Two-time Academy Award-winning actor and director Sean Penn was honored by the Haitian government on Monday at a ceremony marking the six-month anniversary of the earthquake that killed 300,000 people and left more than 1.5 million homeless. Penn first came to Haiti after the earthquake struck to help with immediate relief efforts. He decided to stay to finish what he started. He co-founded the J/P Haitian Relief Organization and is managing a tent camp on the Pétionville golf course that now shelters some 55,000 people. On Sunday night, we went to visit Sean Penn’s camp. We walked in and asked to speak to him. We were ushered into a large tent and ended up sitting down with the Hollywood star for more than an hour, talking about Haiti, recovery efforts and the lack of them, his life and what inspired him to do what he is doing [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we are just back from Port-au-Prince. Six months after the earthquake in Haiti, not much has changed, and yet Haiti will never be the same. Up to 300,000 people were killed in the disaster and its aftermath. More than 1.5 million people are now homeless. Half a year later, many Haitians say they’ve seen little in terms of recovery efforts. The teeming city of Port-au-Prince looks like a war zone. Rubble and debris is everywhere and has become a part of the landscape. There is little food, clean water or sanitation. Only two percent of promised reconstruction aid has been delivered.
More than 1,350 tent camps fill the streets, with makeshift tarps and sheets providing little shelter. Other tent camps set up by the Haitian government are in remote areas, far from the capital and set up on barren landscapes. In Corail, the government’s primary relocation camp, some fifteen miles from Port-au-Prince, a storm on Monday collapsed at least ninety-four tents and sent hundreds of residents fleeing to find shelter.
Meanwhile, in the capital, in Port-au-Prince, Haitian President René Préval hosted a medal ceremony at the crushed National Palace to defend the government’s response to the quake. Bulldozers, dump trucks, other heavy equipment that are usually nowhere to be seen in the capital, were lined up on the palace grounds for the occasion. Just across the street, in the massive Champ de Mars camp, thousands of homeless people sat baking in the summer heat.
Among those at the ceremony were former president Bill Clinton, now co-chair of the Interim Commission for Haiti’s Reconstruction. CNN’s Anderson Cooper and two-time Academy Award-winning actor and director Sean Penn were honored and presented with medals. Sean Penn first came to Haiti after the earthquake struck to help with immediate relief efforts. He decided to stay to finish what he started. He co-founded the J/P Haitian Relief Organization and is managing a tent camp on the Pétionville golf course that now shelters some 55,000 people.
On Sunday night, we went to visit Sean Penn’s camp. We walked in, asked to speak to him. We were ushered into a large tent and ended up sitting down with the Hollywood star for more than an hour, talking about Haiti, recovery efforts, the lack of them, his life and what inspired him to do what he’s doing.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sean Penn, welcome to Democracy Now!
SEAN PENN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: What are you doing here in Haiti?
SEAN PENN: Well, currently we’re functioning as camp management for the Pétionville Club camp, or what they call here Terrain de Golfe. We have 55,000 IDP population in a camp that’s about a hundred meters from here. And our job is to be principal coordinator of the other NGO actors in the camp and to advocate for the camp and to — we also function as a medical NGO and have a Class 3 hospital on site. And now, we’re currently beginning a project of — we had done the first primary relocation, but I’m careful to talk about that, because there’s approximately 1.8 million displaced people, and to date, there’s been a total of 7,000 people relocated citywide. And by “relocations,” we’re talking about getting people out of spontaneous camps and into planned camps, that have better security, better services, and they’re out of flood zones and that sort of thing. But long term, the idea is to get people either into returns, into neighborhoods, making those neighborhoods functional and giving them services, or for those camps on the outside to become, instead of considered planned camps, really to be model communities, and for, hopefully, you know, business, manufacturing, jobs to come into those areas, and to go from tents, temporary shelters, ultimately into housing, and hopefully into land ownership.
AMY GOODMAN: What brought you down here, to begin with?
