acumen of a politician who knows how to celebrate friends where he can find them, Mr. Chávez switched into English with a few words for Mr. Penn: "Thank you, thank you, thank you."