Last week on CNN’s Larry King Live the multi-Platinum, multi-Grammy Award winning recording artist and cultural icon Wyclef Jean made the long anticipated announcement that he will be a candidate for President of the Republic of Haiti. Surrounded by throngs of admiring followers in Port Au Prince, Wyclef suggested that the youth of Haiti, who constitute the majority of the population, are drafting him to run for President. For months, observers of the political scene in Haiti have been quietly indicating that his popularity on the ground is such that, if Wyclef were to announce his candidacy, he would be the odds on favorite to be the next President of Haiti. That prospect notwithstanding, scores of candidates may register to run, e.g., Wyclef’s uncle, Ambassador Raymond Joseph; former Prime Minister Jacques- Edouard Alexis; former Prime Minister and Lavalas stalwart, Yvon Neptune; Kompas music legend Sweet Micky; and, former Minister for Haitians Living Abroad, Leslie Voltaire to mention a few.
At the moment, the buzz is all about Wyclef Jean, and his candidacy is raising the kinds of questions one might expect about an inexperienced entertainer seeking the highest office in Haiti, particularly at a moment of such grave crisis: Should Wyclef run? Is he qualified? Moreover, what kind of President would he make? In addition, Wyclef has come under withering fire from some on the left who believe his criticism of President Aristide and endorsement of the idea of regime change prior to Aristide being ousted is an unpardonable sin.
Before commenting on this and other aspects of Wyclef’s candidacy, however, I need to state my position on the election in general. To begin with, I find the decision by the Haitian Government and the international community to push for elections at the height of the catastrophe mystifying. With virtually all the election registration records destroyed during the earthquake as well as many administrative offices, it will require a huge allocation of human and material resources to conduct an election by November. Haiti is in a de facto state of emergency and, therefore, in my judgment the full energy of the Government and international community should be focused on recovery/reconstruction. Accordingly, after our visit to Haiti in February (30 days after the earthquake), in lieu of national elections, the Haiti Support Project (HSP) recommended the creation of a broad based/ inclusive Interim Government of National Reconstruction to steer the nation for a period of a year to eighteen months. The interim government would have been based on a consensus of political parties, the private sector and civil society, with the sanction of the international community. In Haiti, everyone wants to be President and the rivalries and competition can sometimes become vicious. In short, I believe national elections at this time are a major distraction from the urgent need to focus on alleviating the suffering of the millions who are living in misery, and building a path to a new future. However, obviously, the elections are on and Wyclef Jean is the man in the spotlight.
Though I do not know Wyclef intimately, I have had the pleasure of being in his company on a couple of occasions, most recently at the Nation of Islam’s Saviour’s Day Commemoration in Chicago in February. Over dinner, we actually had an opportunity to share a few ideas about the work of Yele Foundation and HSP, the relief effort and the direction of reconstruction. I don’t think there is any question that Wyclef is a sincere person who loves Haiti and is deeply devoted to the uplift of the Haitian people. As such, he is entitled to his opinion about the state of political affairs in his homeland, including offering a critique of President Aristide during the time when a combination of forces was orchestrating his ouster. In some recent interviews, I have had to come to Wyclef’s defense on this point because, as mentioned above, there are those in the progressive movement who consider his criticism of Aristide’s failings and call for him to step aside as tantamount to treason. To paint Wyclef in that way is grossly unfair. Not everyone who parted company with Aristide was an agent of the CIA or a reactionary. Indeed, many of his critics were former allies who saw him morph into someone far different from the visionary leader they had embraced early on. So, Wyclef’s views on Aristide should not be a disqualifier. Having said that, I strongly agree with the growing crescendo of voices from various quarters demanding that the Lavalas party (or parties) is certified to participate in the forthcoming elections. The failure to do so will damp down participation and call into question the legitimacy of the outcome. Wyclef could do himself some good by speaking up on this issue. As to the effect of the attacks on his candidacy, the masses on the ground have already rendered their verdict. He’s wildly popular!
Indeed, this is what makes the prospect of Wyclef’s candidacy intriguing. He could well be an Aristide- like figure. Jean-Bertrand Aristide captured the imagination and aspirations of the people like no other leader in modern Haitian history. He personified the desire and will of the Haitian poor, peasants, workers and forward-looking people from all sectors to transform the nation into a participatory democracy with a vibrant economy. Aristide had the capacity to inspire the dispossessed to believe a brighter future was possible with their engagement. One of the elements that is sorely lacking in the current reconstruction effort is precisely this kind of call to the nation to act. There does not appear to be an effort to mobilize the millions who are living in wretched conditions to become part of the process of building the new Haiti. There is a “Plan” which was developed at the behest of the international community in order to make the case for billions in foreign aid. The Plan has received good reviews, but the problem is large sectors of the Haitian population played no meaningful role in formulating it. There is a critical need to engage/involve all sectors of the population in the reconstruction effort. In that regard, the process is as important as the outcome. Given his popularity with Haitian youth and the poor, perhaps, Wyclef Jean is the candidate who could mobilize the population to play a powerful role in building the new Haiti. That would be a positive.
For those who question Wyclef’s lack of experience, Aristide was overwhelmingly elected President despite the fact that he had no prior experience as an elected official. In my view, experience is never the critical criteria for seeking elected office. The most important ingredients are a vision of what it is you want to accomplish, a platform that embodies the vision, a plan for achieving the vision and the judgment to assembly a team with the skill to implement the vision. In addition to years in the trenches fighting against the Duvalier dictatorship and subsequent authoritarian regimes, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a devotee of Liberation Theology from which he derived a vision of the dispossessed as the vital center and driving force for a new Haiti. And, he had thought long and hard about what kinds of measures/policies that would be required to achieve his vision. Frankly, we have yet to hear Wyclef clearly articulate his vision for Haiti and his platform and plan for implementing it. Celebrity and popularity among the masses is not a vision or a program. In the coming weeks, it will be imperative that Wyclef lay out his vision and plan for the new Haiti. An entertainer as head of State without a vision and plan for the future could be a disaster.
Finally, while charisma and popularity can be positives, they can also be negatives. “Stars” or messianic leaders who view themselves as “drafted,” “anointed,” or “ordained” are susceptible to becoming self-absorbed figures. They are often resistant to input or criticism and suspicious of people or organizations that might offer an opposing idea. The seeds of authoritarianism are often to be found in the personalities of those who see themselves as “called” to lead. Let’s hope this is not the case with Wyclef Jean, the man who just might be the next President of Haiti.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com. To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.