Sean Penn Responds to Rolling Stone’s Haiti Story

Page 5 of 5

So here we are, in September 2011, standing by as the democratically elected president of Haiti and his people suffer the sabotage techniques of members of a parliament that have blocked from them, the installment of two prime ministers in succession (a third, Garry Conille, awaits Senate confirmation), thereby stalling the selection and rebuilding of the very ministers and ministries through which all redevelopment projects should rightly be administrated. Many of these rogue members of parliament (principally representatives of the former president’s Inite party) with corruption scandals knocking on their own doors are glued together by the threat tactics of a former Fanmi Lavalas party president, whose untimely return was principally facilitated and encouraged by forces outside of Haiti. They are demagogues, whose ideological aims indulge romantic reparations over tangible repair, and so vilify the families of the bourgeoisie that the human construct of progress has been reduced to a protectionist pissing contest, where fair-minded and inventive people, open to truth and reconciliation, may otherwise be coming to compromise for the greater good – distribution of land, manufacturing, import, export, agriculture and a potential boon for green technologies, from which all could share the benefit of the prize. Haiti.

Where to begin? In the areas of operation where J/P HRO have ongoing programs, I am known to the population not as a film actor, not as a warm and fuzzy humanitarian, but as a blan (that foreign guy who’s the boss of the organization working with them in their camps and their neighborhoods). I am also known, to those I am known, as a potential employer. As many as 100 people in the course of any given day will approach or call out to me, “Hey, blan!” What follows is almost never a request for money, for a handout, as would be otherwise typical in a developing country. In Haiti, what is wanted is a job.

When Reitman concludes arbitrarily that the plans of development funneled through co-chair President Clinton and the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) and former and sitting prime minister and IHRC co-chair Jean Max Bellerive’s Action Plan for National Recovery and Development are doomed, “Haitians . . . know from bitter experience that the business-friendly model of development, currently being touted as their salvation, has repeatedly failed them.” My question is, which Haitians is she referring to? Those I encounter each day are part of the population that averaged one or two dollars a day in wages before the earthquake swallowed even that. There is an initial focus on hotels and the apparel industry (see the impact of the apparel industry in Indonesia, where percentages of those below the poverty line dropped from 60 percent to 20 percent, and in Vietnam, from 64 percent to 13 percent in a single decade), and a minimum wage now set at $5 per day, the development of a northern industrial park (not to be confused with the earlier mentioned industrial park plans hoped for at Corail) projecting 20,000 jobs, training and upward mobility as the baby steps of investment, into a more holistic plan encouraging decentralization, robust agricultural expansion and new oversights on labor regulation, and freedom of labor organization.

I ask Ms. Reitman: Which Haitians are, to date, so invested in the “bitter” experience of the past? When Ms. Reitman focuses through a lens of luxury leftism, through quotations discrediting current strategies and staffs of President Clinton, or the development experience of Cheryl Mills (two of the most proactive forces in Haiti’s, perhaps, best chance), what becomes obscured is that the billions of dollars currently stuck in bottleneck would likely have never existed without their most significant advocacy. (The same can be said for the emergency relief donations made to the American Red Cross, a monolithic but still very necessary institution.) Recently, Roland Van Hauwermeiren, Haiti country director for Oxfam, Great Britain, “voluntarily” stepped down from his post, following allegations not of his own misconduct but of staff misconduct under his charge. It is unclear whether he had knowledge of the misconduct in this situation, but from the outside Hauwermeiren was a rare beast indeed. Rare, in that few country directors in Haiti brought as much ethically philosophical leadership skill sets and experience to the table of relief, despite working for a large bureaucratic organization. It is a loss, I’m quite sure, due largely to Oxfam’s recognition of the current state of intolerant scrutiny by a biased and uninformed media covering, and largely NOT covering, Haiti. And, fairly, to Oxfam’s generally high standards of internal investigation and scrutiny. Clinton and Mills are two of the sharpest knives in Haiti’s kitchen drawer of international support, and the only thing more “bitter” than the “past” for Haitians would be to be beckoned for the cooking of this feast of reconstruction, only to find those two essential knives stolen or dulled by a reckless media, as I’m sure was the case for one of the best country directors in Haiti, Roland Hauwermeiren.

Suspicion and cynicism toward U.S. policy in Haiti have shameful historic validity, but it is a new day. It is time for the Haitian people and their new president to have their voices heard and their needs met. So much white noise of corruption, both real and imagined, so much suspicion, and conspiracy. One of the best and most passionate minds on the American assistance to Haiti, President Clinton, who is also the United Nations special envoy to Haiti, is, due to all this white noise, an asset to the new Haitian president, and yet, for them to walk together is to walk on eggshells simply to avoid the stigma of American interventionism. Clinton was right. Haiti can recover, and more quickly than one would ever imagine. But this will take an intrepid juggling of patience and decisiveness, coordination and collaboration. There will, in the best of circumstances, be stumbles and bumbles. The fucking situation’s a mess. But as long as we understand that some additional fish must be provided if we are to assist in improving fishing skills, and if we continue to have faith in human beings to make incredible things happen, and that Haitians themselves, as I and so many others in the field assert, are on the highest rung of that potential, acting now can be the difference between going the distance and further disaster.

But in all of this, I am reminded of Philip Roth’s description of the Clinton White House while under the partisan attack during a personal scandal gone public. Roth imagined the artist Cristo wrapping the White House in fabric, a scrawl of graffiti across it stating, “A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE.” Well, 9 million human beings live in Haiti. They need our support. Rolling Stone readers and Rolling Stone magazine, they need your support and dollars. Donations to underfunded organizations that I can unflinchingly recommend can be made to: J/P HRO, PIH, CHF, UNOPS, IsraAID, Architecture for Humanity, IOM, IMC, PRODEV and Project Medishare. But even more importantly, governance is the key. For all the children of Haiti, we must call upon maverick and socially responsible businesses to walk hand in hand with the people’s chosen president, Michel Martelly, now. And as for Jean PAUL Aristide? Who is that?

The editors reply:

We greatly respect the work Sean Penn is doing in Haiti, and the daunting scale of the task facing all those engaged in the effort to rebuild the country. His accusations of distortions and inaccuracies in our article, however, are misplaced. The writer, Janet Reitman, first reported from Haiti in 1994. Her story on the shortcomings of the current reconstruction efforts were based on nine months of intensive reporting and research, including on-the-ground visits to Haiti, Miami, New York City and Washington, D.C. Penn’s own experiences, as reported in the piece, accurately reflect what he told both Reitman and our factchecker.

It is a well-established journalistic practice to grant anonymity to informed sources who are in a position to suffer retribution for speaking out against those in positions of power. Penn’s “near empirical certainty” about the identity of one of our sources is completely unfounded. In addition, every anonymous quote used in the story was echoed by multiple sources with first-hand knowledge of the effort to rebuild Haiti.

Penn is correct in noting that we got Jean Bertrand Aristide’s middle name wrong in the third of three references we made to him in the piece. We regret the error, and have corrected it in the online version of the story.


Beyond Relief: How the World Failed Haiti by Janet Reitman

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