Sean Penn no longer lives in a tent, surrounded by some 40,000 desperate people camped on a muddy golf course. And he no longer rushes about the capital with a Glock pistol tucked in his waistband, hefting bags of donated rice and warning darkly of a worsening humanitarian crisis.
But the actor who stormed onto the scene of one of the worst natural disasters in history has certainly not lost interest. Defying skeptics, he has put down roots in Haiti, a country he hadn’t even visited before the January 2010 earthquake, and has become a major figure in the effort to rebuild.
“At the beginning, we thought he was going to be like one of the celebrities who don’t spend the night,” said Maryse Kedar, president of an education foundation who has worked alongside Penn. “I can tell you that Sean surprised a lot of people here. Haiti became his second home.”
Penn’s role has evolved over the two years of Haiti’s meandering recovery. He started as the head of a band of volunteers, morphed into the unofficial mayor of the golf course-turned-homeless camp and became a member of what passes for Haiti’s establishment — a part of the president’s circle who addresses investors at aid conferences and represents this tumbledown Caribbean country to the world.
He is now an ambassador-at-large for President Michel Martelly, the first non-Haitian to receive the designation, and the CEO of the J/P Haitian Relief Organization, a rapidly growing and increasingly prominent aid group. The actor, who is being honored for his work in Haiti April 25 with the 2012 Peace Summit Award at the 12th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Chicago, has yoked himself to an unlikely cause: helping a country that has lurched from one calamity to another.
“This country is finally getting out of the hole,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press at a house in the Haitian capital that serves as his NGO’s crash pad, with rooms divided by plywood and a sign in the kitchen saying no seconds until everyone has had a chance to eat.
It’s strange to see a celebrity of his stature in these surroundings. He brings glamour to a country that has none, where the streets are largely dirt and most people don’t have indoor plumbing, not to mention any kind of steady job. His leftist politics don’t seem like a match for right-of-center Martelly, and his leadership of an aid group partially funded by the U.N. doesn’t square with his contempt for foreign NGOs. His salty language is not exactly diplomatic.
But maybe there is a kind of weird logic to Penn’s adventure in Haiti. He is an actor whose most famous roles are underdogs and whose politics frequently put him at odds with the U.S. government, embracing the likes of Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez. Haiti is a land of contrasts and contradictions, a poor country in the shadow of the U.S., a place of inspiration and despair.
Or maybe he just wanted to help, says Bichat Laroque, a 26-year-old who lives with his mother in the displaced persons camp managed by Penn’s NGO: “He married Madonna and he made a lot of money and after a terrible earthquake he says, ‘Let’s do good things in Haiti.'”
When not at home in Los Angeles, Penn spends about half his time in Haiti and public sightings are common. On a recent morning at the camp his group manages, at the Petionville Club, he lumbered through wearing faded jeans, a plaid button-down shirt and aviator sunglasses, greeted by residents in English (“Sean, my friend!”) and Creole (“Bonjou, Sean!”)
He sat down on the terrace of the house overlooking the tarp-covered shanties, and talked for more than an hour because the subject was Haiti, a topic he riffs on with a passionate, sometimes rambling intensity, sprinkled with the obscenities. When it comes to the mission of his outfit, he veers toward grandiose, even choking up at times.
“My job is to help people get the future they want to have,” he said.
The Haiti that Penn saw when he arrived in the country for the first time, about a week after the earthquake, was apocalyptic, a tableau of death and destruction that shocked the world.
Port-au-Prince, the densely packed capital with an estimated 3 million people, was shaken by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, which flattened thousands of schools filled with students and offices filled with workers. Officials estimated the death toll at more than 300,000, an equal number injured, and at least 1.5 million homeless. The government was crippled; aid groups were swamped.
Benjamin Krause, the country director for Penn’s group, said the quake resonated with the actor in part because his son, Hopper, had recently recovered from a skateboarding accident that caused a serious head injury.
“Sean turns on the television and sees parents next to children holding their hands as they are having surgeries in the streets with no pain medication whatsoever,” he said. “It moved him to call up all the people he could to get pain medication lined up and as many medical professionals as possible.”
He also may have been in search of a cause. A 2010 Vanity Fair profile suggested as much, saying he had been rudderless, despite his movie success, following the death of his brother, Chris, in 2006 and the divorce from Robin Wright Penn in 2009.
Penn and Diana Jenkins, a Southern California philanthropist, put together a planeload of supplies and volunteers — seven doctors and 23 relief workers. They called themselves the Jenkins/Penn Haitian Relief Organization, which changed to J/P HRO after her involvement waned.
The actor, who carried a gun in the chaotic early days, landed with his coterie at the Petionville Club, where they found a contingent from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Penn embedded with the military, and his involvement grew from there.
He soon started showing up at meetings of aid officials trying to coordinate the disparate relief efforts. “He would sit down like everyone else and listen,” said Giovanni Cassani of the International Organization for Migration.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, a U.N. special envoy to Haiti, was among those impressed with Penn’s efforts.
“He was not a drive-by celebrity,” Clinton said in a recent interview. “He went into those camps and he was actually solving their water problems, solving their sanitation problems.”
J/P HRO now operates out of airy office space in a former school, has a fleet of trucks and heavy equipment, a staff of 300 and hires so many laborers to clear rubble that on some days it’s the largest employer in Petionville, one of several cities that make up the capital region.
The irony is that Penn has been a critic of foreign nongovernmental organizations in Haiti, so plentiful that the country has been ridiculed as the “Republic of NGOs.”
