December 6, 2013 12:06 pm

Sean Penn on rebuilding Haiti

The actor spent a year in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake hit. Now he’s asking Silicon Valley to help
Sean Penn helping out at a makeshift camp in Haiti, April 10 2010©Getty

Sean Penn helping out at a makeshift camp in Haiti, April 10 2010

The lobby of The Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel is a quiet spot where well-heeled locals or out-of-towners can take tea, while being serenaded by an in-house harpist. It is almost empty when I arrive late in the afternoon but the calm is soon disturbed when a group of stocky men in suits – some wearing earpieces and flag lapel badges that identify them as members of the secret service – march through the lobby and fan out, taking positions around the room.

One approaches me and puts his hand on my chest, telling me firmly to keep back, as Laurent Lamothe, the prime minister of Haiti since May 2012, walks briskly by, ear glued to what looks like a portable satellite phone. I am here to see Lamothe, who is in California with actor Sean Penn to bang the drum in Silicon Valley for investment. Minutes later I am introduced to them both in the “presidential villa” at the back of the hotel and, with the secret service agents eying us warily from the doorway, we sit down to talk.

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They are an unlikely double act. Lamothe, the son of a painter and an expert in Spanish literature, is a former entrepreneur who founded a telecoms company before moving into Haitian politics; Penn, a two-time Oscar-winner, is often hailed as the natural heir to Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando for the grittiness of his performances and onscreen toughness (which is often reflected in his behaviour off it, particularly in his encounters with intrusive paparazzi). He and Lamothe would never have crossed paths were it not for the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed a quarter of a million people, injured 300,000 and left 1.5 million homeless.

While plenty of Hollywood stars burnish their reputations with charitable giving, their input often doesn’t extend much beyond hosting fundraisers and Beverly Hills black-tie dinners. Penn’s involvement in Haiti is quite different. Within days of the disaster he was in the country forming an aid group, J/P HRO, which would take a lead role in the relief effort. He had never been to the country before the 7.0 magnitude quake but says he was appalled by the scale of suffering.

Laurent Lamothe, the prime minister of Haiti, and Sean Penn at The Peninsula Beverly Hills, November 2013©Amanda Friedman

Laurent Lamothe, the prime minister of Haiti, and Sean Penn at The Peninsula Beverly Hills, November 2013

“I watched these horrifying reports about traumatic injuries in Haiti that required amputations but there was no access to pain medication,” he says, staring at me intently as he speaks, his pencil-thin moustache giving him the look of a craggier-faced Clark Gable. Penn knew something about the importance of intravenous medicine: his son had just recovered from a serious head injury incurred in a skateboarding accident and had been given morphine to ease the pain.

Recently divorced from the actress Robin Wright, Penn also had time on his hands. “I had single-parented my son for eight months and then he went to live with his mother,” he explains. “I’d cleared my decks professionally, so I put a group together to transport the pain medications that they needed . . . We were going to stay [in Haiti] for approximately two weeks. And then it bit us.” He stayed for a year. “I can’t tell you the number of times that first year I’d look through the top of my tent and think: well, how did I get here?”

In the years since the earthquake, the group has expanded from 15 people to 350. As manager of the Pétionville and Cité Maxo “displaced persons” camps, J/P HRO was responsible for 60,000 people, helping with everything from emergency medical treatment, vaccinations, rubble removal and home relocation. “Sean is improving the living conditions of thousands of Haitians on a daily basis,” says Lamothe. “Fifty per cent of the population of Port-au-Prince was basically homeless. Sean was in a camp that had over 60,000 people . . . today there are less than 2,000. The only thing they had left was one ray of hope that things would get better, that somebody would help them or save them. This is what Sean has done – and like no one else has. We could not have asked for a better friend of Haiti.”

An aide has come into the room and is whispering in Lamothe’s ear: he excuses himself to make a phone call. Penn immediately jumps up. “I might take this opportunity to smoke a cigarette,” he whispers, moving swiftly towards a set of patio doors. I had read that he had given up. “Not this week,” he grins. But before he can open the door, Lamothe has returned; it turns out he is not needed after all. Penn’s cigarette will have to wait.

Lamothe wants to turn Haiti into a technology centre as the country rebuilds. ‘And what better place to go than Silicon Valley?’

Once we are seated again I ask Lamothe about the trip to Silicon Valley and wonder what Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, could gain from the world’s technology hub. Haiti has a two-pronged strategy, he says: to co-ordinate better the international assistance given since the earthquake and to bolster domestic revenues “so we don’t have to live on handouts for ever”.

He mentions Apple, which has sales of $170bn a year – almost 25 times Haiti’s gross domestic product. “In order to create jobs, you must have investors and companies that are willing to do so. And what better place to go than Silicon Valley? If just one of those CEOs gives Haiti a chance, it will make a huge difference.” He wants to turn Haiti into a technology centre as the country rebuilds; thus Apple is helping Haiti’s digital education plan by delivering books online and providing iPads to students, Facebook is working to give more people access to the internet and Google is providing free apps for three years.

While he talks, I am reminded of Bill Gates’ recent interview for this magazine. The Microsoft founder said internet connectivity in poor countries should be a secondary consideration behind clean water provision and child nutrition – a position that puts him at odds with internet evangelists like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. I put this to Penn and Lamothe: shouldn’t Haiti focus on eradicating poverty before courting Silicon Valley?

