Wyclef Jean: Haiti’s Sarah Palin

Published today by the New York Daily News (definitely not my choice of headline over there). The photo below happens to be the first one that comes up in a Google image search for Jean.

My grandmother sent me a short but sweet e-mail this morning, asking if I’m doing okay here in Haiti, where I work as a freelance journalist. She said the country has popped up in the news again because Wyclef Jean, a Haitian-born musician, is running for president.

“He has no political affiliations, only celebrities, so people are wondering about him,” she wrote to me.

She’s been duped by shallow media coverage portraying Jean as a fresh face on Haiti’s political scene. Jean likened himself to Barack Obama, a new hope for the earthquake-hit country, in front of a throng of enthusiastic supporters here on Thursday.

Look closely at his record. Jean more closely resembles Sarah Palin -incoherent, incompetent and in it for himself.

The pre-disaster financial improprieties of Jean’s charitable organization, Yele Haiti, have been well documented. To take one example, Jean claims he founded it in 2005 with a personal donation from his multi-million dollar fortune. Records show he didn’t contribute a cent.

But Jean nearly redeemed himself when he lent his star power to spectacularly successful charitable fundraising efforts in the January earthquake’s immediate aftermath.

If only he hadn’t dropped the ball. Like many other charities, Yele Haiti hasn’t spent much of the donations it received for urgent humanitarian relief – just 16% of some $9 million.

Now, when asked about his political platform, Jean repeats vague platitudes about the need to create jobs, support Haitian agriculture and attract foreign investment – nearly identical rhetoric to that of the currently ruling Preval administration.

One difference is that Jean isn’t capable of explaining his plans in French, the language of Haiti’s government, because he doesn’t speak it. His brother describes Jean’s Creole as “rusty.” It’s spoken with a thick American accent.

Jean doesn’t speak the languages fluently because he hasn’t lived in Haiti recently. He’s hoping authorities will waive the Haitian constitution’s requirement that candidates live in-country for the five years preceding the ballot.

That’s not an indication of a deep respect for constitutional law. Nor was his praise in interviews of armed rebels who rampaged through the Haitian countryside in 2004. The rebels were part of a campaign by the elite and foreign governments to oust then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Aristide tried to raise the minimum wage and win reparations from France, the island’s former colonial power.

At the time, this is what Jean said of the men: “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.”

Was that naivete or something much worse?

Raymond Joseph, a close member of Jean’s family, became an ambassador in the de facto government that murdered and jailed scores of Aristide supporters after the ’04 coup d’etat. Needless to say, Jean didn’t speak out against that violence.

But he does sing about uplifting the poor on the track, “If I Were President.” So what about breaking the stranglehold that a few of Haiti’s most obscenely wealthy families have on the government and economy?

“We have to build an open system that doesn’t stop them from making money, that will work for them, if only because what they’re making could double, triple,” Jean told Esquire Magazine in a recent interview.

Those families have been making a killing on the backs of the Haitian poor for decades, paying them dirt-cheap wages to work in sweatshops while stifling the country’s emergent middle class.

Make no mistake, Jean’s politics are those of the Haiti’s miserable status quo.

It’s also hard to interpret the way Jean speaks about himself in third-person as anything other than the sign of a dangerously outsized ego. When questioned on CNN about $2.1 million in overdue American taxes – which the star insists have been paid up – Jean responded, “There is no situation of Wyclef Jean that we will ignore.”

But he has managed to largely ignore the deadly post-earthquake humanitarian crisis that continues to this day. “For those of us in Haiti, he has been a non-presence,” actor Sean Penn told CNN following Jean’s announcement.

Penn has personally managed a huge camp of displaced families for the past eight months. In his suspicions about Jean, he speaks for a lot of us who have been here consistently since the quake. The singer has been conspicuously absent from the actual work of helping victims, despite a leadership vacuum at the center of failed relief efforts.

Many of the Haiti’s 1.5 million displaced people, with nowhere else to go, are being threatened with violence by landowners. According to researchers, sexual assaults against women and girls in the camps are widespread. Forecasters are predicting a “hyperactive” hurricane season. Most who lost their homes live beneath withered tarps and tents, battered by the rain and wind.