SEAN PENN: Well, it was a series of events and a certain amount of timing, but the earthquake hit the news, and I had had a personal experience with one of my children having a surgery in that year and seeing just how important pain medications can be during surgery and hearing of the kind of Civil War-style medicine that was happening here, because, you know, it was a poverty earthquake. And so, you have the devastation on top of devastation. And part of that was an already crippled healthcare system. And so, when amputations were taking place with children and elderly and everybody in between, they were doing it with a Motrin. And so, I was able to, through a relationship with the president of Venezuela, have — get a supply of morphine and ketamine. And by the time that arrived at the embassy here, I had networked with Dr. Paul Farmer and others to find out what clinics and hospitals would use them most productively and were most in need of them, that were doing those kinds of surgeries. And so, we began as a kind of — me and a few of the groups started as 24/7 delivery crew and pickup trucks, while the seven doctors that we had brought in were farmed out to existing infrastructures. And, bit by bit, we got our legs as an NGO and then, soon thereafter, took over camp management here in Pétionville.
AMY GOODMAN: So you come down after the earthquake, because you want the people to feel a little less pain, right?
SEAN PENN: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: But you stayed.
SEAN PENN: Yeah, Haiti kind of gets a hold of you. And also, we felt that there were — I mean, every good NGO is a gap filler of what another NGO is not intending to do or can’t do. And there’s — in a situation like this, there are unnecessary gaps, but there are also inevitable gaps. It’s a brand new circumstance, an earthquake on a level as devastating as this, in a zone as impoverished as this. And so, there becomes a very clear human obligation. And as we got our legs and felt our ability to do that — you know, and one of the things that now, as we’re starting to broaden out, is that we start —- we just started a rubble removal aspect to this, because that’s the next thing, is we don’t want to create a comfort zone of a camp to the degree that it becomes a dependency zone. At the same time, I think that our philosophy at J/P HRO is that the kind of clichéd idea of empowering the people is not to demand it prematurely, but that in the case of Haiti, in particular, these are the most pre-empowered people on the planet, and that without the tools, there can’t be an expectation of the kind of self-empowerment that one might have in Chile after an earthquake. So—-
AMY GOODMAN: Many hundreds of times more powerful earthquake —-
SEAN PENN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —- yet hundreds of times fewer people who died. There, it was at 300 or less.
SEAN PENN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Here it’s 300,000.
SEAN PENN: Yeah. I was in an earthquake the size of the one in Haiti when I was a kid in Los Angeles. I think a total of twenty people died. And here, between 250-300,000 immediate deaths, and God knows how many — and most of the bodies are still under rubble today, six months later. And that’s part of what our job will be. It’s rubble removal. It’s body removal. And it’s reestablishing neighborhoods.
AMY GOODMAN: We were here after the earthquake. We saw an amputation put on the table in front of us —-
SEAN PENN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —- because there were Denver doctors from Denver Children’s Hospital. They had actually brought out anesthesia, so that made it unusual. But it’s a nation of amputees.
SEAN PENN: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: Rbble everywhere. We come back six months later, and we see the same thing. And the same camp, for example, in front of the ruined palace, with — I don’t know — 10,000, 20,000 people in the Champs de Mars?
SEAN PENN: Champ de Mars, mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what has changed?
SEAN PENN: That’s a question we ask — someone asks and we ask ourselves every day. Whenever we’re talking about anything other than the Haitian people, we know there’s a problem. And we’re talking about things other than the Haitian people all the time in Haiti. What are the bottlenecks? Why are the bottlenecks? Bottlenecks in rubble removal, bottlenecks in assistance packages, work stoppages at planned campsites, lack of temporary shelters being installed in areas that are having rubble removal.
And what we’ve found is that — and I think — I’d like to think that the parallel courses of rebuilding Haiti and emergency disaster relief are finally on the verge of potentially finding a marriage six months later. Some of that, from my point of view, is understandable. Some of it is criminal, that it’s taken this long. And by “criminal,” I’m talking not about individual corruptions as much as systemic ones, and a basic lack of a coordination strategy that is largely based on exercises in transferring strategies from other regions and other kinds of disasters, and that this is a very particular problem to Haiti. And the kind of alchemy of that has to be addressed very, very individually.
AMY GOODMAN: Eleven billion dollars promised.
SEAN PENN: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: Where is it?
