Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Wyclef Jean’s presidential bid

By Pooja Bhatia, The Nation

The rapper Wyclef Jean had long claimed he had no interest in becoming the president of Haiti. However, the recent announcement of his intention to seek office has worrying implications for the very foundations of the beleaguered nation’s political life.

When I visited Gonaïves in September 2008, I thought I had seen the worst that could happen in Haiti. Three tropical storms in as many weeks had rerouted rivers, forged new ones, turned almost 100,000 residents out of ruined homes, and washed people, cars, and livestock out of their yards. Gonaïves was a dump to begin with; now it was a city under water, a proto-Atlantis. Two weeks later murky water still reached some rooftops. Children waded in it, chest-high, women washed clothes in it, and everyone carried their possessions on their heads. It was too much to take in.

But Haiti has a habit of demolishing your certainty, your belief in the natural order of things, the sense that you might predict how life will turn out. Now, of course, the disaster in Gonaïves looks tame. At least 200,000 people died in the January 12 earthquake, half the population of Port-au-Prince still lives in tents, and there is no plan for getting them out. Seven months later, an untold number of bodies rot under the rubble.

And that’s not all: the Haitian-born hip-hop star Wyclef Jean could be the nation’s next president.

I had gone to Gonaïves as part of a UN junket with him and the American actor Matt Damon. As they descended from their helicopter, South American peacekeepers swarmed around Damon, demanding autographs and photographs, and mostly ignored Jean. This balance shifted when our convoy reached a public plaza. Jean and Damon mounted the stage in front of thousands of newly dispossessed, muddy-legged citizens, who were befuddled by Damon and cheered for Jean.

He spoke of solidarity and faith. He told the crowd he loved them and swore never to abandon them. He apologised for his poor command of the language, which he called the most beautiful in the world: “My Kreyol’s not good, my Kreyol’s heavy, I know,” but said he loved speaking it. And later, as he prepared to leave the stage and resume his city tour, he said: “And for everyone who can hear this, listen, I want to tell you something: Wyclef Jean does not want to be the president of Haiti. Wyclef Jean will never be president of Haiti. No, Wyclef Jean is an advocate for Haiti!”

The crowd roared. Teenagers hoisted him on their shoulders and walked him through the mud to the military vehicle that waited for him. Jean seemed beloved, and justly so.

However, on Thursday August 5 Jean submitted papers to run for the presidency. It is not because of this earlier disavowal of interest that Jean’s candidacy is surprising to me. I know better; besides the rumours had been whispered for months, even years. Some time in July, a well-connected Haitian official told me that Jean would run for office – straight-up, with no equivocation. I dismissed the very notion.

Jean, after all, was farcically unqualified. He couldn’t speak one of Haiti’s official languages, French, and, as I had seen, bumbled through the other. Sometimes, it seemed, he could barely speak English. Friends who had worked with Jean’s NGO, Yele Haiti, had grumbled about its sloppiness and superficiality for years before the quake; afterwards, Yele Haiti came under fire for filing its tax forms years late and making shady payments to Jean and his cousin. The New York press conference he called to defend himself showed a much different man than the one I’d seen in Gonaïves, one that almost bragged about carrying dead girls from the rubble. In an interview in the Miami Herald last week, Jean parried a reporter’s question about financial mismanagement by pointing out that having an Internal Revenue Service lien for $2.1 million (Dh7.71m) issued against him “should show you… how much Clef really makes a year”.

Perhaps most importantly, or perhaps not, this being Haiti, the nation’s constitution expressly requires presidential candidates to have lived in Haiti for the five years before election day, November 28. Jean has not. Usually, Haitian officials at least wait until they are in office to start violating the constitution.

Haiti’s next president will have one of the most difficult jobs on the planet: finding ways to resolve centuries-old land-rights tangles, sheltering 1.5m people, building institutions, and cajoling recalcitrant foreign donors, who have disbursed only 10 per cent of the money initially pledged for the rebuilding of Haiti.