“There has to be a hybrid strategy,” says Lamothe. “We are providing water projects – but at the same time we are equipping the schools with computers and giving laptops to university students. We believe we can bridge technology with [social] development . . . and expose people to better information and the ways and means of getting out of situations that often looked hopeless.” Penn agrees: services and technology provision should go hand in hand, he says. Plus, technology has helped his organisation provide basic and essential services. “As a practitioner of this stuff . . . one of the first things we did in Haiti was GPS identification of properties that had to be retrofitted. You’re constantly blending technology with the work that you’re doing.”

Penn’s foray into relief assistance and international development has put him on a pretty unusual career trajectory for a Hollywood actor. An outspoken critic of US foreign policy, he was a fierce opponent of the war in Iraq; in 2002 he bought a full-page ad in The Washington Post criticising George W Bush and later told a peace rally that the then president should “take his blood-soaked underwear . . . and shove it”.

He made headlines with trips to Iran and Iraq as well as frequent visits to Venezuela, where he met the late Hugo Chávez. He also travelled to Cuba, where he met Fidel Castro and landed the first western newspaper interview with Rául Castro. His views on Venezuela and description of Britain’s claim to the Falkland Islands as “ludicrous, archaic and colonialist” has made him a lightning rod for the right, particularly on cable news channels and conservative websites.

To the degree I’m needed in Haiti, I’m going to put it first . . . A rank amateur in a terrible disaster can get a lot done

- Sean Penn

He shrugs this off. “They don’t know anything. They’re just blathering to make money.” Then, in a reference to the US media’s characterisation of the administration in Venezuela, he adds: “If we’re demonising somebody who is smaller than us, there might be another context. Whether there’s something wrong or not, there’s certainly another context. And I got interested in that.”

His father, Leo, the son of Spanish-Lithuanian immigrants, was also an actor. He supported trade unions in Hollywood, a stance that saw him hauled in for questioning by Joseph McCarthy’s notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities. Penn senior refused to name names and was subsequently barred from working in movies. In a recent piece for The Hollywood Reporter, Penn said his father had been blacklisted by “chicken hawks (among them Ronald Reagan)”. I wonder whether he inherited his passion and ideological leanings from his father. He replies with a question: “Do I want my mother and father to be proud of me? Yeah, sure I do. I don’t think that I’m shaming them.”

The Haitian relief effort has brought together countries that Penn already had a connection with: Lamothe says that Cuba and Venezuela have both given significant amounts of aid and are quietly working alongside the US. “Haiti is a place where everyone gets together, even countries that may not have the best bilateral relations,” he says. “They get together in Haiti, for Haiti.”

Penn recalls Chávez telling him that Venezuela had a “sacred obligation to Haiti” extending back to the 19th-century Bolivarian revolution which Haiti supported, helping to liberate Venezuela from Spanish colonial rule. But the Haiti earthquake, Penn says, is non-political. “This is basically: your neighbour’s house fell down and you show up and there’s a lot of work to do.”

Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, two days after the earthquake hit on January 10 2010©Getty

Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, two days after the earthquake hit on January 10 2010

What about the stark contrasts between his life in Hollywood and Haiti? In Haiti he lived in a tent and was surrounded by destruction and the smell of death – “the scent of the human tragedy was thick in the air”, as he puts it. Have these experiences highlighted the triviality of his home town? “You start appreciating the good stuff,” he admits, in a reference to his trips back to the US from Haiti. “But movies can be really important to people. I don’t think of that as a small thing. I think people who [make movies] and do it in a serious way are warriors, you know?”

Both Lamothe and Penn stress that Haiti is on the road to recovery. “One of the things we are constantly up against is the perception that it’s a hopeless situation [but] it’s one of the most hopeful situations,” says Penn. Lamothe says the country is a hive of activity – a “huge construction site” – and rattles off a list of big infrastructure projects: “Three hundred kilometres of road are being built, seven hospitals, 46 health centres, five airports, a brand new tourist destination, 10 hurricane shelters and high, elevated roads . . . what do you call them?” “Overpasses,” says Penn.

Listening to Penn discuss disaster relief it is easy to forget that he has a day job. From his performance as high-school stoner Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which put him on the map, to standout roles in Mystic River and Milk (the two films for which he won his Academy Awards), his career in Hollywood continues to flourish: this Christmas he appears in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, alongside Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig.

He has endured consistent tabloid interest in his personal life since his first marriage, to Madonna, which ended in divorce 24 years ago. The two have remained close: last month she and her son, Rocco, visited the J/P HRO camp in Haiti.

Penn’s responses to tabloid intrusion have sometimes landed him in trouble. In 1987 he served part of a short jail sentence for punching a movie extra, in 2010 a judge sent him to anger management classes after a fracas with a photographer, and just last month he was filmed by the celebrity channel TMZ clashing with someone trying to photograph him with a cell phone. And yet, the Penn of 2013 is much changed from the 1987 vintage, partly because his acting career now sits side by side with his humanitarian efforts and official responsibilities in Haiti. It is, he says, “a dynamic shift of world”.

Last year he was made ambassador at large for Haiti and appointed as a special adviser to Lamothe; his work in the country has also earned him an International Humanitarian Service Award from the American Red Cross. “I blur the lines between what my two jobs are,” he says. “To the degree I’m needed in Haiti, I’m going to put it first. You know, a rank amateur in a terrible disaster can get a lot done.” For Hollywood’s biggest activist, some things are more important than movies.

Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s Los Angeles correspondent. To comment on this article, email magazineletters@ft.com

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