SEAN PENN: Well, I don’t think there’s — I don’t think about $11 billion. I don’t believe in $11 billion. I think that pledge money is smoke and mirrors that evaporates as the years go on. The way it’s going to happen is if bold organizations come in here, create manufacturing. I’d like to see them start as co-ops with philanthropic commitment to that for a period of time, with a kind of sunset, where then they can participate in the profit.
But right now, the donors’ conference, I think, was completely misconceived. And the way that it should have been done is somebody should have raised their hand and said, “I’m going to rebuild every school in Haiti.” Somebody else should have raised their hand and said, “I’ll rebuild the hospitals, and we’re going to do it right now.”
And one of the things — and instead, what happened is, one after another, in Port-au-Prince, the biggest city and the biggest natural disaster in human history, systematically, hospitals closed following the earthquake, because money was not available and not coming in to those hospitals. The money exists and existed.
And I think the culture of aid is so paranoid about the siphoning of aid and the history related to other administrations and other times and places, that while those kinds of concerns are, you know, responsible considerations, they have, I think, largely crippled a lot of the motion here.
AMY GOODMAN: Two-time Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn. He now manages a tent camp that houses 55,000 Haitians displaced by the earthquake. He manages it on the Pétionville golf course in Port-au-Prince, in Pétionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince. When we come back, I ask Sean Penn why he turned to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez over President Obama, and we talk about other issues. This is our exclusive hour with Sean Penn. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Manno Charlemagne, performing at the Tap Tap in Miami, a restaurant there. It’s owned by the filmmaker KK Kean. Well, we filmed that when we headed down to Haiti just after the earthquake. Not it’s six months later. We’ve just returned from Haiti again.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return to the interview with the two-time Academy Award-winning actor and director Sean Penn, sitting in his tent, as he manages a tent camp in Pétionville, in Haiti, that has more than 55,000 Haitian refugees.
AMY GOODMAN: Very good people who, all over the United States, said, “What can we do? At least we can give money” — where has that money gone?
SEAN PENN: Well, this is a very interesting dynamic. In talking about other NGOs, particularly major NGOs like the American Red Cross, I’ve spoken to the leadership of the American Red Cross on many, many occasions. I’ve had conflict with them, I’ve had partnership with them. They’re moving a big mountain in the Red Cross. I think the initial problem — and I’ve spoken to them about it — is in the — what we call here [inaudible], the communication to their donors, has left out something, which is that the American Red Cross has not been in the medical business for fifty years. And that’s not what they do. So, for example, you have an organization, which is a kind of —- I don’t think it’s defamatory to say a kind of historically parasitic organization, like WFP, which had started as an underling organization to another that -—
AMY GOODMAN: WFP, World Food Programme.
SEAN PENN: World Food Programme, where one sense, I think, in the public consciousness is that they still fund. Well, nobody can say that the American Red Cross didn’t act swiftly. They funded $111 million of all that first food that came in on the C-130s, and that was necessary food at that time and in that way. But while that was happening and those dollars were being spent, and in the imaginations of their donors, largely, there were doctors going out into camps and taking care of people and bringing in the primary medicines necessary for that, and then offering — you know, to come in and feel good, for organizations that do do that, to come in and feel good about doing a big dramatic surgery and to not following through on the follow-up care is not to do the surgery. It’s just to extend the torture, to create the infections that we then, in this clinic, deal with down the line. And that’s something that’s not so much to be blamed on anything but communication, which is that the donors need to know that this job is not done. The organizations, I believe very strongly, are getting on their feet here. It’s been a complicated problem. We can — you know, I have been, and I will continue to be, a finger pointer, when it’s absolutely necessary. But right now, there is so much possibility for forward motion here, that when I look at, for example, the American Red Cross, I know, in my personal experience, that their direct action has accelerated enormously in the last month alone. And so, you know, I’ll come back to you if that doesn’t come to fruition. But we have had a very good partner in them.
AMY GOODMAN: We, last night at this time, were at Corail, the camp where thousands of people came from here.
SEAN PENN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Many of them are not very happy.
SEAN PENN: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: Here they are in this land near Titanyen, where bodies were dropped in previous times, like during the coup period. It’s very flat. When the sun comes down, it just bakes them on these white stones. The beds are like a quarter-inch padding, and the stones rip their backs.
