Until late last week, Wyclef Jean was primarily known for three things: being one of the co-founders of The Fugees; releasing The Carnival; and being a great producer for both his own albums and other peoples’ songs (you could make the argument that he’s also known for that abysmal “We Are the World 2” song for Haiti, but that would just be cruel). But on Friday, Jean officially announced his candidacy for President of Haiti.
If you’ve followed his career at all, it’s not like it’s necessarily out of the blue. He’s been singing about Haiti for as long as he’s had a career, and any time there was a hint of trouble in the island nation, he was on the news, offering his perspective and vantage point as a native Haitian. He sang songs in Creole, wrote a concept album about a Haitian revolutionary and even wrote a song in 2008 entitled “If I Was President.”
So while it might not be a surprise to some, many are still asking: “Why?” Why is Jean choosing to run at this time, in this way? Why is he running at all? What can he do to help Haiti that someone who’s not famous for “Gone Till November” couldn’t do?
This spring, we went to Haiti. Not because we thought we knew how to do reconstruction better than anyone or that we could somehow “fix” things. We wanted to find Haiti’s story after the earthquake. We wanted to know why it seemed like so little was being done after so much money and effort had gone into the initial efforts. And mostly, we wanted to find out what happens to a country so devastated by disaster, after the media attention leaves.
We were simultaneously hopeful and horrified by what we saw. We saw how much still needs to be done and how many roadblocks are in place to get everything fixed. But we also saw how much is actually being done. There are people working with governments, social justice organizations and churches who are all acutely aware of the need and doing everything in their power to meet that need. Check out our full impression of Haiti six months later, and you’ll find out what we mean.
One of the things that destroyed Haiti even before the earthquake was its incredibly tumultuous political history. When your nation is crippled by a huge debt from day one (sent to France to “buy” their independence as an island of slaves) and then ruled by one corrupt government after another, it becomes difficult to even try to address things like horrible poverty, public education and quality of life issues. Considering Haiti’s first democratically elected President was later accused of killing opposition leaders, it’s been a bumpy road.
So now, Wyclef Jean has positioned himself as the hope for his homeland. And maybe he knows what he’s doing; he’s said that his model for governing is based on models that Bill Clinton, the UN Special Envoy to Haiti, has championed. Jean has been Haiti’s ambassador-at-large since 2007. And his uncle is the current Haitian ambassador to the United States.
But other information is a little more troubling. Jean heads up the charity Yele Haiti, which came under fire after the earthquake for alleged mismanagement of funds. And he currently owes the IRS $2.1 million for back taxes. After he announced his candidacy, actor Sean Penn, who has been living in Haiti and running a refugee camp since the earthquake, said that Jean has been a “non-presence” in Haiti since the earthquake, and told CNN “I want to see someone who’s really, really willing to sacrifice for their country, and not just someone who I personally saw with a vulgar entourage of vehicles that demonstrated a wealth in Haiti that, in context, I felt was a very obscene demonstration.”
So should Wyclef Jean even be running for President of Haiti? Well, it depends. Is he going to try to accomplish the things everyone told us were needed when we were in Haiti—like free education, disease control and environmental stewardship? Jean claims one of his primary policy focuses will be education.
But if he’s going to court the presidency as some sort of popularity game that will just continue the trend of Haitian leaders more interested in their own legacies than the plight of their people, he should reconsider. His mismanagement of Yele Haiti is especially disturbing—even if it really is just an accounting error, it doesn’t bode well that Jean would be running a government with a shaky economy. Small errors and character deficiencies tend to be exacerbated when politicians get to the biggest stage.
Overall, Jean’s nomination is just another reminder to keep Haiti in your thoughts and prayers. Just because the media has moved on doesn’t mean the country has. Use your voice to call for policies that will help Haiti, not harm it. And above all, pray God will work in ways that will restore Haiti and bring reconciliation to a broken nation.