Wyclef Jean to Run for President of Haiti

After much speculation, hip-hop superstar Wyclef Jean has made it official: he wants to be President of the land of his birth, Haiti

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Peter Hapak for TIME

Wyclef Jean, in New York City on Aug. 2, 2010

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Yet serious doubts persist that Jean is ready for a role beyond that of goodwill envoy, most of them focused on his management of Yéle Haiti. Shortly after the quake, when Jean had been all but canonized for his Haiti work, skeptics pointed out that his foundation had been paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to production companies owned by him or his associates. In Florida, where the charity has an office, it failed to file its paperwork on time in four of the past six years, and watchdogs like Charity Navigator have questioned it for filing tax returns that were "beyond late." Jean has acknowledged the questionable payments but blamed them on accounting errors. He insists the problems have been fixed since he hired a reputable Washington accounting firm to whip Yéle Haiti's books into shape. "I took responsibility," he says. "I took the bullet.

More shots may be fired at his claim of eligibility for the presidency. A candidate is required to have resided in Haiti for five consecutive years, and Jean's advisers insist that the nine years he lived in the country after birth satisfy that criterion. But Haiti's political and business elites — who, after living through the populist ordeal of former Roman Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide's two presidencies, aren't exactly thrilled about a diaspora hip-hopper — are likely to grab any challenge they can throw at Jean.

That Haitian political class, it should be remembered, has its own epic shortcomings, whether measured by incompetence or venality. (No other Haitian politician has yet declared for the presidency, although Jean's uncle Raymond Joseph, Haiti's ambassador to the U.S., is reportedly planning to.) Haiti's traditional elite has shown an utter failure — and a lack of will — to reform a medieval land-ownership system, something that is vital to getting the country's crucial population-relocation project going. Most Haitians consider President Préval to have been all but AWOL since the quake, and tales of bureaucratic shakedowns to get foreign-donated relief equipment and supplies out of customs are appallingly commonplace.

The Diaspora's Favorite
Against that backdrop, Haitian voters may well decide that Jean and his reformist party, Ansamn Nou Fo (Together We Are Strong), could do no worse than the old guard and could shake things up for the better. His campaign slogan, "Fas a Fas" (Face to face), he says, is a signal that "the old school will have to fall in line with a new model. Haitian government will finally be conducted out in the open."

Outside Haiti, Jean has little trouble finding support. Many diaspora leaders are rooting for him. (He's married to a Haitian American, New York fashion designer Marie Claudinette.) But given the elite's long-held disdain for expats, the diaspora's hope is tempered. "I think Wyclef's candidacy is going to surprise a lot of people," says former Florida state representative Phillip Brutus, a Haitian American from Miami and a candidate for the U.S. Congress. "But I fear that if you parachute him into the Haitian presidency, the culture of corruption and cronyism there may well eat him alive."

Jean insists he's not playing "the naive idealist." He gets much of his platform, he says, "right out of the playbook" of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the U.N.'s special envoy to Haiti, whose pragmatic vision of bringing business, government and civil society together for development ventures was bearing fruit there before the earthquake hit. "I'm the only man who can stand in the middle and get the diaspora and Haiti's elite families to cooperate that same way," says Jean. (It's not a ridiculous claim: if Ivory Coast soccer phenom Didier Drogba could bring his country's warring factions together a few years ago, who's to say Jean can't use his renown to succeed in Haiti?) Jean's priority — one he shares with Haiti's Prime Minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, who is widely respected but so deeply involved in the reconstruction effort that he is unlikely to run for President — is to disperse both power and population from overcrowded Port-au-Prince. Jean wants to revive Haiti's fallow agriculture with new rural communities tied to schools, clinics and businesses.

His secret weapon, Jean says, is that Haiti's "enormous youth population doesn't believe in [its] politicians anymore." On one Port-au-Prince street corner, Sydney Meristal, who is 23 and unemployed, says he will vote for the first time in November because of Jean. "Wyclef loves Haiti. He has ideas for Haiti," says Meristal, idling away the time on his motorcycle. "He'll win." But Steve Burr-Renauld, 23, who hails from an affluent family in the capital, doesn't think a hip-hop star has the credentials to run. "What if Jay-Z became President of the U.S.?" he asks. "That would never happen." If Jean were elected President of Haiti, Burr-Renauld warns, it would be like another earthquake aftershock.

Jean admits that "it's a hard thing for people to take artists seriously" in the political arena. In the chorus of "If I Was President" — "I'd get elected on Friday, assassinated on Saturday, buried on Sunday, then go back to work on Monday" — Jean makes you wonder if he takes politics all that seriously himself. But the verses remind you that he's in Old Testament earnest about it: "The radio won't play this/ They call it rebel music/ But how can you refuse it, children of Moses?"

— With reporting by Jessica Desvarieux / Port-au-Prince

Correction: The original version of this story had the name of Wyclef Jean's political party in French as Ensemble Nous Faut; it should be in Haitian Creole as Ansamn Nou Fo. The party's slogan should also have been in Creole as "Fas a Fas" instead of French "Face á Face."

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