Actor-activist Sean Penn, Part 1

Originally aired on January 19, 2012

The Oscar-winning actor and tireless human rights advocate—recently named ambassador-at-large of Haiti—offers his take on Haitian political leaders and discusses the crippling poverty that existed in the country before 2010’s devastating earthquake.

Sean Penn is one of Hollywood's most versatile actors. Disappearing into his roles, he's given memorable performances in such films as I Am Sam, Dead Man Walking, Mystic River and Milk and won two Academy Awards. The son of two actors, the California native became interested in the "family business" in his teens and has also directed features and music videos. Penn is known for being a politically outspoken activist, as well as a passionate humanitarian. He was very active in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and, after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, co-founded the J/P Haitian Relief Organization.


Tavis: So tonight marks the first show from our new studios here in Los Angeles as we continue the first week of our ninth season here on PBS. I can’t think of a better way to inaugurate this new set tonight than a conversation with Sean Penn.

The Oscar winner is of course a tireless human rights advocate who has spent much of his time over the past two years on the situation in Haiti. He is now an ambassador at large to Haiti, given that distinction over the weekend by Haiti’s foreign minister.

The organization he founded in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake is called J/P Haitian Relief Organization, and so here now a quick look at some of their wonderful humanitarian work.

[Video clip of relief work done by J/P Haitian Relief Organization]

Tavis: It seems so late in the year, but Happy New Year.

Sean Penn: Happy new year to you.

Tavis: Good to have you back on this program.

Penn: Very good to be here.

Tavis: Thank you for being our first guest in our new digs.

Penn: It’s good to be here.

Tavis: Glad to have you. Let me start by congratulating you on the weekend. Heard you guys raised a good amount of money for your work in Haiti, and I must be honest with you, I was surprised when I heard the figure. Not because you haven’t done good work, but that figure kind of belies the fact that people, to my mind at least, have Haiti fatigue, and yet you raised millions of dollars last weekend for your work.

Penn: Yeah. We had a wonderful organization, Cinema for Peace, had come to us with the notion of putting together the fundraiser, and the people that worked on it, the people that hosted on behalf of it, they did an extraordinary job putting together people, and it turned out there was a lot more goodwill to be tapped.

Sometimes I think it’s just refocusing people on an issue, and Haiti is such an important one, and such an important one to the United States that I think that once people got into that room, something very powerful happened. We were surprised, though. It was something else.

Tavis: How do you refocus people, to your point, Sean, on an issue like Haiti, still ongoing, of course, the troubles and the travails and the aftermath of the earthquake? But how do you refocus people on something two years later, particularly now as Americans are enduring the kind of poverty that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression?

Penn: Well obviously the media plays a very big part in this. One of the great supporters that we had at the event, Oprah Winfrey, who’s got some coverage going on on her new show on the 29th of this month and on the first of next month, she also was I think a very inspirational force in a video tape she provided us at that fundraiser.

But then you have to show what the work is. You’ve got to show the connection between the interests of the United States, the humanitarian interest, and the accomplishments that can be made. I think that that’s one of the things that separates our organization from many others, not from all. We have some very good partners.

But it’s that we’re able to show that there is a dynamic use and a sustainable use of the monies that come in, that we have a capacity to make that money work very quickly and very effectively in-country, in Haiti, and that Haiti itself is starting to merge with the works that certainly there’s the foreign involvement in support of Haiti, and then of course like any place that ultimately will work, governance is key.

Haiti, in the middle of this devastating period of time, were able to take on a kind of status quo political system and put forward President Martelly, who was really – for us that were there on the ground it was really clear that this was the candidate that they were looking to have be the president, and I think that there was an enormous morale boost when they were – and in a kind of historical way able to challenge the status quo, “they” being the people of Haiti, and kind of demand that this candidate come forward.

So now we have the benefit of a very decisive leadership. It’s a difficult one. It’s difficult because their constitution is dictatorship reactionary from the Duvalier years, and so so much of the power is in a parliament that is also adjusting to, I think, a new world dynamic.

But we see great strides happening now, and so as I’ve said when I talk to, and we showed example of the kind of work we do at the fundraiser, this is kind of that pivotal moment where the support that the government gives its people and the support that we give the government and the people, they need the financial backup.

