He may be Haiti's best-known celebrity, but is he ready to be its head of state? That's the question Wyclef Jean must answer tonight, when he's expected to throw his back-to-front baseball cap into the ring by formally announcing his intention to stand in the country's forthcoming presidential elections.
The hip-hop artist, who has been heavily involved in the efforts to rebuild Haiti in the months since an earthquake killed 300,000 people and left 1.6 million homeless, has spent recent days conducting embargoed interviews, and according to sources at US news network CNN will formally fire the starting gun during tonight’s Larry King programme. “If I can’t take five years out to serve my country as President, then everything I’ve been singing about, like equal rights, doesn’t mean anything,” Jean told this week’s Time magazine, adding: “I’m the only man who can stand in the middle and get the diaspora and Haiti’s elite families to cooperate.”
Jean’s brother, Samuel, says he will spend today filling in required documents with the country’s electoral council, which will oversee November’s polling day. “We all believe he meets the constitutional requirements and he can do it,” he told the Associated Press.
Presidential candidates must own property in Haiti, have always held a Haitian passport, and have lived in the country for five consecutive years. Jean fulfils the last of those requirements on a relative technicality: he spent the first nine years of his life there, before emigrating to the US, where he was brought up.
The former Fugees star hasn’t confirmed which of Haiti’s myriad political parties he will be representing. However Eric Jean-Jacques, the former head of the country’s parliament, has claimed that he’ll be part of the recently-formed Ansanm Nou Fo (“Together we are strong”) coalition.
His political leanings remain opaque. But in an interview with The Independent last month, Jean was highly critical of foreign governments and charities which have spent only a fraction of the billions of dollars pledged to Haiti in the aftermath of January’s disaster. “It feels like the NGO show,” he said.
He also expressed a desire to fix the country’s crumbling infrastructure, and use his personal charity, Yele Haiti, to pay unemployed youths to clean the streets, and build villages where earthquake victims who lost their homes will be given houses and small plots of agricultural land.
Dozens of other candidates are expected to stand in the Presidential contest, including Jean’s uncle, Raymond Joseph, who is Haiti’s ambassador to Washington, and another popular musician, Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly. Although Jean’s fame will help him stand out from the field, it’s by no means guaranteed to shoehorn him into the country’s heavily-damaged Presidential palace.
The 37-year-old already boasts strong support among younger voters, who make up a comparatively large proportion of Haiti’s electorate, and also co-owns Telemax, one of the country’s most influential television networks. His moneyed connections in both Haiti and overseas also mean that he is likely to be able to outspend many low-profile rivals.
But the election is a long way away, and his motives are often questioned by elder Haitians, who resent the fact that Jean emigrated from the country, complain that he speaks poor French and Creole, and have frequently accused him of using public interest in the country’s plight to further his own career.
In a country were the governing class has historically been riddled with corruption, questions also remain about Jean’s integrity. His aid organisation Yele, which raised $9 million after January’s disaster, recently found itself at the centre of a financial scandal after it emerged that it failed to file tax returns for four years and had paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to businesses owned by its directors.
The other great unknown regards the running of November’s election to succeed President Renee Preval, who has finished his two allotted terms. Haiti’s electoral rolls have been largely destroyed, and it seems likely that one of the most popular political parties, former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas will be controversially banned from taking part.