Jean didn’t mention any of these pressing issues in his CNN interview confirming his bid for Haiti’s presidency. The questions – and the answers – were all about his eagerness to help his homeland by ascending to its highest office. But what’s needed is competence, vision and unbreakable loyalty to the Haitian poor. Wyclef Jean, who flew back home to New Jersey in a private jet this week, falls far short from embodying those qualities.

I speak only for myself in the op-ed, obviously. Don’t miss @emilytroutman‘s compilation of Haitians on the streets of Port-au-Prince sharing their views about Jean and the upcoming election.

Notice how many people express support for Aristide, who remains exiled in South Africa. I didn’t get a chance to mention in the piece that Fanmi Lavalas, Aristide’s party, seems set to be banned once more the ballot. Today was the final deadline for presidential candidates to register. So far, besides Jean, it’s a lot of mostly familiar faces.

Veye Yo, a grassroots organization led by the late Father Gerard Jean-Juste, was outside the gate today protesting Lavalas’ exclusion from the ballot. I collaborated with Haiti’s own Wadner Pierre on this IPS article about Lavalas’ exclusion, the international community’s hypocrisy in supporting the elections, and sit-ins outside the US Embassy.

20 thoughts on “Wyclef Jean: Haiti’s Sarah Palin”

    1. Haha thanks. It’s an op-ed, so guilty as charged when it comes to be being “biased.” Doesn’t mean it’s not true.

  1. Good job again Ansel. I haven’t read anything in the states yet critical of Wyclef’s possible campaign. NPR quoted him as saying something to the effect of “I’m not a policy person, but I will surround myself with brilliant minds”. Do you know much about any connections to Bill Clinton or neo-liberal champions Wyclef may have, or who his advisors are? Also, check out English Aljazeera’s interview of Pras from the Fugees on Jean’s campaign, if you haven’t already.

  2. Thank you!A journalist willing to say what needs to be said with an objective and honest perspective.

    I’ve been critical of Wyclef’s campaign, and amazed at the lack of accountability he’s been offered by the African-American community.

    I’ve also been concerned at how quickly the suffering of the Haitian people is being replaced by an increased focus on Wyclef Jean.

    There is nothing divine, novel or romantic about Wyclef’s bid for president of Haiti. Thank you for saying it.

    When you have a chance, check-out my critique of Clef’s declaration via CNN – http://freedomtweet.net/?p=443



  3. Thank you very much for your op-ed. I found it informative and necessarily challenging, even if a bit unfair and, yes, extremely biased (glad you claimed it!).

    I have two blog posts up right now about what I think (and what others think) about Wyclef running for President and there are some key aspects I think you missed, treated unfairly or simply glossed over:

    1. Generally speaking, the media representation on Haiti, period, has been pretty poor. We can’t get any type of real, cogent analysis on anything. It’s always a half-story. For example, Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta talked about how inept the aid relief was going for a while but never went any further, never called people out, never asked for accountability for anyone—except, now, Yele Haiti. I have a problem with that because it’s clear it’s a mix between the Haitian government, US/France influence and the local relief. I found the focus on Yele Haiti (alone) to be frustrating because during 9-11, The Red Cross “lost” millions of dollars in aid. MILLIONS! And NO ONE questioned The Red Cross in Haiti. I could go on but…

    2. I don’t find Wyclef Jean to be incompetent or incoherent. He has obviously done a fine job with his own career and that’s more than obvious. Whether or not he did an excellent job with Yele Haiti is certainly worth considering but if he took on too much and didn’t dot enough i’s and cross enough t’s in terms of paper filing, it doesn’t mean he is just a wholesale, incompetent being.

    If, however, he’s a liar and a thief, that is an entirely different issue and we are all well within our rights to demand accountability. I believe that about everyone and, certainly, Wyclef would bear greater responsibility because he’s using his cultural heritage as a point of entry in the landscape of public opinion.

    When speaking, I don’t find Wyclef to be incompetent at all and he is clearly more intelligent than Sarah Palin. I find the comparison to be insulting and overall wrong. But then you meant it to be insulting, so I understand why you used it.

