Rapper Wyclef Jean Files to Run for Haitian Presidency

BY Sarah Sullivan  August 5, 2010 at 5:32 PM EST

Grammy-winning recording artist and philanthropist Wyclef Jean has confirmed reports that he plans to run for president of his homeland of Haiti. On Thursday, he filed the paperwork to run at an electoral council office in Port-au-Prince.

Jean, who said he was inspired to run by the devastating earthquake there, will discuss his plans Thursday night on CNN’s Larry King Live. He confirmed his bid Thursday morning on a Miami radio station.

“My decision is a draft. … I’ve been drafted by the youth,” Jean told Time magazine on Tuesday.

Jean, whose full name is Nel Ust Wycliffe Jean, is widely known for both his music and philanthropy in Haiti, where half the population is under age 21. In 2007, he was appointed ambassador at large, tasked with helping improve Haiti’s image abroad.

In 2005, with the launch of his non-profit Yele Haiti Foundation, Jean aimed at infusing the poor island nation with money and talent with the hopes of effecting change. Following the Jan. 12 earthquake, Jean called upon donors worldwide for aid and established the Yele Haiti Earthquake Fund.

Though little known before the earthquake, Yele has since raised more than $9 million, according to CNN reports. “In January, it reaped more than $2 million from texted-giving alone,” the New York Times reported.

But the organization faced criticism after it was reported that Yele had failed to keep proper records. According to reports in the Guardian and other newspapers, Yele “paid Jean to perform at fundraising events and bought advertising air-time from a television station he co-owns.”

The Smoking Gun reported this week that Jean is indebted to the Internal Revenue Service to the tune of more than $2.1 million, according to federal tax lien documents.

Constitutional Requirements

The Haitian elections are scheduled for Nov. 28, and incumbent President Rene Preval is ineligible to run for a third term. All candidates seeking the presidency must enter the race by Saturday. The winner will oversee spending of billions of dollars in international aid pouring into the country to help it rebuild after the Jan. 12 earthquake.
Contenders also must meet the six requirements enumerated in the Haitian Constitution.

Article 135 of the country’s founding document reads:

To be elected President of the Republic of Haiti, a candidate must: be a native-born Haitian and never have renounced Haitian nationality; be at least thirty-five years of age by the election day; never have been sentenced to death, personal restraint or penal servitude or the loss of civil rights for a crime of ordinary law; be the owner in Haiti of at least one real property and have his habitual residence in the country; have resided in the country for five consecutive years before the date of the elections; and, finally, have been relieved of this responsibilities if he has been handling public funds.

Although Jean has reportedly satisfied the six requisites, some questions arose over the “sentencing of personal restraint” clause due to Jean’s arrest for disorderly conduct in New York eight years ago. Questions also surrounded the property and habitual residence requirements. “Wyclef Jean has lived primarily in the New York-New Jersey area since he was a kid. Although he owns the Haitian television network Telemax, and that could count for ‘real property,’ his ‘habitual residence’ in the country could be up for debate,” NPR’s Tell Me More explains. Finally, like his “habitual residence,” the phrase “consecutive years” was initially contested and might arise again in the race.

Presidential Contenders

It wouldn’t be the first time a popular musician won office on the island of Hispaniola, which is composed of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. “Protest singer Manno Charlemagne served as mayor of Port-au-Prince some years ago. And next door, in the Dominican Republic, superstar merengue singer Johnny Ventura enjoyed a distinguished career in politics, including a stint as mayor of Santo Domingo,” the New York Times reported.

According to The Associated Press, dozens of candidates are expected to run for Haitian president. Among them is Jean’s uncle, Raymond Joseph, who serves as Haiti’s U.S. ambassador. Other possible candidates include former prime ministers, mayors and another popular Haitian musician, Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly.

Preval, meanwhile, has been accused of “stacking the deck for an as-yet-unnamed candidate of his recently formed Unity party,” by failing to reform an eight-member electoral council to make sure all parties can participate, according to the AP.

Jean will run as part of a new political coalition that calls itself Ansanm Nou Fo, “together we are strong,” in Creole.

Reaction so far has been mixed. “I will give him my vote. All these people who have been in Haiti haven’t done anything for us,” Jean Leuis, a 22-year-old bread vendor, told the AP. Others interviewed said they would rather vote for someone with more experience.

Jean could help generate a high turnout among Haiti’s disenchanted youth, said Robert Fatton, a Haitian-born political scientist at the University of Virginia. Additionally, Jean has a significant monetary advantage. “He’s a very, very strong candidate, especially when nobody else has the resources,” said Eduardo Gamarra, political scientist of Florida International University, reported the Christian Science Monitor.

A Tumultuous Political History

The person who does win, musician or not, will face the tremendous task of rebuilding the country left devastated after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake earlier this year.

The incoming president also will encounter the harsh realities of the country’s tumultuous history. Haiti is, by a significant margin, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with four out of five people living in poverty and more than half in abject poverty, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Its political history, too, has seen major instability. Presidents rarely complete a term in office. As recently as 2004, former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a controversial coup d’etat. Provisional military governments, military regimes and at least 70 dictators have ruled the country in the past few centuries. Preval, who will complete his term this fall, has largely weathered the political storm, having not fallen to a coup, been assassinated or declared himself “president for life” — all of which have occurred in recent history.

Jean, who released a song titled, “If I Was President” two years ago says he has kept the possibility of a run open for several years. “If not for the earthquake, I probably would have waited another 10 years before doing this,” he told Time. “The quake drove home to me that Haiti can’t wait another 10 years for us to bring it into the 21st century.”