Is Wyclef Jean what Haiti needs?

The hip-hop star could actually win the presidency. Then what?

Ramon Espinosa/AP

Wyclef Jean, the hip-hop singer who last week announced he is running to become president of Haiti, is not the first musician to seek elected office. Nor is he the first aspiring leader to return to his homeland after spending the better part of three decades somewhere else and expect to be welcomed back as its political saviour.

But most political neophytes start with smaller ambitions, or more impressive qualifications. Jean wants to run a country still reeling from an earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people earlier this year, and manage its multi-billion-dollar recovery effort. He has never before held elected office.

He has, however, sung about it. In a 2008 song, If ?I Was President, he predicts “Muslims, Jews, and Christians would all hold hands, every week on the beach, party by the sand,” and promises “better schools in the hood, better teachers for the classes, making money, paying no taxes.”

Haitians might reasonably hope Jean will do a better job managing their taxes than he has his own.

According to the CBS-owned Florida television station WFOR, which cited New York, New Jersey and Florida court records, Jean and his wife, Marie Claudinette, owe more than US$5 million in federal and state tax liens dating back to 2004 on property they own. The Smoking Gun website had previously reported that Jean owed more than US$2 million in liens. Questioned about this when he announced his presidential bid on CNN, Jean said “everything is paid up.”

Jean has also come under fire for the financial management of his charitable foundation, Yéle Haiti. It was founded in 2005, but IRS “990” forms for the years 2005 through 2007 were not filed until 2009. These reveal that Jean and a business partner/relative were paid nearly US$400,000 by the charity for rent, production services, and Jean’s appearance at a benefit concert. In 2006 alone, half of the approximately US$1 million raised was spent on salaries, rent, promotions, public relations, and consultant and professional fees.

JEAN’S FAMILY left Haiti when he was nine, and he spent most of the subsequent 30 years in America. According to Haiti’s electoral rules, Jean should not be permitted to run for president because he has not lived in Haiti continuously for the past five years. Jean responds by saying he had been “elected” by Haiti’s outgoing president, René Préval, to be Haiti’s goodwill ambassador and therefore needed to be outside the country promoting it to the world.

Such reasoning reflects the persona Jean is working to create—someone who answered the call of his people. “This is not even Wyclef saying that I want to be president of the country,” he told CNN, speaking of himself in the third person, as he often does. “I feel like I’m being drafted by the population right now, to give them a different face, and a different voice.”

Despite his lack of political experience and history of alleged financial mismanagement, Jean has a real chance of winning the election, which will be held on Nov. 28. Préval is barred by term limits from running again. More than 30 people have filed to run, including former mayors and prime ministers, businessmen, and at least one other musician. None has Jean’s notoriety. “I think he should be taken seriously,” says Robert Fatton Jr., a Haitian-born politics professor at the University of Virginia. “He has the resources. He’s been very visible in the urban slums. And the music he sings resonates in a very significant way with the urban youth. My feeling is either he is going to collapse very quickly as a candidate, or he’s going to take off and he will be overwhelmingly elected.”

Jean’s outsider status—however much he might try to downplay it—may also be an advantage, because the poor governance that Haitians have suffered for decades can’t taint him. “The fact that he’s considered a serious candidate reflects the bankruptcy of the rest of the political class in Haiti,” says Fatton Jr.

Jean appears to understand this. While he’s quick to stress his ties to Haiti and the time he has spent there, Jean also describes himself as neutral, unburdened by political baggage and grudges. He claims his connections to the Haitian diaspora and to powerful people around the world would strengthen his presidency. “An election won in Haiti and lost in the United States or the international community is not an election [victory],” he told CNN. “That piece of the dream that I got in America, I’m going to give [Haitians] a piece of that dream.” Many of Jean’s friends are musicians. When he announced his bid, he noted he had promoted Haiti while singing with Shakira during the World Cup.

Asked about the billions of dollars in aid that have been promised but not yet delivered, Jean again slipped into the third person. “Now this is where Wyclef come in,” he said. “I would get on my plane, and I would go around the world, and I’m looking at the donors, and I’m saying, ‘What’s promised, we need it, ’cause we have 1.5 million people living in tents, we got the rain coming.’ ”

Jean hasn’t articulated much of a platform beyond this. He describes his “five pillars” as job creation, education, agriculture, security and health care. He says Haitians need free education and free land outside major cities, where they would be encouraged to farm. In the short term, such a broad, even vague, strategy makes a certain amount of sense. Much of the aid money, and the power that comes with it, bypasses the Haitian government. It is in theory overseen by the international Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, and is in practice controlled by foreign countries and NGOs.

Eventually, however, should he win, Jean will find himself with a country to run. He’ll need to figure out how Haiti will pay for the free education and free land he envisions providing. He’ll need a plan to attract foreign investment. He’ll need to tackle corruption in a country where it is endemic, and where his roots are shallow. And he’ll need to build a justice system based on the rule of law where, even before the quake, most prisoners were never formally charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one in court. “I think it’s going to be much more complicated than he might have expected,” says Fatton Jr. “Obviously, he hasn’t done anything to indicate that he should be president, or has the capacity to be president. On the other hand, all of the political classes, all of the people who are running, haven’t shown the capacity to do any better. It’s kind of the tragic outcome of a situation where there is no real political party or figure that seems to be able to capture the Haitian public, and by default he becomes a candidate, and a serious one at that.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.