Some of the funds that have already been appropriated are very slow-moving. Bureaucracies are bureaucracies. So to show some – where the people themselves in Haiti can see the visual. I think another thing that’s often overlooked is that especially when there’s been criticism about how slow some of the things have gone in reacting to the earthquake is that the real problem wasn’t the earthquake, it was poverty itself, and that this is a poverty earthquake.

So now what’s happening is what the earthquake did is really traumatize the people, and we even see in New Orleans, where very few, if any, public buildings have been reconstructed since Katrina, that in the best of circumstances, meaning in a country that is an economic super power, these things can be difficult.

It wasn’t really until the people of New Orleans had kind of gotten over the trauma that they were able to take their own lead and start to make things change and happen. That’s the case now in Haiti, and I think we’re seeing an awful lot of momentum as a result.

Tavis: Three or four things you’ve said now that I want to go back and pick up on, if I can, in no particular order. Number one, since you mentioned President Martelly, to your mind, how did the controversy surrounding that election – and not even just controversy, but the fact that the country had to take a moment away from the rebuilding efforts, away from the revitalization efforts, to focus on who the next leader of the country was going to be.

Of course, that election was held against the backdrop of the aftermath of the earthquake. So to what extent did that break to focus on the presidential elections impact the humanitarian work being done in the country?

Penn: Well, in the short term I would say of course it did impact it, and it wasn’t only the elections themselves but it was the fact that we had the sudden spike in a newly introduced strain of cholera.

Tavis: Oh yeah, the cholera outbreak, yeah sure.

Penn: That happened at the same time. So there were a lot of issues that became during the election period security issues, but really they were – it was all – the election was a necessary part of the recovery effort, because, for example, President Preval, who in fact historically had been probably Haiti’s most successful president and democratically-elected president prior to the earthquake, was a lame duck candidate when the earthquake happened.

So when you have project initiatives and multimillions of dollars on the line, it’s very difficult for donors to put money forward on programs that may not be continued once a new administration comes in.

So I think that Haiti understood and I think the world community understood that despite everything, it was necessary to get on with that, and also for a sense of normalcy and the empowerment of the Haitian people and forward motion for the government.

In the short run, it was difficult. There were a lot of concerns about social unrest. There were pockets of minimum violence, but mostly what you found was an incredible amount of civil protest. We had about 250,000 people in the streets of Port au Prince supporting President Martelly initially right after the election, the first election, which was controversial, and ultimately contested and led to his being included in the two for the runoff, but initially he was third, and the streets rose up.

In some of the regions that had historically been the kind of – it triggered some violence, there were some incidents, and it did slow down some of our efforts on cholera. It was one of the reasons that my organization had pre-equipped with helicopters, to be able to continue the movement of supplies for cholera into the remote areas while the streets maybe have burning tire roadblocks and problems and make it impossible for doctors and others to move supplies and personnel.

But it was the right thing for Haiti. It had to happen, and the Organization of American States came in and did a look-over on the initial election and the gaps and problems in that, and was able to ultimately influence what I think was the legitimate inclusion of candidate Martelly, who then became President Martelly.

Tavis: Since you raised the issue of security, did you then or have you at any point in time, given all the trips you’ve made to Haiti and all the time you spend there, a disproportionate amount of your time now spent in Haiti, have you or do you ever feel your own personal security threatened?

Penn: Not at all. It’s an extraordinarily civil place when you consider the desperation that comes in any place in this kind of poverty. I can think of American cities where people might be in – much more compromised this way.

One of the things you don’t have in Haiti is you don’t have anybody on crack doing something completely out of – that’s unpredictable. Even at the worst times in Haiti, the violence that had happened, the lack of security that happened, was largely predictable because it was politically tied.

You have a largely unified populace now. They are beginning to see movements forward. Haiti, like anyplace, has its security problems; it has a great challenge in terms of establishing a kind of globally acceptable rule of law. The president has spoken about this. But no, as a foreign worker in Haiti, speaking for myself, speaking for the workers, our organization is about 95 percent Haitian, but even foreign workers driving through, we have had very minimal security issues.

It’s a place that can be visited, if only there were enough hotel rooms built for people to stay.