SEAN PENN: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: They don’t have electricity. They don’t have flashlights. What happened there?
SEAN PENN: Well, there’s two answers to that, because I, as much as anybody, am responsible for having moved the 1,200 families, or 5,000 persons, from this location to Corail. We were designated as the most dangerous topographic camp in the city for flood and mudslide, which was the first designation for emergency relocations. So what we did is we were given a clear assistance package not to encourage, per se, but to offer. And what I’ll say, to this day, is that as a father of two — and it’s not for me as an American father to make this determination for a Haitian mother or father, but I can say that this comes — that the perspective I’ll offer comes from this. Today, if I had a choice of my children living here or Corail, there’s no question that they’d be living in Corail. I can take one match and light one tent on fire in this camp here, and the whole thing goes. They are all connected tents. It’s over-compressed. If disease spreads, it’s going to spread tent to tent, that share walls. It’s in the middle of a city that’s prone to potential social uprising. It’s only increasing that we’re able to build security corps in this camp here. It’s a spontaneous camp. It’s an ad hoc camp. It’s a dangerous place. And this is now one of the least dangerous among the dangerous places. And we haven’t had quite the level of gang problems. We haven’t had — though we have rapes every week, we haven’t had the level of rapes that are in so many of the camps. But there’s a couple of things, which is — where they have a legitimate, legitimate gripe, beyond the preexisting one of poverty and no opportunity, no matter what will one has, to rise above it, because of a lack of education provided.
The promises made included a tent as a transition, so they’re in those tents in transition, and that they would then be moved into temporary shelters in another sector at the same camp. Those were also the promises that we are still pushing to have go forward, and it’s something that I want the media to look at every day, because these people were promised temporary shelters, and they should get them. Now, as far as the flat, gravely, hot sun, I’ve been there many times. I was there in the sun, and I was there in the rain, because we do want to extend a kind of follow-up consideration to those IDPs that we participated in the relocation of. Those things were told to them in advance, and this was made very clearly as an emergency transitional camp, including the transitional shelters, with plans that had been pre-existing before the earthquake for an industrial park, for manufacturing, and all those things which we are going to still strongly advocate for. They are in a bad place, and a better bad place than this one. And this one is a better bad place than so many of the camps in this city.
One of the advantages that we have is we have neighborhoods with the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation, along with UNOPS, sent out on a 2,000-structure-a-day inspection period to go through red, yellow and green houses — red being that are irrevocably damaged by the earthquake; yellow, those that can be put back together; and green being not necessarily earthquake-safe, but undamaged from this earthquake. And so, in the communication to camp residents, as assistance packages build, as rubble removal in those neighborhoods that makes life miserable, in the first place, and inaccessible, in many cases — so many of these neighborhoods are sort of catacomb-like, and buildings that you walk through alleys like this, of both broken buildings, semi-broken buildings. And so, what happens in all of these things is, the responsibility of any of the international relief organizations that are participating in relocations or returns is to very clearly and honestly communicate what the options are at all times, because the standing, dangerous and vulnerable option is to stay in these spontaneous camps.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you have to turn to the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, over your own president, Barack Obama?
SEAN PENN: Well, I don’t know Barack Obama. I don’t have his phone number. I don’t — and frankly, it would not have been something I considered that I would be, as a private citizen, without a very — and especially in the very superpower world that the United States is, there’s a lot of regulation, and it’s not likely that I would have, within a few days, been granted access to a large amount of IV pain medications. And so, Hugo Chávez, he’s someone that knows me. I know him. He knows what my efforts would be here. And also, it was, even in the case of what they donated, and to an organization like ours, it was a kind of, I believe, moral leap of faith, considering the circumstances, and I was able to describe to him the networking that we would be able do and had done so that we’d be able to make responsible and immediate use of those things. And that’s not something that, you know, for better and worse, is part of spontaneous disaster relief in the United States, an access to narcotics.
AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the factories that would be set up, because Haitians want jobs.
SEAN PENN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: There is concern that they could be setting up maquiladoras, where, yes, they’re desperate for jobs, but at any price? How do you guard against that?