    3. CNN’s initial interview with Wyclef was clearly a set up and a near-attack. I thought he handled the questions VERY well, so, again to say that he is incoherent, just because he is less formal than some others, is almost laughable. Watch the interview again…

    The fact that the image that you have at the top of this post shows all of the hedonism and conspicuous consumption of Hip Hop (and America, btw), coupled with Clef in his hangout gear, coupled with the fact that, as you say, this is the first image that pops up on google, should clearly tell you that there are many other agendas and other persons who do NOT want Wyclef to be seen as anything other than incompetent, incoherent, etc. But look at how Wyclef chose to represent HIMSELF when he declared his candidacy. Clean shaven, wearing a suit, showing respect. Come on now, let’s not play the media’s game with them. You can see the picture that Melky Jean sent in herself (from Haiti) on my site.

    Lastly, it as his first interview and all of the questions were more genral to try to understand where he was coming from and to get over the initial shock that he would even run for President of Haiti. Your expectation that they wanted to hear his platform or that he was even remotely given the time to explain all of his concerns is extremely unfair. It was Interview #1. There will be more to come. I agree with you that he must have deeper answers but it didn’t have to be in the introductory interview. They spent more time throwing every reason why he should NOT run at him and he handled it with aplomb.

    4. His inability to speak French well is inconsequential, imo, if he can speak to the people in Kreyol. And here is where I agree with Wyclef in saying that it’s important for the Haitian people to speak English. I hate that we have to do trade in any of our oppressors’ tongues but this is where we are in the world. English is a trading language that is important in this era.

    5. I have yet to see ANY balanced representation on Jean Bertrand-Aristide. What I have seen and heard from Haitians and Haitian-Americans is that Aristide was elected by the people, yes, and then he started to become much like the other dictators in Haiti. He seemed to have given up on democracy himself, killing people, silencing dissidents and stopping free speech. I have also heard about him allowing the drug trade in Haiti and/or being involved with it himself. According to Wyclef, the people of Haiti turned against Aristide and he claims he sides with the people. I have no conclusion on this yet but I’m just saying I have yet to see ANYONE give this a balanced treatment.

    6. We live in a capitalist society. The stranglehold the wealthy families have over Haiti can only be broken with a freer market. Since they are still the most poised to make money, they will have to partially be convinced and coaxed—with the possibility of making more money. Sadly, that’s how it works and we are dealing with this same situation here in America. That’s why the banks had to be bailed out, as well as companies like GM, etc. At the end of the day, they must be dealt with in a way that allows them to make money while also holding them accountable.

    7. I would like to see more people examine what the hell Preval is doing? We should pressure CNN and other mainstream media to REALLY take a look at the Fanmi Lavalas situation and Aristide’s complex relationship to Haiti.

    8. Finally, I am looking forward to seeing and hearing more from Haitian women, quite frankly, and from the Haitian people themselves. There’s a reason why the streets were filled in support of Wyclef Jean and if the other candidates are so much more home-grown and so much more supported than he is, then they should demonstrate that and I look forward to it. That’s what democracy is all about.

    Let the Haitians speak for the Haitians.

    Thank you so much for inspiring my response and for getting me to think even more critically about Wyclef, Aristide, the West, media, etc. Ashe!

  4. A very fair analysis. You backed up every “biased” point you made with facts in this excellent op-ed. I don’t have a single complaint.

    I’ve made the same points you have myself about WyClef’s egocentric self-centered motives for making this announcement. And noted that he is unqualified as a performer with such a checkered track record at his embattled charity to be elected to Haiti’ highest office. Most importantly, he does not meet the residency requirements of the Haitian constitution.

    Hopefully, the CEP will cite that legitimate reason in spurning his candidacy. In light of the unfair and cooked up reason they gave for keeping Lavalas out of the election, they are going to look mighty foolish allowing this man to run.

    Actually, I liked this op-ed in the New York Times today which made some of the same points you have. Particularly, on Jean’s incoherence and incompetence and questioning Jean’s claim of being “neutral.”

    I only have a quibble about the usual non-contextual labeling of Haiti as a “failed state” and the usual cliche regarding Haiti’s “poor leaders” being (entirely??) to blame for the state of the country. And of course I also disagree with the writer Charles M. Blow’s conclusion that Jean “seems sincere” and how “noble” that is.

    Haiti’s (Would Be) Hip-Hop President

  5. By the way, if I had to watch that interview again that would really be too much My head nearly exploded as it was when he started the interview by embarrassing himself with that request he made of Blitzer that he repeat the Kreyol greeting and response: Sak passe and m’ap boule. That shtick is so, so tired–but he uses over and over again. The guy is not the sharpest tack in the toolbox.

