Harry Belafonte, the trailblazing African-American singer and civil rights activist who died this week at the age of 96, is in some ways an admirable figure. A confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., he financially supported the latter who only made $8,000 a year as a preacher and bailed King out of an Alabama jail in 1963 as well as raising $50,000 to bail out other imprisoned civil rights activists. He funded voter registration drives in the violent, segregationist South in the early 1960s, and in the 1980s the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
But there was a less than admirable side to Belafonte, one unmentioned in the corporate media stampede to lionize the deceased. He was a lifelong supporter of communist regimes that crushed the very civil liberties he “fought” for in the United States. He did so often when these regimes were at their bloodiest.
The root of such hypocrisy and moral relativism may have come from Belafonte’s mentor, singer Paul Robeson. Robeson was an unreconstructed Stalinist, defending Joseph Stalin who killed 20 million of his own countrymen through enforced famines, and rigged trials, and turned the countries he “liberated” from Hitler into equally vicious police states; all the while Robeson was being championed by the American left as a civil libertarian
Belafonte learned his lessons from Robeson well. He too kept two sets of books; supporting civil liberties in America while lauding communist dictators who crushed them in so-called “people’s democracies” abroad. Like Robeson, he championed atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg not for being innocent of giving atomic information to Stalin, but for doing so for the cause of “peace.”
Fast-forward to the 1980s, and at a “World Peace Concert” in Berlin, Belafonte lauded the East German regime whose secret police, the Stasi, was considered the most brutal of the communist satellites. Castigating the Ronald Reagan administration for installing nuclear missiles in West Germany as fascist, he portrayed the Soviets’ installation of SS-20 missiles in East Germany as promoting peace.
Belafonte was equally laudatory of Fidel Castro. Condemning “censorship” in the United States, he was eerily silent when the Cuban regime imprisoned and tortured dissidents for speaking out against Castro. Belafonte linked Castro with the former’s beloved Rosenbergs, stating in a 2000 speech in Havana that Castro exemplified the peaceful efforts the Rosenbergs fought for. He even believed that the United States should model itself on Castro’s Cuba.
For that reason, he faulted President Barack Obama for following Constitutional procedure by working with Congress and implied he should have instead behaved “like a Third World dictator” and imprisoned his opponents.
Belafonte found another worthy model in communist dictator Hugo Chavez. While Chavez was jailing and torturing political opponents for speaking out against the Venezuelan regime, Belafonte praised him and claimed that “millions of the American people” supported Chavez.
Meanwhile, from a Venezuelan podium, he declared then-President George W. Bush as “the greatest terrorist in the world,” and condemned the administration’s Homeland Security for the very behavior exhibited by his beloved Castro and Chavez:
Today we have something that is most horrific written under the banner of ‘homeland security.’ The extremes of those laws allow any citizen away from anyone’s knowledge, without charging the individual, and hiding them for an indefinite period of time … That is the basis of a totalitarian state.
While one can admire Belafonte’s work during the civil rights era, his image as a civil libertarian is compromised by his blanket support of communist regimes whose totalitarian behavior he thought American liberals, even presidents, should practice against opponents.