LEOGANE, Haiti — Street star. Scandal-plagued aid director. Ex-Fugees hip hop frontman. The moment he filed his candidacy, Wyclef Jean became the most famous — and thus potentially most powerful — candidate in Haiti’s critical post-earthquake presidential election.
But for all his renown as a musician, charity provider and above all Haitian-born success story, a stark fact remains the morning after: Few in this impoverished and often rudderless country know who he really is, what he stands for or what is driving him to seek the presidency.
He has compared his candidacy to that of U.S. President Barack Obama and says he wants to build Haiti’s economy principally by attracting foreign investment — yet his campaign borrows songs, style and support from the populist liberation theologian and exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
And before these questions even come into play, his celebrity-driven campaign — he has promised to bring 50 Cent to Haiti — must deal with the biggest question surrounding the 40-year-old singer: Has Jean, whose parents took him to Brooklyn as a young child, lived long enough in Haiti to claim its most important job?
“I started coming to Haiti after the President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was taken outside of Haiti (in 2004),” Jean told The Associated Press in an interview after filing his candidacy last Thursday. “What I did was I went into the slums and started with kids inside of the roughest communities.”
Haitian presidents must have lived at least five consecutive years in the country leading up to election day, slated this year for Nov. 28. By nearly all measures Jean has not. As the eight-member provisional electoral council spends the next 12 days verifying candidates’ credentials, the singer’s campaign will argue his 2007 appointment as an ambassador-at-large exempts him from the requirement.
Some on the streets of this seaside, sugar-growing town west of Port-au-Prince are not convinced.
“The constitution says you have to spend five years in the country. Did he? I don’t think he did,” said Billy Francois, 38, who sells sundries from under a roadside tarp in Leogane, which was almost entirely destroyed by the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake that left a government-estimated 300,000 people dead.
The father of three said he was not opposed to Jean, but that neither he nor other potential candidates appear ready to tackle Haiti’s rampant unemployment and crime. “I’ve been voting since 1990 and nobody has done anything for me,” he said.
Jean’s outsider status — he speaks English far better than Creole and left the country Friday to take his wife and 5-year-old daughter home to New Jersey — lends itself to debate.
Some say an outsider would introduce a new style of politics; others that it would guarantee a weak, out-of-touch head of state. Jean fueled dreams by making it out of Haiti and striking it very, very rich — he makes up to $18 million a year, some of which he brought back through his charity, Yele Haiti.
“I will vote for Wyclef because he will develop this country. I’ve seen what he’s done before. Whenever the country is affected by something, he is always present,” said Eric Keatant, a 24-year-old engineering student relaxing in a Kobe Bryant jersey.
But after years of skating by with little scrutiny, the post-quake attention turned up a string of alleged improprieties at Jean’s Yele charity including allegations that it paid Jean himself to perform at fundraising events, bought advertising air time from a television station he co-owns and gave lavish salaries to staff.
Jean resigned as the group’s chairman last Thursday, hours before formally starting his candidacy. He has denied intentional wrongdoing and said the aid group hired a new accounting firm to oversee $9 million in post-quake fundraising, of which $1.5 million has been spent.
There are questions about his personal finances as well. The Smoking Gun website reported Jean owes $2.1 million in back taxes to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. He told AP that the money would be repaid and his finances made public within days.
In a country where corruption is always a concern, those matters are not likely to go away soon.
If the singer gets on the ballot he will face a crowded and sharp-elbowed field.
Another front-runner is expected to be ex-Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis, who served under President Rene Preval until being sacked by the Senate during riots fueled by high food prices. He has the backing of Preval’s newly formed Unity party.
Many of Jean’s own advisers within the Viv Ansanm party also support the candidate of an allied party: architect and reconstruction master planner Leslie Voltaire.
Former Prime Minister Yvone Neptune is expected to run, as is former First Lady Mirlande Manigat.
Already registered is a musician of almost equal popularity to Jean in Haiti, Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, who secured the endorsement of Jean’s former Fugees bandmate Pras Michel.
For two decades after the 1986 fall of the dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Haitian politics were essentially defined by the split between pro-elite and business candidates and the populism of Aristide, an ex-priest who won elections in 1990 and 2000 only to be ousted twice, first by a coup and then a rebellion.
Jean does not fit neatly in either category.
After Aristide’s 2004 overthrow, the singer positioned himself as a peacemaker between gangs who supported Aristide and heavily armed rebels. Two years later he supported Preval, seen at the time as the pro-Aristide candidate. Preval later broke with Aristide’s supporters.
In his interview with AP, Jean praised former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s vision for Haiti’s economy and said he would also work to attract foreign investment in agriculture, mining and the garment export industry — positions which Clinton readily admits will make Haiti’s elites richer while growing a middle class.
But Jean’s rally earlier in the day resembled nothing so much as a pro-Aristide demonstration, with supporters given gas money to come up from the slums. The crowd even broke into a standard Aristide protest song with Jean’s name substituted for the exiled leader.
Clinton, who co-chairs the international commission overseeing a pledged $5.3 billion in reconstruction aid to Haiti, praised Jean but said he wanted to stay out of Haitian politics as the campaign season heats up.
I consider him a friend of mine,” Clinton, who as president restored Aristide to power, told The Associated Press on Friday. “I also have a high regard for the former prime minister (Alexis) ... I just want them to have a good election and I want it to reinforce, not undermine the reconstruction of the country.”
Aristide, who lives in South African exile, has not endorsed a candidate. His Fanmi Lavalas party is expected to be banned from the race.
For people on the streets of Leogane, such political debates pale in comparison to their immediate needs for food, security and post-quake shelter.
Excellence Silvianise, a 36-year-old mother of two, said the government must lead the way if Haiti will escape poverty. “Our parents didn’t leave us anything at all. We have nothing to work with.”