Communists, tyrants and rogues — and the stars who play to them

Stars’ curious travel plans include lands of despots

From Hanoi Jane to Havana Jay-Z, the celebrity culture’s coziness with communists, tyrants and rogues has been at odds with U.S. foreign policy for a half-century.

The most recent example came just days ago when rapper Jay-Z and his wife, Beyonce, spent their fifth wedding anniversary partying in Havana despite clear travel restrictions on Americans vacationing in communist-run Cuba. The jaunt has been rebuked by, among others, Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and a Cuban-American.

One reason for the growing backlash, analysts say, is that these trips routinely send mixed messaged to the rest of the world about U.S. policy. In a worst-case scenario, they’re interpreted as de facto diplomacy.

“What they’re forgetting is that their high-profile makes a statement … It was a political statement, intended or not,” said Patricia Phalen, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University who teaches a class on Hollywood and politics.

But Beyonce and Jay-Z aren’t the first examples, and they likely won’t be the last.

Just last month, NBA Hall-of-Famer Dennis Rodman embarked on a bizarre trip to North Korea, weeks before that country’s leader threatened to annihilate the U.S. with a nuclear weapon.

Before he died earlier this year, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was a favorite in liberal Hollywood circles. Actors Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Spacey, Danny Glover and others met with Chavez, a declared socialist who once called former President George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world.”

Perhaps the most famous instance took place in 1972, when Jane Fonda was photographed with North Vietnamese soldiers on an anti-aircraft gun.

Each entertainer’s motivation is somewhat different, analysts say, and many — with the notable exception of Miss Fonda — deny or don’t even realize that they’re stepping into the international political arena.

Mr. Spacey’s visit to Venezuela was under the guise of touring a new $13 million film studio. Mr. Rodman headed to North Korea, he said, because of Kim Jong-un’s love of basketball. Beyonce and Jay-Z used the Cuba trip as a romantic getaway while also hitting some of Havana’s hottest clubs and restaurants.

“Just as it’s an old tradition in American politics to say ‘I’m not a politician, vote for me,’ it’s an old tradition among celebrities to say ‘I’m just here for the water,’ ” said David Prindle, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in the intersection of politics and Hollywood.

The couple’s visit, Mr. Prindle added, likely was welcomed by Cuba’s communist government.

“The Cuban leadership has been trying to annoy the United States since 1959,” he said.

On Tuesday morning, Reuters reported that the Obama administration green-lighted the vacation as a “people-to-people” cultural exchange, despite the fact that the couple met with no Cuban officials during the trip. If that’s true, it raises additional questions with Mr. Rubio and others.

“Since their inception, the Obama administration’s ‘people-to-people’ cultural exchange programs have been abused by tourists who have no interest in the Cuban people’s freedom and either don’t realize or don’t care that they’re essentially funding the regime’s systematic trampling of human rights,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Rubio added that if the trip was indeed licensed by the Treasury Department, the White House must clarify its Cuba travel policy and reveal how many more trips have been allowed.

Two House Republicans from Florida, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, expressed similar sentiments in a letter to the Treasury Department.

But human rights abuses in Cuba, just as in Venezuela or North Korea, may not be as apparent to Hollywood figures as one might think, Ms. Phalen said.

“A lot of these celebrities do have very real and heartfelt concern for the poor. If you get someone like Hugo Chavez, who says that he’s all for the poor, maybe [the stars] aren’t looking behind that,” she said.

And just as in Washington, Ms. Phalen added, one must be seen as knowledgeable and credible to be taken seriously in Hollywood.

“It’s pretty clear that the politics of Hollywood is very liberal, very left wing,” Ms. Phalen said. “If you’re part of that culture, you’re probably going to get more political cred by going to see Hugo Chavez than by going to visit some right-wing person.”

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