SEAN PENN: Yeah, not at any price. I think that the — you know, your being here, and any time there’s media and responsible media here, is virtually more important than any aid organization’s presence at all. With that alone, people in the United States would get to know the Haitian people and send the money right into their hands. They’d adopt neighborhoods. They’d adopt schools. So, in terms of what the future is going to be, if we’re just going to continue a culture of people making one to two dollars a day, spending 45 percent of their annual income on their children’s education, because they care that much to have there children educated, but with only the access to substandard education, then — you know, then if that doesn’t change, it’s only a pipe dream. People are going to have to have a life. They’re going to have to share in the international language of what a real free life is. And we can’t maintain the kind of “we’re grateful for a penny” aspect, simply — in what becomes the kind of systemic punishment for people’s — of people’s strength. And that’s what happens in a place like Haiti, where comfort has never been experienced on any level. There’s no expectation or feeling of a right to it. But it isn’t the luxury; it’s a human right.
AMY GOODMAN: So, here you are, a mega star in Hollywood. How have you brought your talents? What is it about what your experience has been that you can run a camp like this?
SEAN PENN: It’s an awful lot like film production, it’s just the stakes are a lot higher. So the choices you make with fluidity in film, that you responsibly would call adjustments, here are without whimsy and are very clearly adjustments to the daily needs that occur here. As an organization, one of the founding principles that I started with, despite the deficit it would put me in, was that we wouldn’t take designated money. What we do is maintain maximum transparency. And so that, you know, if tomorrow the best thing for our organization to do is to recognize that we have degenerated tarps from the original distributions and to put another 8,000 tarps in our camp for a big rain, if suddenly there’s a social unrest situation, we might want to take our funds and put it into security for the IDPs here. So, we wanted to maintain that kind of flexibility, and that’s so much about what filmmaking is. And then, I think just being — you know, learning and dealing with these kind of organizations that are dealing in — it’s very competitive between NGOs, for example, as it is between studios, for example. There’s a lot of schadenfreude. There’s a lot of high school nonsense that we laugh about, we criticize in Hollywood. And here, it’s murder. It’s a kind of passive murder. And so, I think that in, you know, simply being willing to talk very straight about what we see and hear, our best-bet proposals, and put them on the table and not be shy about them, and then count on that like minds will coordinate, where coordination, in general, doesn’t exist.
AMY GOODMAN: When you talk about that competition being dangerous — not only dangerous, lethal here — can you be specific?
SEAN PENN: Yeah, I can be extremely specific. I don’t have to name any of the organizations. I think people know what they are, that we expect as a culture in America to have — for example, in Haiti, you have this incredible earthquake and the disaster that it wreaks. We see the agony and the death everywhere on the news, immediately. We all say, “Oh, my God! What are we going to do?” Well, we’ve got this organization, and we’ve got that organization, and we’ve got the other one, and we’ve got the other one. Who would have thought that, four months later, we would get a patient in our clinic, in our hospital here, a fifteen-year-old boy that became the first diagnosed case of diphtheria. We, when we come here as Americans, are inoculated for about five things. One of them is diphtheria. So here’s this case, and diphtheria is endemic here. And none of the organizations, from international to national to American, no one had notified any of the hospitals. And none of the hostpitals had asked, “Where do we get the immunoglobulin if we get a case of diphtheria?”
So, patient came in. We started looking for hospitals that would accept him. Nobody was prepared to accept him. We got kicked out of four hospitals, and we traveled with this boy in the back of an SUV for hours, from hospital to hospital, being kicked away. During that time, we had a phone campaign going: “By the way, where do we get the immunoglobulin?” We had been involved with every major hospital and clinic in the city. Nobody knew. We called the United States military, whose job it isn’t to do that, and who, in fact, among all the organizations, had been the most directly decisive and effective, to date. And from — this was about a fifteen-hour process. And I have a pretty good Rolodex. No one knew where to get it. And then, based on a kind of memory of somebody that was involved in one of these major organizations, we made a phone call, and we got in touch with somebody from CDC while they were in a restaurant in Pétionville. And they happened to be sitting across from the person who ran the PROMESS warehouse. And this an immunoglobulin that has to be sent through cold chain. And this was another thing that was exposed four months in. No cold chains had been set up.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s a cold chain?