Even in the best of times, the presidency is not for the squeamish or the scrupulous. In 205 years, the nation has seen only two peaceful, democratic transitions of power. The rest have been achieved via coups d’état, assassinations, provisional governments, self-appointments, and dictatorships – these are the historical motifs of the Haitian presidency. The job demands the building of unholy alliances, whether with ideologically opposed parties, the exploitative merchant class, drug traffickers, impoverished slum gangs, or combinations thereof simply to remain in power. It’s not difficult to envision President Wyclef turning into another in a long line of Haitian demagogues (although one that, unlike Jean-Bertrand Aristide, lacks the gift of gab) or, as many predict, a pawn of the US State Department or the country’s elite classes.

However, even considering such possibilities is to get way ahead of ourselves. The Conseil Electoral Provisoire (CEP), the presidentially sanctioned body that determines candidates’ fitness to run, has not ruled on Jean’s or any other candidates’ eligibility. That will happen on August 17. Expect uproar either way.

Although Jean has hijacked discourse surrounding the elections, the fact is that this electoral season was bizarre and complex before he entered the fray. First, the fragmented opposition claimed it would boycott the elections unless the allegedly corrupt CEP was replaced, then a number of key figures broke off and began to announce their own candidacies. Aristide’s party, Fanmi Lavalas, was barred from the elections for submitting improper documents. (Aristide has been living in South Africa almost since he was ousted in 2004, and didn’t have the documents pertaining to the leadership of the party correctly notarised by officials.) President René Préval, who spent much of last year luring legislators to a new party that many considered poised to win the elections, designated his former Prime Minister, Jacques Edouard Alexis, as its presidential candidate. Then three days later, he withdrew his support, after realising that the senators who ousted Alexis in 2008 still didn’t support him.

The big fear of those in Haiti’s classe politique, which in two decades has played a starring role in the degradation of its citizenry’s faith in democracy, is that Jean could win. He has money, celebrity, and most of all, legitimacy with the nation’s youth: some 65 per cent of the population of Haiti is under the age of 30. (“He speaks rap,” the government advisor and now-presidential candidate Leslie Voltaire told me.) Before Jean entered the race, turnout was expected to be low – perhaps as low as the 10 per cent who showed up for the April 2009 senatorial elections. Disaffection is widespread. In two centuries of independence, the only constant has been the corruption of the country’s leaders. Since the earthquake, some Haitians even believe that what the country really needs is for a blan (foreigner) to take charge.

In Jean’s version of events, he was “drafted” to run by Haiti’s youth. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but the scene I saw last Thursday, when Jean filed his presidential papers, suggested anything but spontaneity. A thousand or two young guys showed up in white T-shirts emblazoned with the name of his movement, Fas a Fas, a phrase that had been spray-painted all over town the weekend before. Rap blared from at least three carnival-esque floats. I asked two teenagers why they, unlike others, weren’t dancing or singing. “We’re drunk,” one of them said, glassy-eyed. He then showed me a half-drunk bottle of cane alcohol. “They’re giving these out to everyone.” Jean bodysurfed on the crowd for a while, then gave a speech in which he compared himself to Barack Obama and shouted “Fas a Fas” a few times.

Weaving my way through the revellers on the way back to my car, I spotted a pair of older Haitians walking down the street, arm in arm. They were once neighbours, but the earthquake had destroyed both of their houses and now they lived in separate camps. A few blocks up, they had run into each other and now were walking toward the hubbub. I asked them whether they planned to vote for Jean.

The woman, Sylvia, made a face like she’d bitten into a bad apple. “Why would I vote for anyone?” she said. “When they come to my tent, and see how the rain floods it every night, and tell me what they’re going to do for me – then, maybe, I’d vote for someone.”

The man, Enel, added: “And this person, Wyclef, we don’t know who he is. It’s been six months since the katastrof, and nobody has told us what the plan is. If he has a plan, well then, let’s see it.”

We chatted a bit longer, until Sylvia looked towards the approaching throngs in the street. Jean rode atop their shoulders, waving. “Men prezidan là,” Sylvia said, wryly. There goes the president.

I like to believe that Jean will not be allowed to run for the presidency: it would be unconstitutional; case closed. Then I remind myself of Haiti’s capacity to upend legal and moral logic. Forgetting it constitutes the kind of self-delusion that had lulled everyone into believing they were safe from the earthquake.

Sure, we’d heard that Port-au-Prince sat along a fault line that had been dormant for too long, but back then, it was impossible to think that things could get any worse.

Pooja Bhatia is a writer based in Port-au-Prince and a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs.

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