PORT-AU-PRINCE (AP) — 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 that killed hundreds of thousands, left many more homeless and devastated the country and left and he has become a major figure in the rebuilding effort.
“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 — 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 was slated to be honored for his work in Haiti on 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.’”
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 Duvalier 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?’”
Photo:AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa
SEAN PENN: The U.S. actor delivers a speech during a special ceremony at the national palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, Jan. 31. Penn has been named ambassador at large for Haiti in recognition of his humanitarian work since the 2010 earthquake.