SEAN PENN: Cold chain, if you want to send tetanus diphtheria from the United States to here, it’s going to have to stay cold all the way 'til injection. So then you get — so it's not centralized in one warehouse. And you would think, four months in, that they would have established cold chains, that organizations would have donated the fuel and the generators necessary to keep that refrigeration there. In the primary hospital in all of Port-au-Prince, general hospital? No. Nowhere, except in the PROMESS warehouse, which was all the hell out of way, out of town. And we raced with the father in the back of the pickup truck late in the night, after we’d finally gotten general hospital, where Dr. Megan Coffey had accepted him. And she was running the infectious disease wing there, primarily TB, I think. And so, they accepted him, and then we went off and got this stuff. And it was just too late. And about ten, twelve hours later, he was dead. So, that’s a basic lack of coordination that is — you know, it’s neglect on a level of at least manslaughter.
AMY GOODMAN: Sean Penn, the two-time Academy Award-winning actor and director, now manages a tent camp of 55,000 displaced Haitians in Pétionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince. By the way, yesterday we said the American Red Cross received $1 billion in donations for Haiti. They called us to say that was inaccurate. According to the American Red Cross, they collected $468 million. They say so far they’ve spent $148.5 million. But I do have to say, one of the complaints that we heard over and over again in Haiti is, where has the money gone? Not just the American Red Cross, but all of the money donated to NGOs, the aid organizations, the countries. People on the ground are saying they’ve seen very little in terms of recovery efforts. We’ll have more with Sean Penn after break. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to my interview with Sean Penn. We sat with him in his tent, as he ran a Haitian refugee camp of over 55,000 people in Pétionville, in Port-au-Prince.
AMY GOODMAN: I’ve heard over and over — I’ve heard from aid workers, whose trips here were canceled, there just wasn’t the money, that even the promised money then dries up when the attention is elsewhere, say BP, the Gulf of Mexico, or just the media only focuses on Haiti for ten minutes.
SEAN PENN: Well, then, if the money is dried up because of BP, then BP should pay for it. BP should come here with some of their money and put some in, because one of the things that people have to understand — you know, this is — you know, because I know that there’s been so much discussion on your show, from the beginning — you, in particular, who I think are a heroic person in the American media, and therefore in the world media — about, you know, all of the things that led up to war that were the wars that we are still in now. And we had all of this argument between parties on the left and the right about this idea of supporting the troops, the idea of what being a patriot is, so much so that we forgot about the Constitution and made it up ourselves.
So, let’s just go back to supporting the troops. I was here, and I saw the 82nd Airborne. This was the most significantly noble mission that the United States military participated in since World War II. And they did it with so much courage and grace. There was no soldier that didn’t know clearly, if somebody desperate cursed them, that that person just lost twenty people in their family. And unlike the United Nations troops, largely, who still, to this day, sadly, look like stormtroopers, they slung a rifle over their shoulder, because that’s what they do in the US military. They didn’t wear their helmets. They were there. They were open and talked to the people. And they personally cared. And they had a very clear, decisive mandate. And they did it. And one of the soldiers from right here at this camp is never going to walk or talk again, because of cerebral malaria, because they didn’t have time for some of the inoculations that those of us who had a few days to respond did. And they came in. So they had hard deployments in those wars that we, as a country, support, our president supports now. And whether you like that war or you don’t like it, that’s their job. They went there. So they were —-
AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel about it, by the way?
SEAN PENN: I think Afghanistan is a ludicrous exercise. But -— and one of the reasons is because there is a “for America” productive exercise right here. Imagine Haiti this way. First of all, if all their investment was — and all our investment, because we’ve got to pay the Department of Defense back for what they did here. Don’t think that because we funded the Department of Defense that we don’t have to pay them back again, because that’s the way it works. So, now, you have a war here. You’ve got a surge coming with storms, but no face to hate, no county to rile at, no natural resources, and the faces here are black. And that’s why there’s other things. There’s natural resources that are in balance over there. There’s all of that stuff. And that’s not some lefty conspiracy theory. That’s just bottom-line fact. And both sides that play in the money know it. And everybody gets manipulated, and it’s really simple.
