Hip-hop singer Wyclef Jean sits inside an SUV after arriving at Port-au-Prince airport., Ramon Espinosa / AP
When Wyclef Jean announced that he would run for president of Haiti, his candidacy had a whiff of inevitability, if not triumphalism. Many, perhaps even the hip-hop star himself, seemed to assume he would seize frontrunner status and then be elected by acclamation.
Two weeks later, Jean may still be the frontrunner. But his fledgling candidacy is uncertain, its fate in the hands of a nine-member provisional electoral council weighing whether the U.S.-reared musician is eligible for the race. Jean awaits the ruling—now expected Friday—in an undisclosed location, chased into hiding, he told the Associated Press, by death threats.
The hideaway shields Jean from a harsh spotlight trained on the financial dealings of his charity, Yéle Haiti, and on upheaval in his campaign after the PR firm in charge of it quit. And it provides a respite from critics who lampoon his attempt to navigate Haiti’s difficult political terrain, challenging his sincerity, his experience, and even his accented Creole.
“The challenge of building a viable state is real and urgent. Clef is unfortunately clueless on this,” says Jocelyn McCalla, a senior adviser to Haiti’s special envoy to the United Nations and former director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. (The special envoy, Leslie Voltaire, is also running for president. McCalla says he is not advising the campaign.) “He’s been able to generate quite a bit of publicity around his presidential bid. Some would say this is a circus.”
Assaults on Jean's credibility began in the wake of Haiti's cataclysmic Jan. 12 earthquake, when reporters unearthed tax records of his charity, Yéle. The charity has been a boon for Jean in Haiti, where its name is synonymous with his. But outside the country Yéle’s reputation is less than stellar. In January, the Smoking Gun published tax records showing Yéle had made payments to Jean’s business interests, though Jean later tearfully insisted that the agency had cleaned up its act.
A New York Times exposé on Yéle’s activities published Monday raised new questions about how Yéle has spent the more than $10 million it's raised since the earthquake. (Jean led the charity until Aug. 5, when he stepped down to focus on his presidential bid.) Among the revelations about how cash was used: $7 payments to 200 individuals to surround the singer at a rally announcing a new jobs program (they were then reportedly sent home), and inconsistent, or nonexistent, deliveries of supplies to relief camps Yéle claims to support, the Times reported.
Jean defended the charity in a statement from wherever he’s awaiting the council's decision, referring to a “new management team” and telling AOL News, “The administration of the group was a bit naive, but once we started to get donations from all around the world, the first decision I took was to reform management.”
The more pressing matter facing Jean now is whether he is constitutionally eligible to run. Outgoing president René Préval all but handpicked the council—and he is backing another candidate. The council missed its Aug. 17 deadline for ruling on which candidates may run, and has given no reason for the delay other than noting that it is considering the eligibility of some 20 other candidates.
It may be that Jean’s attorneys, who were at the council’s office pleading the singer’s case Tuesday, made an impact. Then again, the delay may simply be a symptom of Haitian bureaucracy. "Everything this electoral council has ever done has been late, so a three-day delay is not itself unusual," says Brian Concannon, a lawyer and Haiti human-rights expert. But material the council is weighing, including a video that shows Jean bragging about his mansion outside Haiti, along with a new acknowledgment from the star that he paid American taxes, suggests his candidacy is not a sure thing.
Haiti’s 1987 Constitution requires that candidates live in Haiti for five consecutive years prior to a presidential election, scheduled this year for Nov. 28. Jean’s campaign has not said he meets this standard. Instead, it has argued that his role as a good-will ambassador for Haiti exempts him from that requirement. Préval gave Jean the appointment in 2007. But even if the ambassadorial exemption had a basis in Haiti’s Constitution—it does not, according to Concannon—Jean would still have to account for his residency prior to 2007.
The singer himself acknowledges he has owned and paid taxes on U.S. property during the last five years. Federal tax authorities placed a $2.1 million lien on his home in Saddle River, N.J., in May to cover unpaid taxes dating back to 2006. Jean has told AOL News that he settled the debt. After reports in 2008 that property he owned in Miami had been foreclosed, he bragged on video, “My mansion is in New Jersey. Miami was a play house.” A spokeswoman for Jean’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Regardless, Jean apparently remains optimistic that Haitian authorities will make an exception for him. Among the e-mails he sent to the AP on Tuesday was a one-word missive: “Hope.” He says his candidacy is a natural next step in a post-music career helping poor Haitians.
He is seeking to lead a nation with a long history of dysfunctional government and power grabs, and that has been buffeted by floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes. With the government unable to provide services, Haiti has become a magnet for aid organizations—as many as 10,000 work there, according to an April report by the United States Institute of Peace, a research group. A powerful political elite remains entrenched. Many Haitians owe allegiance to Préval. Others still support twice-ousted ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose former party has been banned and who lives in exile.
As an outsider, Jean could change that dynamic. He is popular with Haitians, half of whom are under 21. The more of them who vote—no small challenge, given the need to identify and register potentially hundreds of thousands of young voters before the election—the better his chances may be. Jean also might draw support from older voters: at a recent rally, crowds reportedly sang a traditional song in support of Aristide, but replaced his name with Jean’s. On the other hand, Jean is part of the so-called Haitian diaspora, which many natives view with suspicion.
Even as some jeer Jean's less-than-perfect French and Creole, he says his international experience is an asset that would allow him to better harness the efforts of the disparate relief NGOs working in Haiti. Many Haitians would agree that, with much of their country still under rubble months after the earthquake, they do need a unifying and energetic leader. Not all are persuaded Jean is the man. He is "a political neophyte whose star power is unquestionable, but his understanding of Haitian and international reality is way below par,” says McCalla, the adviser to Haiti’s U.N. envoy. “A Clef presidency is a nonstarter for progress in Haiti.” By Friday, Jean and his putative constituents will find out whether he will get the chance to prove himself.