No Haitian presidential campaign has garnered as much international attention as Wyclef Jean’s short-lived bid for office. Jean announced he would run for president on August 5, and was disqualified shortly after, on the 16th, by The Haiti Election Commission (CEP) for not having lived in Haiti for five consecutive years—a constitutional requirement for all presidential candidates. Just yesterday, over a month later, he finally withdrew his bid officially. “This was not an easy conclusion to reach,” Jean said in a statement. “Some battles are best fought off the field, and that is where we take this now. Our ultimate goal in continuing the appeal was to further the people’s opportunity to freely participate in a free and fair democratic process.” What do Haitians, at home and in the US, have to say about the whole debacle?
While Jean initially accepted the CEP’s ruling last August, the 40-year-old musician quickly changed his tune, vowing to appeal the decision and accusing the electoral board of using “trickery” to “block” him out of the electoral race. Jean claimed that under his role as roving ambassador since 2007, he was free to travel and live outside of Haiti. Then, following an unsuccessful appeal—and despite the Haitian court’s ruling being final—the Grammy winner and former Fugee took his case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, an independent body devoted to the promotion of basic rights and freedoms in the Americas. Finally, after a month-long battle for eligibility—including distracting feuds with Sean Penn and former bandmate Pras (“I got a message for Sean Penn: Maybe he ain’t see me in Haiti ’cause he was too busy sniffing cocaine,” Pras sang)—Wyclef announced yesterday that he’s abandoning his campaign.
His announcement might come as a relief to many Haitians. Among the Haitian community abroad and on the island, Jean’s run for president and subsequent appeals were seen as a distraction from more immediate issues, such as rampant rape, crime, and lack of basic food and clean water for the 1.5 million camp dwellers that were left homeless by the January 12th earthquake. But he was also perceived by some as Haiti’s ticket out of obscurity, and as a way to keep the spotlight on the country as earthquake recovery faded from the news cycle.
Before Jean’s abrupt resignation, one of his supporters, Haitian author and child slavery advocate J-R Cadet, who lives in Cincinnati but is currently in Haiti promoting the welfare of children, questioned his decision to fight for eligibility. “Clef is still young. He should not appeal the CEP’s decision,” Cadet said. “He should begin the process of meeting the requirements for residency. If he does that, he’ll be elected in 2016, then he can change the rules. Of course, I was very disappointed by the decision. At the Clinton Global initiative in 2009, he outlined his dream for Haiti and I was moved to tears. I’ve never seen that kind of passion for the country before from any Haitian politician.”
After a dramatic announcement of his plans to take the highest political seat in Haiti, the presidential hopeful offered little publicly in the way of an agenda for Haitian voters to hold on to besides sweeping, crowd-rousing proclamations about better schools, infrastructure, and foreign investments. Jean admitted in a CBS interview to having no skills as a politician, but stated he had the makings of a good leader—a worrisome comment, when placed in the context of a country that has known many eager leaders but few champions of the poor. “He was never qualified. I only know that he is the ambassador of public image for Haiti. I know nothing of him as a politician,” said Stephanie Mesidor, a woman living in a refugee camp in Delmas.
It was Jean’s outsider persona and his messiah-like image transferred over from his humanitarian work (albeit an image now sullied by allegations of mismanaging funds at his former non-profit, Yele) that first won him his early supporters, especially among the large youth population, who are fed up with the army of chronically corrupt Haitian politicians.
“Haitian masses don’t want to elect anyone that is perceived to be part of the political class. They are angry at the elites,” said Yvon Lamour, a guidance counselor at Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Rindge & Latin School, who also hosts a Haitian radio show. He credits Jean’s candidacy with revitalizing the political process and galvanizing the youth culture in Haiti. “Politicians in Haiti have a reputation of being bad losers and resorting to the same practices used by the very system he wants to change,” he said. “I’m not sure how much this will help his cause,” he added, “but it’s clear that any politician should learn to lose with dignity.”
Cultural activist and psychologist Margaret Armand, a resident of Plantation, Florida, had high hopes for a potential Jean presidency, which she hoped would inspire Haitians to return home and challenge the current electoral process. “It’s not just about Wyclef anymore,” she said. “The system is flawed and corrupt. There are a number of unqualified and ineligible candidates who have made a career of running for president. We have had so many intellectuals and elites that ruled for the last 200 years and look at the state of the country.”
Haiti’s desire for a new administration, a fresh voice, and Jean’s good intentions should never have overshadowed his obvious short comings, says Native Language Literacy Coordinator Lunine Pierre-Jerome of Boston, Massachusetts. She argues that, “He doesn’t know what it means to be a Haitian in Haiti. Does he know the history? And not just that Haiti was the first Black republic. He has to go back and understand the political history. That’s the only way to avoid making the same mistakes of the past.”
For some, Jean’s bid was a loud slap across the face of Haiti. Pierre Florestal, a former New York Haitian talk radio host, believes Jean was exploiting his star power and the dire conditions on the island for his own benefit. “When you are hungry and poor, anyone who gives you even a little seems like a savior. That doesn’t make him a president. There are more ingredients that go into running a country. It was a relief to hear he was rejected.”
Now that his well-publicized run is over, perhaps Jean will take this opportunity to live in the country, learn the language, and return his focus to the on-going relief efforts on the ground, where his influence would be better utilized. There has been no word from Jean and his camp as to whether he will return to live in Haiti full-time in hopes of running for office in the future. As of now, he’s going back to what made him a public figure in the first place. Jean’s next album, If I Were President, the Haitian Experience, drops in February.