So then, here, what’s really simple is that if an American buys an energy-saving light bulb and turns it on, they’re frustrated at how long it takes to heat up. These people never had — most of them never had electricity. You give them an energy-saving light bulb, they’re going to invite their friends and neighbors over with glee to watch it go. And in a country like that, you bring that kind of manufacturing here and you build that technology here, in ten years you will have a showplace that will turn the American companies in green technologies into the Silicon Valley of the '80s and ’90s. And you’ll have an economic boom like we’ve never seen in the United States, begin to repair our environment, save this country that's at our doorstep, and, for the first time, make an investment that’s complete and successful where people are black, which we still haven’t done in New Orleans. And we can be really proud.
And if we don’t do it, then you might as well say you’re spitting on the American military, because you’re going to let everything that they did here — the drainage mitigations, those that the National Guard are still doing in Gonaïves, which is likely to get hit by a hurricane this year and kill an enormous amount of people, who are — who were already in danger, and now they’re in spontaneous camps, directly in riverbeds. So, there’s a chance for America to not only be very proud, but to be very rich and to have a real friend in a country with a character that’s been strengthened by the absence of comfort for so long.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s going to make that happen? The US is committed in Afghanistan. The US is sending more troops there.
SEAN PENN: Well, there are — there are people in our system. There’s Senator Landrieu. There are people like Paul Vallas who are here. There’s the Haitian government. And I think that if there’s enough public support in the United States, which is going to take some real public awareness — Haiti is at the beginning of its own reconstruction, with the help, hopefully, from this donor money. But those of us doing the work that we’re doing are going to be the ones, if we’re lucky and we get the funds, to preserve the population that will inhabit that reconstructed Haiti, because this place could — I mean, my god, if there were — God forbid, which has not been here in twenty-five years, but if cholera came in on a boat, you’d lose 3,000 a day. It would be over. If social unrest is allowed to be what occurs, all these aid organizations are going to shut down.
AMY GOODMAN: How long, in this six months, have you spent here in Haiti?
SEAN PENN: I’ve spent probably five months of it here, and kind of, you know, broken up a month out of the country over the time.
AMY GOODMAN: How has this changed your life?
SEAN PENN: Well, one of the things, when our — you know, a lot of times when people go back, you know, I’ll hear from them by emails or things. And typically, you’ll hear, “Oh, gosh. The materialism in the United States is so offensive to me now,” and then this and then that. Well, I mean, things were offensive to me for forty-nine years — that’s not news — including my own. But, you know, there’s a lot to be said for a life well lived as a thing to aspire to, but to spend this kind of time is to feel a different balance. You know, I think I always made an effort to know it’s there. But you can start to build some muscles of understanding why you have an obligation to know it’s there and to sort of understand that the ways in which the weakest link in the chain affects us.
AMY GOODMAN: What are your kids saying?
SEAN PENN: My kids are here. They’re working here right now, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: How long do you plan to be here?
SEAN PENN: Well, as an organization, we don’t plan to go. We plan to adapt, to adjust. I think our next major new push is going to be in the rubble removal and working with partners to get people returned into the neighborhoods and to again work with partners and take camp management into kind of the offering of community management and advocacy, but more and more, but not in extremely short term, demanding independence, demanding — you know, be empowered. You know, for every — and they’re few and far between — neglectful parent, there’s a kid that you’re neglecting, if you say, “Well, if you’re not going to stand up for yourself, I’m not going to stand up for you.” Well, there’s somebody’s shorter there also. So, right now, you’ve got to have established at least some kind of relative ability for the culture, as at large, which is so strong, which is so committed to their families, which is so willing to work hard, make it possible before you back off of those efforts. And then, you know, whether you’re focusing on trying to help fund a teaching hospital — whatever it is that the future brings here for this organization.
For me, personally, there is a time at which you’re not as productive as you once were, and I saw that time coming. And so — and that doesn’t mean you go away forever; it means you take a break. And so, I’ve found somebody who will do my job better than I will, has the experience, but, with the experience, doesn’t have that typical NGO thing of, “Well, when I was in Darfur, we did it this way,” and you kind of say, “Yeah, and look how good Darfur is doing.” You know, this is an NGO that was born in Haiti. And in some ways, we have an advantage that way. We’ve had a big learning curve. A lot of that learning has come from the experience of people in other NGOs. But I’ve found somebody in Alastair Lamb, who’s our new country director, who I feel very confident is going to take this thing and move it dynamically forward. So, it’s time for me to become a bit of a fundraiser. And, you know, if they’ve got an emergency or need me to introduce them to somebody that I know that might be helpful here, then I’ll do that part.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you say to Hollywood? What’s your message to Hollywood, and then to the American people?
