Wyclef Jean Seeks the Haitian Presidency: A Breath of Fresh Air — or a Dabbler who will Break Haiti’s Heart?

Wyclef Jean, famous hip-hop/reggae artist and founder of the humanitarian organization Yelé Haiti, on August 5, 2010, made official his candidacy for the presidency of Haiti. The goodwill ambassador and nephew of the Haitian ambassador to the U.S. himself has no political experience and will be running against former Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis, likely the most formidable opposition figure as he is backed by incumbent President Rene Préval. Jean has announced that he would prioritize alleviating poverty and use his image to attract foreign investment.

His decision represents a culmination of the Haitian diaspora’s increased engagement on the island and the warm reception its members now receive. Many Haitian “ex-pats” who previously attempted to reinvest in the country were blocked by hostile attitudes towards them as being deserters and dissmemblers. This mentality has changed completely in the wake of the January, 2010 earthquake, and many today are craving a radical change in the island’s political leadership, making Jean’s presidency a popular option.

Following a history of corrupt and authoritarian government, Préval’s presidency ultimately turned out to be another disappointment for Haiti due to his failure to address the countries’ most urgent social problems and his breaching of several constitutional regulations. While his attempt to remain in office three months beyond his term was revoked after withering criticism, his selection of the Haitian Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) members, who in fact are supposed to be selected by a range of government institutions and NGO’s, remains a crippling obstacle to the legitimacy of the approaching elections in November.

Preliminary surveys of Haiti’s youth indicate enthusiasm over Jean’s candidacy, and as Jean himself stated in a NECN report, “I represent the voice of the youth, which is over 50% of the population.” Jean never graduated from college. His foundation, however, has helped thousands of islanders out of dire poverty and hunger, and a limited education has not prevented several Latin American leaders from being successful, as in the case of Brazil’s Lula. Nevertheless, the political community remains skeptical of his “messiah” image and his ability to effectively lead the country. Jean grew up mostly in New York, but is linked to Haiti’s elite and voiced support for the violent coup against left-leaning Aristide, the country’s first democratically elected leader, in 2004. This history, along with accusations of Yele Haiti misusing some of its funds, makes it questionable to which extend he brings the claimed “non-partisan” component to the table or would be any less corrupt than previous military regimes.

Considering the cynical performance of most of Haiti’s past leaders and its current state of devastation, Jean’s candidacy, however experimental and controversial, still seems to some the most refreshing alternative to the country’s seventy competing political parties. Wyclef Jean’s non-bureaucratic persona, however, is also his clear weakness: with the CEP stuffed by the opponent’s supporter Préval, a victory of Wyclef Jean and his one year old reformist party “Ensemble Nous Faut” (We must do it together) would require large-scale grassroots support, which is all but certain. Wyclef’s candidacy brought a good deal of buzz to the campaign, but many fear that he would only continue the pattern of weak executive rule, which could open up the island to increased money laundering as well as drug and human trafficking.