He still tells the story of a “very reputable” NGO whose actions after the quake were “akin to the worst of Hollywood ambition.” Penn’s group had donated a shipment of painkillers, but distribution was delayed, he said, so the organization that would hand out the drugs could affix stickers on the boxes and get credit.
“What’s wrong with NGOs goes much deeper in terms of development and in terms of emergency relief and the lack of coordination of the two,” Penn said. “Everybody waits for somebody to demonstrate that something’s going to be impressive to donors to steal the idea from the person that actually did it and then try to sell it as their thing until that gains or loses popularity
He ridiculed what he sees as the typical “NGO person” or “U.N. person” as out of touch and ineffective. “It’s Lance Armstrong on a stationary bike saying, ‘I’ll get there as soon as the corruption is over,'” he said.
Penn and his staff say their mission evolved as new challenges surfaced. They started managing the camp, then took over the clinic when the Army pulled out, and did the same with the schools, allowing other groups, including Save the Children, to focus elsewhere.
To move people off the club’s steeply sloping golf course and make room for them outside the camp, they cleared 250,000 cubic meters (8.8 million cubic feet) of rubble, provided rental assistance, repaired damaged homes and subsidized a local bakery to create jobs. Outside the country club, they run a community center and two clinics, treating 2,000 patients a week, and are building a new school. “I always describe us an airplane that built itself after takeoff,” Penn said.
In the camp, conditions have improved. There are about 18,000 still on the golf course and nearby property, down more than half from the peak. There is a police substation and the classrooms are clean and orderly. The club’s putting green and tennis courts have reopened.
J/P HRO’s budget has swelled from $200,000 a month in early 2011 to more than $1 million a month today, said Krause. The bulk comes from grants and contracts that include $6.2 million from the U.N. for rubble removal and demolition; $2.25 million from the World Bank; and a USAID subcontract worth $1.5 million.
Asked if Penn can’t just write a check, Krause laughed. “I have no idea how much money Sean has,” he said. “But suffice it to say that if we are spending more than a million dollars every month we would bankrupt Sean very quickly.”
Penn and J/P HRO have a good reputation in Haiti, but there have been bumps. He was criticized for encouraging thousands of people from his camp to move to Corail-Cesselesse, a desolate field about 15 kilometers (10 miles) north of Port-au-Prince.
The Haitians who moved said they were promised factory jobs and houses. But there were no real jobs in the area and many of the tent-like shelters collapsed in the first hard rain. When Rolling Stone magazine mentioned the controversy in an article critical of Haitian relief efforts, Penn bristled in a letter to the editor that ran more than 7,000 words. “What those not in the field do not know is that 100 or more tents go down in EVERY camp with EVERY harsh rain,” he wrote.
While Penn’s social activism occasionally makes the news, he is known mostly as an intense portrayer of complex, dark characters on screen, such as a death-row inmate in “Dead Man Walking,” or the South Boston father bent on finding his daughter’s killer in “Mystic River,” a role that won him an Oscar.
Later this year, he will appear in “Gangster Squad,” a period movie about the Los Angeles Police Department’s fight against mobsters with a cast that includes Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and Josh Brolin.
He scoffs when asked if the earthquake was a life-altering experience.
“One of my limitations in life is that I can’t claim much change since about 16 years old, I think,” he said. “I don’t know that I have changed is the truth of it.”
At 51, he has a surfer’s body, bulging forearms, and a workout machine in the backyard of his Haiti house. Yet he smokes constantly and has the heavy-lidded look of someone who has just crawled out of bed.
He took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post in 2003 to condemn the Iraq invasion, visited Iran in 2005 and wrote about it The San Francisco Chronicle, and has met with Fidel and Raul Castro.
To critics, Penn is naive, a gadfly. But he in turn sees many in the U.S. as duped by propaganda. “We are a country that’s become increasingly gullible to the demonizing of foreign states and leaders,” he said in a video interview for The Nation, a U.S. magazine, in 2008.
A recent sweep through South America was supposed to be a diplomatic mission for Haiti but turned into vintage Penn. In Bolivia, he sported a multicolored poncho and miner’s hat for an encounter with President Evo Morales, another leader hostile to the U.S. In Uruguay, he infuriated Britain by defending Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands weeks before the 30th anniversary of their war. And in Venezuela, he attended a medical school graduation with President Chavez, who chose the event to call his presidential opponent a “low-life pig.”
As he smoked American Natural Spirits back-to-back, stubbing them out on the tile floor, Penn said he has the diplomatic skills to help Haiti get more foreign aid and win over investors.
“I have good relationships in South America,” he said. “I can sit with both the heads of state and their deputies.” In Haiti, Penn’s politics have favored the practical.
He was an early backer of right-leaning Martelly, a charismatic pop star who had never held political office. He’s no fan of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former president and darling of the international left. And he sounds neutral about Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the former dictator responsible for the deaths and torture of thousands.
In a January interview on “The Tavis Smiley Show,” he said that he met Duvalier, who returned from exile last year, and doesn’t think he poses a threat. “It’s really not for us as Americans coming in or foreigners coming in to make that moral judgment about whether or not a culture is willing to reintegrate people into it,” he said. Penn doesn’t dwell much on Haiti’s troubled past, though.
“I’m not here to be a historian,” he said in the interview. Instead, he wants to focus on the country’s present, which he thinks is showing a rare glimpse of promise.
In making Haiti his second home, he said in his signature combative style, he’s had many more successes than failures.
“When people say to me, oh you don’t speak Creole yet? I say, yeah, ‘have you moved 40,000 people?”