SEAN PENN: I think the American people are Hollywood, and Hollywood is, you know — I don’t have a specific to say to anybody other than, you know — well, we talk about the need for education. Educate yourself on the places you put your money, what they do, what they don’t do. And don’t think that the work is done in Haiti.
AMY GOODMAN: You mean, don’t think it’s completed, that it’s finished.
SEAN PENN: Yeah. There are some things that governments alone can’t do, and there will be abuses by governments of the private sector. And the government should do more. I was at a panel with Rod Shaw the other day, and he said it. He talked about all the great things the United States has done, both in the private and public sector. But it’s not enough. And that’s true, it’s not enough. And it’s not enough for every individual citizen right now. And that does not negate what we have in our own country. It doesn’t negate the hole in the ground that a corporation is poisoning the ocean with.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you stop the problems of disaster capitalism, that people will promise billions, countries will, and it goes into the pockets of a few?
SEAN PENN: Well, how do I do it? I think the National Security Council adopts a resolution that applies not only to that, but also to the exploitation of funds from organizations here, or from individuals or corporations here, or governments here, and you make it a — you know, a crime against humanity or whatever you what to call it. You take them to an international court, if they violate in a time of disaster.
AMY GOODMAN: Who is it that inspires you? What gives you the strength to go to Iraq, when your government is waging war with the country; going to Iran, when it’s almost waging war; dealing with New Orleans after Katrina; now being here in Haiti, not coming down for a photo-op, but living here for month after month and running this camp?
SEAN PENN: Well, you know, the place that rings out to me, I was — I did — I went to Cuba to do an interview with Raúl Castro for The Nation, and when I came back — it was my second trip. And I came back, and I had gone as a journalist. And I was facing an investigation, which I had faced for violating the embargo in Iraq, as well. This is a very costly thing. And I thought to myself, you know, I’m an American. I’m curious about something. I want to know the truth about something. I want to smell the smells of something. I want to read a book. Nobody deserves to burn that book.
And my father was a guy who worked — was a bombardier and a tail gunner in World War II doing low-altitude bombings over major cities in Germany, principally Berlin. And they had a seven-mission life expectancy, and his unit broke the record with thirty-seven missions. He came back with a chest full of well-deserved medals and, within five years, was told by his country that he was a communist and he couldn’t have a job in the United States. He was never bitter. He saw it as a phase. He always believed in the United States. And he was a very gentle man. In my aspiration to be a gentle man, that fails me every year, I have an additional obligation, in honoring him, to at least proactively make the attempt for gentle things to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: What was it that your father did when he came back?
SEAN PENN: Well, he had been an actor. He was gaining some success. He had a contract, was doing leads in smaller movies and had great success on the Broadway stage. And then, within a couple of months of the height of that, he was working in a plastics factory for five years. And then when he came back to acting, he couldn’t pick up the pace of what was happening, and he ended up going into television directing and providing as a great father.
AMY GOODMAN: And how did he feel about your success?
SEAN PENN: Well, they were very supportive. I mean, I grew up in a family — my mother’s an actress and a writer and a painter — where, you know, being in the arts was a good thing. It was, you know, a noble thing and all of that. And so, it was — there was a lot of support.
AMY GOODMAN: Any other words you’d like to share?
SEAN PENN: Thanks for coming.
AMY GOODMAN: Actor Sean Penn, speaking to us in Haiti. The two-time Oscar Award-winning actor now is a camp manager at a tent camp he manages in Pétionville, in Port-au-Prince. The tent camp has 55,000 Haitians made homeless by the earthquake. His organization is J/P HRO — J/P Haitian Relief Organization — dot.org. Special thanks to Nicole Salazar, Sharif Abdel Kouddous.
John A. Carroll, MD