Why black liberals like Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover loved Hugo Chavez

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez(R) and actor/activist Danny Glover hug while attending the The CITGO-Venezuela Heating Oil Program innauguration ceremony at the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Harlem 21 September.  (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez(R) and actor/activist Danny Glover hug while attending the The CITGO-Venezuela Heating Oil Program innauguration ceremony at the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Harlem 21 September. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

While many Americans considered the late Hugo Chavez to be an authoritarian dictator and foe of the U.S., for some liberal African-American entertainers like Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte, he was an ally.

The former Venezuelan president, who died Tuesday after a near two-year battle with cancer, received the affirmation of many Hollywood celebrities during his 14-year reign as president, among them Sean Penn, Naomi Campbell and Oliver Stone.

Yet it was his support of disadvantaged communities, his criticism of George W. Bush, and his left-wing political agenda that earned him credibility with those like Glover, who issued a statement today.

“In sadness and in tribute to my friend, Hugo Chavez, I join with millions of Venezuelans, Latin Americans, Caribbeans, fellow U.S. citizens  and millions of freedom-loving people around the world, in hope for a rewarding future for the democratic and social development charter of the Bolivarian Revolution,” Glover told theGrio. “We all embraced Hugo Chavez as a social-champion of democracy, material development, and spiritual well-being.”

Social activists like Glover and Belafonte procured a relationship with the controversial leader despite the effect it could have on their own reputation. Like some other liberals in the African-American community, the Venezuelan leader shared in ideology that has long been supported within this demographic.

“Given Chavez is popular in the African-American community, and in a long tradition of independent populist, anti-imperial leaders in the developing world embraced by African-Americans, I have no reason to believe that Glover or Belafonte have lost anything,” Mark Sawyer, Professor of African-American Studies and Political Science, and the Director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics at UCLA, tells theGrio. “In fact, I believe they have gained in the African-American community for being in a tradition that includes figures from entertainment like Paul Robeson and Josefine Baker, who spoke truth to power, and embraced sometimes unpopular beliefs in the U.S.”

In 2007, Sawyer conducted a survey in Los Angeles where he discovered that Chavez was actually more popular among African-American Angelenos than George Bush. He equates this conclusion not simply to dissatisfaction with Bush, rather Chavez’s embrace of his black identity, his critique of U.S. imperialism, and his outspoken support for the poor, all of which are longstanding political beliefs within this demographic.

Furthermore, while Sawyer recognizes the negative criticisms of Chavez, he doesn’t feel it has much of an impact on entertainers who support him.

“My sense is a large number of people deeply appreciate Glover’s commitment to [Chavez’s] ideals, even if they don’t agree 100 percent,” he adds.

Glover and Belafonte have both stood by Chavez for years. In January 2004, Glover met with the political leader during the TransAfrica Forum in Caracas, where he expressed approval for Chavez’s new film initiative, Villa del Cine, and excitement at social changes taking place within the country. Glover remarked that “the U.S. media’s portrayal of Venezuela had nothing to do with reality,” and that he was in Venezuela “to listen and learn, not only from government and opposition politicians, but to share with the people, those who are promoting the changes in this country and we want to be in contact with those who benefit from those changes.”

Among Glover’s other ventures to the Latin country, the actor later came for the inauguration of a school named for Martin Luther King, Jr.; to attend the launch of a new TV station; and more recently, to support Chavez’s re-election in 2012.

Belafonte’s endorsement of Chavez appears to center around their mutual distaste for former President Bush. In 2006, Harry Belafonte led a delegation of activists, including Glover and Cornel West, in a meeting with Chávez where he called Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world” and told the Venezuelan leader, “Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people … support your revolution.”

In 2012, the singer remarked on Al Sharpton’s show Politics Nation that President Obama could learn from “a third world dictator and put all these people in jail. They’re violating the American desire!”

Belafonte was unavailable for a comment.

Part of the reason these entertainers’ relationship with Chavez may be questionable is due to the monetary support they’ve received from Chavez for personal projects, and also the fact Villa del Cine was established to counter the U.S. industry.

“It is true that Villa del Cine, Chavez’s own film studio, was designed to counteract the influence of Hollywood,” Nikolas Kozloff, political analyst and author of Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S., points out. “In this sense, it might be surprising that Hollywood stars would establish ties to Chavez, but let us remember that we’re talking about leftist actors such as Sean Penn and Danny Glover, who are sympathetic to Venezuela politically…Hugo Chavez did much to boost marginalized communities in Venezuela, and he attempted to reverse historic discrimination…Chavez openly and proudly discussed his own mixed racial heritage, which was a bit jarring since most Venezuelan presidents had a more elitist approach tied to the values and mannerisms of the white upper class.”

The specifics of Chavez’s legacy vary depending on who tells the story. On the one hand, through his socialist agenda, Chavez led what he deemed the Bolivarian Revolution, reducing poverty and strengthening cultural pride by promoting an anti-American, anti-imperialist stance across Latin America. He additionally sought to assist poor communities of color in U.S., granted relief to the largely African-American victims of Hurricane Katrina, and contributed hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil in energy assistance to the United States.