Interview: Sean Penn on Haiti Six Months After the Earthquake and Why He Is Managing a Tent Camp of 55,000 Displaced Haitians

By Democracy Now · 16 Jul 2010

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Picture: Democracy Now
Picture: Democracy Now

Two-time Academy Award-winning actor and director Sean Penn was honored by the Haitian government 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.

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now went to visit Sean Penn’s camp 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.


AMY GOODMAN: Six months after the earthquake in Haiti, not much has changed and yet Haiti will never be the same. Up to 300,000 were killed in the disaster and more than 1.5 million were made homeless. Now, half a year later, many Haitians say they have 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 landscape. In Corail, the government’s primary relocation camp some 15 miles from Port au Prince, a storm on Monday collapsed at least 94 tents and sent hundreds of residents fleeing to find shelter.

Meanwhile, in Port au Prince, Haitian President Rene Preval hosted a medal ceremony at the crushed national palace to defend the government’s response to the quake. Bulldozers, dump trucks and 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 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 Petionville 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.

Well Sean Penn, welcome to Democracy Now!, what are you doing here in Haiti?

SEAN PENN: Well, currently we’re functioning as camp management for the Petionville club camp, what they call [inaudible]. We have 55,000 IDP population in the camp, its about 100 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, where we also function as a medical NGO and we also have a Class 3 Hospital on site. And now, we are currently beginning a project, we had done the first primary relocation, but I am careful to talk about that because there’s approximately 1.8 million displaced people, and to date there has been a total of 7,000 people relocated citywide. 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 to return to neighborhoods, making those neighborhoods functional, giving them services. Or for those camps on the outside, to become instead of considered planned camps, really be a model communities. And for hopefully businesses manufacturing, jobs to come into those areas. To go from tents into temporary shelters and 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. So, you have the devastation on top of devastation. And part of that was an already crippled health care 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 a—get a supply of morphine, and ketamine, and by the time in the embassy here, I had networked with Dr. Paul Farmer and others to find out what clinics and hospitals would use them the most productively, were most in need of them, that were doing those types of surgeries. And so we began as a 24/7 delivery crew and pickup trucks while the 7 doctors that we brought in were farmed out to existing infrastructures and bit by bit we got our legs as an NGO, and then soon after, we took over camp management here in Petionville.

AMY GOODMAN: So you come down after the earthquake because you want the people to feel a little less pain, right, but you stayed.

SEAN PENN: Yeah, Haiti kind of gets a hold of you. Also, we felt that—every good NGO is a gap filler of what another NGO is not intending to do or can’t do—. 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. As we got our legs and felt our ability to do that — and one of the things that now as we are starting to broaden out — we just started a rubble removal aspect to this, because that’s the next thing. 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 JP-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, yet hundreds of times fewer people who died. There was 300 or less, here it is 300,000.

SEAN PENN: I was in an earthquake the size of the one here in Haiti when I was a kid in Los Angeles, I think a total of 20 people died. And here between 250 and 300,000 immediate deaths and God knows how many— most of the bodies are still under the rubble today six months later. 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, 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, rubble 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. So what has changed?

SEAN PENN: That’s a question—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 is that 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 am 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—this is a very particular problem to Haiti. And the kind of alchemy of that has to be addressed very individually.

AMY GOODMAN: $11 billion promised. Where is it?

SEAN PENN: 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 and then they can participate in the profit.

But right now, the donor’s 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 gonna rebuild every school in Haiti.” Somebody else should have raised their hand and said, “I’m gonna rebuild the hospitals and we’re gonna do it right now.”

—And instead, what happened was one after another, in Port-au-Prince — the biggest city in 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.

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 responsible considerations, they have, I think, largely crippled a lot of the motion here.

AMY GOODMAN: Two-time Osacar 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 Chavez over President Obama, and we talk about other issues. This is our exclusive hour with Sean Penn.

AMY GOODMAN: We return to the interview with the two-time Academy Award winning actor and director Sean Penn sitting in his tent, as he now manages a tent camp in Petionville in Haiti that has more than 55,000 Haitian refugees.

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 what we call here 'animation-need', communication to their donors, has left out something. The American Red Cross has not been in the medical business for 50 years. And that’s not what they do. So for example you have an organization which is a kind of, I don’t think its defamatory to say, a historically parasitic organization, like the WFP which had started as an underling organization, to another that-–.

AMY GOODMAN:—WFP- World Food Program.

SEAN PENN:—World Food Program. 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 of all that first food that came in on the C-140s. That was necessary at that time, and in that way. But while that was happening, those dollars were being spent, and the imaginations of their donors largely, there were doctors going around camps taking care of people and bringing in the primary medicines necessary for that, and than 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, its just to extend the torture, to create the infections 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 are very strongly getting on their feet here. It’s been a complicated problem,—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 from my personal experience that their direct action has accelerated enormously in the last month alone. And so I will 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, we were at Corail, a camp where thousands of people came, from here. Many of them are not very happy. Here they are in this land near Titanyen, where bodies were dropped in previous times like during the coup period. Its very flat, when the sun comes down, it bakes them on these white stones. The beds are like a quarter inch padding, and the stones rip their backs. 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 mudslides, which was the first designation for emergency relocations. So what we did is, we were given a clear assistance package not to encourage per say, but to offer. And what I’ll say to this day, as that as a father of two—and it is not for me as an American father to make this determination mother or father, but I can say that this comes, the perspective I’ll offer comes from this, today if I had the choice of 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, on this camp here and the whole thing goes. There all connected tents, its over-compressed, disease spreads, its going to spread tent to tent, they share walls, its in the middle of the city prone to potential social uprising. It’s only increasing that we’re able to build security corridors in this camp here. Its a spontaneous camp, its an ad hoc camp, its a dangerous place. And this is now one of the least dangerous places among the dangerous places. And we haven’t had quite the level of gang problems, we h

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