(washingtonpost.com) - President Hugo Chavez reveled in his role as host to Hollywood star Sean Penn as they traveled together through the Venezuelan countryside in an open jeep, stopping to greet adoring crowds. The Oscar-winning actor said little Friday, beyond saying he was working as a freelance journalist, following up on reporting stints in Iraq and Iran. In any case, his star power was clearly eclipsed by the populist president, who took the wheel, honking to the crowds, signing autographs and gathering letters from people asking for help.
At one point, Chavez asked Penn to speak to the crowd at an outdoor ceremony.
"I came here looking for a great country. I found a great country," the U.S. actor said. "I'm also here as a journalist and so I owe it to that medium to wait until I've digested, fact-checked and finished my journey here" before saying more, Penn said. He thanked Chavez for the visit.
Chavez lauded Penn as "a man who is critical of his government and of imperialism."
Penn is the latest in a series of U.S. celebrities and public figures to visit with Chavez, including actor Danny Glover, singer Harry Belafonte and Cindy Sheehan, who became a peace activist after her 24-year-old soldier son Casey was killed in Iraq.
Like the others, Chavez has embraced Penn as a fellow critic of U.S. President George W. Bush.
"He's a courageous man, he's very quiet," Chavez said as he introduced Penn to reporters and foreign dignitaries during the flight from Caracas to western Venezuela. "But he has a fire burning inside."
Chavez also talked about the havoc an economic crisis in the U.S. might wreak.
"When the economic crisis in the United States breaks out, it's going to hit the world," Chavez said. "We'll help them. The United States must be helped because the United States is going to implode."
Later in the jeep, Penn stayed in the back seat, wearing sunglasses and taking in the spectacle. Screaming women tried to flag down Chavez, who stopped to kiss young children and braked for a cow that wandered across the road as he led a caravan of trucks through fields of potatoes, beets, lettuce and corn.
It was a familiar scene for Chavez, who grew up poor in a small town in rural Venezuela, and who loves to show visitors what his government is doing for everyday Venezuelans. The highlight of the trip came when Chavez and Penn donned white lab coats and toured an agricultural research laboratory.
Some Chavez opponents say Penn is being used by the president for political purposes.
Cuban-born actress Maria Conchita Alonso, who grew up in Venezuela, said Penn's visit lends support to a "totalitarian" leader who wants increasing control of society - a charge Chavez denies. Speaking by phone from her home in Beverly Hills, California, Alonso said she respects Penn as an actor, but hopes he "comes to his senses and he realizes that he's being used."