    I noted that some of his supporters were miffed that Blitzer revealed that Jean is 40 years old. Something weird about that.

    In a Daily News story, they noted that his “older brother” was 39–something fishy going on there. I guess the youth are to be kept in dark about Wyclef’s real age? Kinda embarrassing also is the fact that his cousin Pras and ex-bandmate on the Fugees is not supporting his run.

    Pras not endorsing ex-Fugees bandmate Wyclef Jean for president of Haiti

  6. @dr goddess Why make the unsubstantiated and slanderous claims about Aristide when you present yourself as ignorant of the facts? Makes YOU look rather foolish.

    Ansel can speak with authority on the topic because he has put in the time in researching the matter. Perhaps you will find this post by Ansel a much needed primer on Haiti and how U.S. foreign policy has played out in Haiti’s demise as a democracy and the fact that it lacks a fully functioning government.

    No Democracy! Flash Timeline of American Policy Towards Haiti in the 20th Century

    1. Chantal, I basically agree you but there’s no need to attack the intellect of another commenter the way you do, ok? I think the quickness of too many Lavalas supporters in the States to immediately jump on anyone who criticizes Aristide in any way – often smart people who simply haven’t seen through all the propaganda yet – has contributed to their solidarity being almost entirely inconsequential. There needs to be an organized effort to reach out and patiently, clearly explain things to those who are willing to listen but simply don’t know. To engage with them. It’s a larger problem of the left in the United States and Haiti, in my view.

      1. I do regret that it got a bit personal. That I did in this instance is rare.

        More often the personal attacks are from the other side. I won’t even bore you with the vile names I’ve been called for bringing up the true facts about Fanmi Lavalas and Aristide.

        I disagree on the issue of people who support Lavalas in the states’ “solidarity” being “almost entirely inconsequential.”

        1. Inconsequential, probably would have applied if I had expressed solidarity with WyClef I suppose… since I didn’t in my latest blog, it may be why the BBC contacted me to discuss his announcement. I suppose I could have a much higher profile in the media, if that was my wish.

          Something to think about as an option for me…

  7. At this juncture in our history, whoever is propping up this guy as a viable leader is no friend of our people.

    In addition to all of the other baggage he brings along with his candidacy, he left Haiti at the age of 9 and never came back to live there again. He barely speak Kreyol and does not speak French, the languages of Haiti.

    Haiti does not need another disaster.

  8. g.w. bush’s last act in office was to pardon john forte. if you dont know who that is find out.

    wyclef on the take.

  9. Oops, caught some typo in my previous post. Reposting

    In Haiti, youth between the age of 15 to 29 years old constitutes half of the population. This is 4.5 millions folks that can be put to work in maquiladoras where the ‘ lucky ‘ ones will be paid $3/day.

    There is no doubt in my mind that there are folks who are looking to take maximum advantage of this cheap labor and encouraging the youth to vote for figureheads like W. Jean and M. Martelli fits neatly in their plan.

  10. The CEP disqualify him for not meeting the residency requirement. When the ruling was made official yesterday, he claims to have accept it. Today, however, he wants to appeal it. Based on what? As a green card holder is a resident of the US not of Haiti.

    What a selfish prick!!! He is still grabbing the news headlines while forced evictions continue for IDP camp dwellers and folks are tired of sleeping on garbage and the MSM is busy reporting about his failed bid.


    He is willing to create more chaos and suffering in Haiti in an effort to get his way.

  11. Everything you write here is correct. Good analysis, good facts and full description of WHAT IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING on the ground in Haiti. As much as I love Wyclef, he is not a politician, he can’t handle american politics and he sure as hell cant handle Haitian politics. Haitian politics is a WHOLE NEW ball game. Wyclef DEFINITELY has no vision you are absolutely correct about that. Nobody has/had vision EXCEPT for ARISTIDE!!! Aristide had a very PARTICULAR plan as to how he was going to create revenue in the country and he was taking baby steps towards the main goal of revenue. The U.S. and the DAMN CIA had to just come in an ruin every damn thing. Anyway, keep doing what your doing, I am glad to be able to go online and read such an awesome TRUTHFUL description of the situation.

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