Sean Penn says he's in Haiti for the long haul

By Trenton Daniel

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, April 21 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

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?'"

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