Tavis: The other thing that you mentioned, Sean, that I want to get back to before we move forward, you mentioned the Duvalier regime back in the day. We all know, of course, Baby Doc is back in the country. I don’t want to put Aristide and Duvalier in the same sentence; they’ve both gone back to Haiti, but let me take them one at a time.

Since you mentioned Duvalier first, what does it mean, has it meant, politically, socially, economically, culturally, to have Baby Doc, who was a dictator in that country, back in the country now?

Penn: I want to give a little context to that.

Tavis: Okay.

Penn: Because I’ve met both Aristide and Duvalier, and certainly worked side-by-side with both presidents, Martelly and Preval. Haiti is, just mathematically speaking, when you have nine million people occupying an entire country, really, from an American point of view, you could look at it as a city. It’s a small town where there are still deep loyalties throughout a lot of schools of thought, and from various epochs of the leadership in Haiti.

So I think President Martelly’s been extremely not only shrewd but I think just practical, in that he – there is a kind of sense of truth and reconciliation that is non-formalized, but it’s understood and accepted. Haitians are Haitians and there is an inherent loyalty that forgives an awful lot.

Tavis: Even Baby Doc Duvalier?

Penn: I met Baby Doc Duvalier, former dictator Duvalier, in a restaurant I think a week ago for the first time. He was unaccosted by people in the restaurant; he was permitted to have a civil dinner. It’s an extraordinary thing, because you’re looking at someone who is connected to, in the case – I have staff members who lost family members during that regime.

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. As for a political threat, I think it’s very understood that Duvalier represents none.

Tavis: Zero?

Penn: That is my opinion.

Tavis: Okay. So Martelly need not worry about Duvalier. We’ll come to Aristide in a second. To your mind, though, he need not worry about a political renaissance of Duvalier.

Penn: No, I don’t think so.

Tavis: Okay. Before I go to Aristide, because you’ve hit on something that’s fascinating for me now, and I take your point that we have no business sticking our nose into their affairs. We’ve done that too many times, as you well know, and sometimes sticking our nose in the wrong places, which is another conversation for another time.

But what is it to your mind about the Haitian people that allow them to be so peaceful, as it were, toward this man – use your word, unaccosted was he at this restaurant. We’ve heard no stories, I’ve heard no stories coming out of Haiti about him being accosted in the streets.

So what is it to your mind about the people that allow them to accept his return? Is it because they just are that forgiving a people? Is it that they’ve got other things on their mind? Is it that let bygone be bygone? Is it this notion of truth and reconciliation that you referenced earlier? What’s your sense of how they, like, see this guy walking down the street, given all that he did, including killing people, and just let it pass?

Penn: I would put it this way. I’ll use an American context.

Tavis: Okay.

Penn: I think that we could make – and I don’t mean to by any means make the comparison of human rights abuses or killings, though there’s an aspect of that historically here. What is it in Black America that will so easily accept the violations of Don King towards those that he represented throughout their boxing careers?

The exploitation of so many young men, fighters? Yet he’s able to function on this extremely high level, be totally socially acceptable throughout the – well, it’s because there is a kind of understanding that there’s been a history of such oppression from those that have – that he also becomes, I gather, quite an example of saying to white America or to prejudiced America, hey, we can run a show, too.

If some of the people he himself is involved with fall as a result of his rise, for others there’s an example that the rise can be there. I think that whenever you have, and it’s particularly when you have a focused oppression, as it has been in Haiti, that between that, between the symbol of leadership that still rises many Haitians up, whether you’re talking about Aristide, Preval, Duvalier, Martelly, that people who have lived on $1 to $2 a day still see a symbol of power that they aspire to be a part of in some way.

On the other hand, the part of it that’s less acceptable in the long term is that there are many people who are involved in government today who are deeply invested with any of these candidates, any of these former leaders that you talk about, and the accountability of that leader would be the accountability of them.

So where President Martelly I think is, as I said before, has been very smart about this, it’s that all of the emphasis now is going to have to be moving forward. Haiti is not a country that can afford to do the kind of righteous accountability that maybe we have a high responsibility to in our own government, and one that we very rarely fulfill.

We see what happened on Wall Street, we see what happened with Richard Nixon, with the pardons and so on. It’s finally not that different, but it is much more tangible and contained. I think that one of the big challenges going forward is going to be – and it’s why this government needs to be empowered, because it has its hands full in terms of establishing a rule of law that’s going to be equal for all parties.

