My Benevolent Amnesia / Ernesto Morales Licea

Sean Penn and Hugo Chavez

Seeing a newspaper photo of Sean Penn in Venezuela, once again, glamorously and fraternally shaking hands with Hugo Chavez managed to ruin my morning three days ago.

Of course the link between these two men, points of reference in their respective endeavors, wasn’t news to me: Penn is one of the most versatile and talented actors in Hollywood today; Chavez is the most rustic and shameful contemporary Latin America president. Both have enviable positions in their rankings.

But, there was something I wanted to forget. I would prefer to turn a blind eye to this reality: the Oscar winning Sean Penn, the same man who amazed me in Mystic River, Milk, and the tender I’m Sam, publicly and shamelessly flirting with the Venezuelan commander, as if he’s not one of those characters whom if you ran into, sometime, you’d prefer to run and hide.

But still, in this case, I say bitterly, I understand Sean Penn a bit. If you’re not sure what I said: I repeat, I understand him, but bitterly. Why? Because Commander Chavez, in addition to having ruined his country completely, and having established an almost unprecedented level of personal and institutional violence, collaborated with the philanthropic artist in his “Jenkins-Penn” organization to help the victims in Haiti.

The actor also declared unambiguously, of course, that the other considerable help for his foundation came from the U.S. Navy.

Would I have accepted money from a detestable government to save lives in a devastated country? Absolutely. I would have accepted it from Kim Jong Il himself, as long as I didn’t have to shake hands with him afterwards.

Let’s be clear, following the example of this event, we find a considerable number of artists, businessmen, athletes, and intellectuals whose unquestionable talents in certain areas don’t stop them from making fools of themselves in others. I think that when politics doesn’t go hand-in-hand with common sense, as illustrated, it’s best to shut your mouth and let it go.

How do we analyze, for example, the case of the Oscar Niemeyer, a true giant of universal architecture? That the designer of a city like Brasilia and of fascinating works such as the Funchal Casino and the Niterói Museum of Contemporary Art, is also the father of words like these:

“Fidel has demonstrated a reaction against the decadent capitalist regime that represents only money and power.”

Surprising. I ask myself if this same man who, thanks to the market economy, to what is earned by notable talent only in capitalist societies, has managed to amass a multi-million dollar fortune, deserves it. What’s more, if this is the same artist whose construction projects are only possible in vigorous economies. Read: Capitalist ones.

The list of horrors is swelled, sadly, by not a few writers. From an imprecise number I select two Latin American writers as a sample: Mario Bendetti and Gabriel García Márquez.

The latter, despite having produced the most incredible novel written in Spanish from Don Quixote to today — One Hundred Years of Solitude — and being one of the most fascinating literary and journalistic minds of the region, has very dangerous friendships and frankly incomprehensible ideological projects; but for me that’s old news. And what’s more, his books, thanks to the capitalist literary market, have traveled the world in every modern language.

But I remember my naive astonishment when, in Barnes & Noble one day — where, by the way, thanks to a kind stranger there is already one fewer copy of Updike’s Terrorist — I notice there’s not a single book by Benedetti on the shelves. Always in beautiful editions by Punto de Lectura or Anagrama.

Yes: The passionate liberal Uruguayan, author of La Tregua and other memorable works, does not seem to wonder where the money from his books comes from and has actively dedicated himself to pointing to capitalism as the origin of all planetary ills.

A worse case is that of other young newcomers to stardom.

I recall, with somewhat immodest pride, that the first time I heard a song by Calle 13 I said to myself: “This is reggaeton, but of another calibre.” I don’t seem to have been wrong in that diagnosis.

Because even today they don’t do reggaeton like its origins, but with something that for lack of a better name has been called “urban music” and these Puerto Ricans have offered authentic voices, taking into account the current Hispanic music scene.

But what’s with Calle 13? Because at times, between simply mouthing off and horrible poetry, they talk nonsense about an industry that has brought them 10 Grammy Awards, but not about the money it generates for them.

It’s true, who can doubt it, that they “give it to the gringos hard” — an actual phrase from their media hit Calma Pueblo — but then why do they accept with satisfaction the cheers and prizes awarded by the American Recording Academy?

Why allow none other than Sony, that capitalist music icon, to produce and sell their albums? This, in my language, has only one name and I apply it to this duo that I enjoy like few of their kind: Ideological hypocrisy.

Seeking to show some restraint in my judgments I want to distance myself, this time, from one of the remarks of René Pérez, leader of the duo, during his visit to Havana, “I come to this country because I am a free man and I don’t have to ask permission of anyone to travel where I like.” Really, dear René?

In Cuba we have an expression that describes this: “Speaking of the rope in the house of the hanged man.”

Would it be worthwhile to mention another illustrative example? I am tempted to mention “Diego de la Gente” — Maradona — the most marvelous and at the same time unbearable footballer from my beloved Argentina, land of great storytellers and of football that I follow with a passion that knows no bounds. I’m tempted, but I won’t give way to talking about Diego. He’s too much of a fraud to be worth more than a paragraph. Let him continue to enjoy his millionaire’s mansion, while showing a pair of tattoos, on an arm and a leg, that condemn him much more than his heinous vices.

So, I think that it would be a good idea if I subscribe to what one of Salinger’s characters says: “There are writers whom one, after reading them, would like to call on the phone.” I think there are also musicians who, after hearing their work, footballers who after watching their goals, and actors who, at the end of their films, we should do the favor of forgetting about until their next delivery, and act as if they do not exist outside of that, their natural environment.

Right now I don’t remember the last time I had news of Sean Penn.

March 8 2011