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.