Right now, I don’t think – I think there’s immeasurable inequality, both when you’re dealing with the protection of former political leaderships as well as the way that it’s kind of an entirely broken system for the poor.

Tavis: I’m tempted to dig a little deeper on your Don King metaphor. I won’t because I’ve got other stuff I want to cover in the few minutes I have left tonight, and then of course we’ve got you back here for part two of this conversation tomorrow night, thankfully, and I appreciate you giving us so much time.

I want to move from Baby Doc to Aristide, and of course the major distinction is one’s a dictator, the other is democratically elected, and yet both of them get run out of the country.

With regard to Aristide, depending on where one comes down, he’s run out by the Haitian people or he’s run out and escorted out by the U.S. government, and we can have that conversation at another time as well.

In either event, in either case, Aristide ends up being in South Africa for years; he goes back to Haiti now. So unlike America, we have ex-presidents who live in this country, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter come to mind rather immediately, and we’re used to that. You serve your term; you go on back to private life.

In this case, in Haiti, both of these ex-presidents were run out, both of them are now back in the country. So you said that Baby Doc poses no threat politically, you believe, but –

Penn: Well, I would say that he, for example, as a president candidate, does not pose a threat.

Tavis: Candidate, got it, fair enough, and I took that that was what you meant.

Penn: Right.

Tavis: All right. Aristide, though, same question – does Aristide, who was, in fact, democratically elected a couple times, does Aristide pose a political threat to President Martelly?

Penn: Well, I would like to believe, and I know that President Martelly has made this effort, is that ultimately, former President Aristide will have a productive contribution to make outside of politics.

Tavis: Okay.

Penn: I think that he’s a highly intelligent man.

Tavis: Former priest.

Penn: A former priest and educator. He is very, very currently invested in the single – in one of now I think only two campus universities in the country, and that’s related to the training of medical personnel. There’s a partnership there in terms of the hospital, the partners in health is built in (unintelligible) where they are offering residencies to those students.

I think that there’s no question but that Aristide can provide an important contribution. As in any country – in American terms, someone who was gone only that very few years ago, we would still probably remember. They would have a larger presence in our conscience, in the conscience of the youth, who are really running the campaigns around the world today.

In Haiti, he’s a little bit history. That does not mean that he doesn’t have an influence. He has an influence. He still has, I think that the Lavalas Party still has a strong influence in Haiti, a particularly strong influence in Haiti.

But again, one of the reasons that – and it’s not just me saying this. I think that the United States government also feels that Martelly has very quickly – I can say that both Presidents Preval and Aristide spoke very highly of the quick learning that President Martelly is doing.

What I think that if in an ideal world, and this is really for me to defer to leadership, to President Martelly and his administrators, but I do think that there is a place for Aristide’s investment.

On the other hand, more than that. President Preval, who you brought up the model of Jimmy Carter, for example. This is somebody who could be an extraordinary elder statesman, particularly because his greatest area of expertise is in what has been the most neglected sector in Haitian economy, which is the peasant sector and agriculture.

He’s not only expert in it, he’s quite passionate in it, and I think it’s quite clear to people that he doesn’t have future political aspirations. I very much hope that President Martelly will continue his solicitation of counsel from Preval in this area.

Tavis: I’m going to end this conversation now, but there’s so much more I want to talk to you about tomorrow night. How about a tease? I want to talk about Bill Clinton, since we raised him earlier. He was the guy in charge of raising so much money for Haiti. I want to know from Sean Penn whether or not that money ever arrived in Haiti, did the people ever see the money, and if so, what’s being done with it?

I want to talk more about the work specifically that you are doing, and where you think you’re making the greatest progress inside of Haiti, and thankfully for those of us who are Sean Penn fans, Sean Penn actor fans, there is some more Hollywood work to come out of this guy. It’s not all about Haiti, although that’s great work to be doing. There’s more to come from him in terms of his directing and acting, so we’ll talk more about all of that and then some tomorrow night with Sean Penn. You promise to come back tomorrow night?

Penn: You bet.

Tavis: All right. I’ll see you tomorrow night. (Laughter)

Penn: Thank you.

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Last modified: February 10, 2012 at 7:15 pm