Wyclef Jean: A Campaign in Retrospect
Date: Wednesday, October 06 @ 04:57:39 UTC
by COHA Research Associate Joseph Crupi
October 06, 2010 - coha.org
After prolonging his failed campaign for a month after Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) ruled him ineligible to run for the presidency, Wyclef Jean has finally dropped his appeal, officially terminating his presidential bid on September 21st. Jean’s recent involvement in Haitian politics was a source of controversy from the outset; many had cast him as an unqualified meddler, while others embraced his now defunct candidacy as a move to empower the youth and deepen democracy.
Jean’s decision to run for the presidency was greeted with optimism and hope by much of Haiti’s politically discontented populace. However, there were early signs that Jean was not the progressive candidate he initially professed to be. In an interview with MTV published on February 25, 2004, Jean had expressed support for the coup that ousted democratically-elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In reference to the militants who overthrew the former president, Jean said, “I don’t consider those people rebels. It’s people standing up for their rights. It’s not like these people just appeared out of nowhere and said, ‘Let’s cause some trouble.’ I think it’s just built up frustration, anger, hunger, depression.” Jean originally made these comments to MTV right as the events began to unfold in Haiti, before the involvement of the United States and other international powers had come to light. Therefore, Jean may have been able to excuse his politically improvident comments on the grounds of ignorance, but he removed any doubt about his political stance when he produced the 2006 documentary, The Ghosts of Cité Soleil. While the film received generally positive reviews, Jean’s depiction of the 2004 coup was historically inaccurate and politically biased. In the film, Jean paints sweatshop owners and neo-Duvalierists in a positive light, while implying that Aristide stepped down of his own free will.
Jean has also come under investigation for the mismanagement of his charitable organization, Yele Haiti. According to a tax document published by The Smoking Gun, Jean used funds from Yele Haiti for personal purposes, a claim Jean vehemently denied. However, the organization’s president admitted that Yele Haiti does have unusually high administrative costs, but he attributed the anomaly to the organization’s inexperience. An August 16 New York Times article details the dismal quality of service that Yele Haiti has provided to tent camps under its responsibility. According to residents of the communities, Jean’s organization has failed to provide them with food or water, ignoring pleas from the camps’ leaders.
Jean’s supporters advanced two primary arguments during his campaign. First, they claimed Jean’s celebrity status would draw much needed investment to Haiti. However, the reasoning behind this argument is not clear. Multinational corporations do not respond to celebrity, but rather profitability and investment security. In light of Jean’s mismanagement of Yele Haiti and his lack of economic knowledge, it is difficult to see how any corporation could view a Haiti under Wyclef Jean as an attractive business environment. Second, Jean’s supporters argued that his election would demonstrate that a Haitian could command the world stage. Jean certainly could command attention, but it is not the type of attention Haiti wants or needs. During his bid for the presidency, Jean was more of an embarrassment than a source of national pride. Had he been elected, it is likely that he would have been viewed as a novelty rather than as a serious spokesperson for a new, autonomous Haiti.
In late August, the CEP ruled that Jean, along with 14 other candidates, was ineligible to run in the presidential election. Although the CEP did not explain its decision, it is believed that Jean was ruled ineligible because he failed to satisfy the five-year residency requirement. After initially stating that he would comply with the CEP’s ruling, Jean appealed the decision, claiming he had been acting as a roving ambassador and was therefore exempt from the residency statute.
Through his subsequent appeal of the disqualification, Jean may have inadvertently reinforced the political corruption already entrenched in Haiti’s electoral process. The CEP is notorious for its politically motivated decisions, lack of transparency, and ardent opposition of former president Aristide’s political party, Lavalas. The media coverage of Jean’s candidacy, though, painted a far different picture of the CEP. In Jean’s case, there was a rational legal basis for his exclusion from the election, and many media sources phrased their reports as if the CEP had definitively and specifically ruled Jean ineligible under the residency requirement. The wording of a number of news articles gave the impression that the CEP had declared a reason for excluding Jean, which it had not, thus creating an illusion of transparency. Jean’s statements immediately following his decision to accept the ruling granted the CEP even more legitimacy in the public eye. Although he later appealed and claimed the CEP had used trickery to block his candidacy, Jean attempted to appeal within the structure of Haitian political law, which has no appeal mechanism. His decision to protest the election through official channels validated the authority of the CEP and bolstered Haiti’s corrupt political system.
After dropping his bid, Jean claimed that his “ultimate goal in continuing the appeal was to further the people’s opportunity to freely participate in a free and fair democratic process.” However, Jean has hardly been an advocate of democracy in Haiti’s past elections. Indeed, he failed to speak out when Lavalas presidential candidate Gerard Jean-Juste was jailed under false pretenses and barred from running in the 2006 presidential election. Jean was again silent in 2009, when the Lavalas party was barred from the legislative elections for failing to produce a document signed by its party leader, the exiled President Aristide. In 2010, the Lavalas party fulfilled all the necessary requirements to register for elections, yet they were excluded for their failure to produce proper documentation in the previous election. The ruling was upheld despite condemnation from the UN, the OAS, and members of the U.S. Senate; predictably, Jean remained silent. Jean’s failure to speak out on behalf of Lavalas may be attributable to his roots in Haiti’s elite class, which has traditionally opposed the progressive reforms of the Lavalas party. However, his failure to plead the case of the 14 other candidates ruled out of the 2010 presidential election, many of whom had legitimate claims to candidacy, suggests his appeal was motivated more by a desire for personal advancement than by genuine democratic conviction.
In addition to his weak record of support for democratic elections, the notion that Jean would have been committed to cultivating a democratic society had he been elected is equally dubious. Indeed, democracy consists of far more than the freedom to vote. Broadly understood, democracy is the right of the people to govern themselves in pursuit of a just society. If elected president, Jean would have had neither the capability nor the intent to secure this end. Having lived outside Haiti for most of his life, Jean can hardly claim to be attuned to the burdens and desires shared by much of the country’s impoverished citizenry. Furthermore, while Jean provided a vague vision of reducing poverty and attracting foreign investment, he has not demonstrated the expertise to translate such a vision into practical policies that would further democracy. Moreover, the Haitian people have spoken clearly in favor of the reforms introduced by the Lavalas party under Aristide, yet Jean remains unequivocally opposed to the Lavalas platform, preferring instead to retain the neo-liberal policies of Haiti’s elite class.
In recent weeks, Jean has begun to show signs of stress. In response to allegations from Sean Penn that Jean had not had a visible presence in Haiti, Jean lashed out and accused Penn of using drugs. Shortly thereafter, Jean was hospitalized for stress related illness. According to his publicist, Jean had been “suffering from stress and fatigue based on the grueling eight weeks he’s had.” Jean’s inability to handle the demands of a short campaign demonstrated that he was certainly not ready to assume leadership of a country, and fortunately, he was never given the chance.
For months, Jean’s candidacy has dominated headlines in Haiti and elsewhere, overshadowing the efforts of the Haitian people to rebuild their country, fight corruption, and achieve a true democracy. Unfortunately, Jean did not offer a solution to these problems, only a temporary distraction. Perhaps now the world can turn its focus back to the real needs of the Haitian people, and Jean can return to writing music.
For a perspective of Jean earlier in his campaign, see “Wyclef Jean Seeks the Haitian Presidency: A Breath of Fresh Air — or a Dabbler who will Break Haiti’s Heart?” by COHA Research Associate Alice Barrett.