Wyclef Jean's Presidential Bid Shut Down: Reverberations in Haiti

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>PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- "I think we can call this the calm before the storm," announced one Haitian radio broadcaster Friday afternoon as journalists, politicians and ordinary Haitians impatiently awaited the release of the official candidate list for the November 28 presidential election. But the storm hasn't broken--one could speak of scattered showers, perhaps, with a few burning tires in Gonaives, some peaceful protesters in Delmas--but nothing equaling the anticipated social hurricane.


Wyclef Jean is not in the running to be the next president of Haiti, contrary to the apparent desires of many Haitians filling the streets throughout the country over the last few days. The Provisional Electoral Council announced the list of 19 approved presidential candidates, and 15 rejected applications--including that of Jean's--late Friday night.

wyclef cep announcement.jpg

Richardson Dumel announces the official candidate list for Haiti's November 28 election at the Provisional Electoral Council in Petionville.

While the legal justifications for the decisions have not been released, the hindering factor was likely the question of residency. Candidates are required to have resided in the country for five years ahead of the election, and while Jean's lawyers maintained his paperwork was "tight", until the end, everyone could see that Jean traveled the world and spent much of his time in the U.S.

Thus closes a chapter of excitement both among ordinary Haitians and international media outlets that had overtaken the country since Jean applied to run.

What this means for politics in Haiti, and daily life for Haitians struggling through unemployment and quotidian instability, however, varies depending on the source. In any case the campaign circuit will be less of a spectacle without the highly popular hip-hop star.

Whoever does become president may struggle to garner popular support. Many youths said, both before and after the publication of the candidate list, that they would not vote if Jean was not deemed eligible.

Even after Reuters leaked the news of Jean's rejection on Thursday, many Haitians, as well as many in Jean's camp held out hope, waiting for the official results. At 6 p.m. on Friday, Nostand Justin was waiting outside Hotel Kinam where Wyclef was staying, a block away from the electoral council. "I am waiting for Wyclef because I love him," she said, "I'm going to vote, but not if he's not a candidate."

wyclef les cayes.jpg

"Where is the president?! Give us Wyclef!" youth yelled, while waiting for Jean in Les Cayes on Sunday August 15, before he was blocked from participating in Haiti's presidential election.

"It is a sad day for Haiti, and a sad day for the youth," said Fritz Clairvil, one of Jean's aides. "Haiti has lost, once again, an opportunity to have a real change, because Wyclef is not a professional politician, and in Haiti you only have professional politicians who take over the country."

Even though Jean had not officially launched his campaign and had not presented any concrete plan, he was framed as change, and to some a risk worth taking. "He would represent a rupture with the status quo," said a business owner in Les Cayes last week. 

Others, however, question the accuracy of his image of change. "We need to get out of the current framework, because it is always responding to a person or a personality and not a program." Said Alex Fils-Aimé, a government deputy for disarmament and political commentator. The interest of many youths in the campaign only to support Jean is testament to this interpretation.

Social stratification is prominent in Haitian society and politics. Some saw Jean as bridging the class divide, because, even though he is a multimillionaire, he spoke to the people--though of course, his brief public appearances and strolls through slums were offset by stays in luxury hotels and rides through the country in his Land Cruiser.

Jean maintains that he will continue representing Haiti and working to improve the country as he had before, wearing the flag as he tours the world--a role for which many detractors think the star is better equipped.

His supporters claim that unrest may still arise. "For the youth, and the university students unable to get a job, the unemployed and the people in tents, this was a coup," Said Jenson Desrosiers, one of Jean's aides, "because they know that if they had passed this stage they wouldn't be able to stop us ... and we're not going to let it slide." Desrosiers says they are waiting for people to cool down to avoid violence, but are planning protests to undermine the elections, and eventually the next president.

The most serious remaining contenders come from the established political elite. Mirlande Manigat is a university professor and former first lady who nearly won a 2006 senate seat before dropping out ahead of the run-off.* Jude Celestin, representing the ruling Unité party is the current national director of the office overseeing infrastructure, but has never been a public political figure. Jaques-Edouard Alexis is a two time prime minister under current president René Preval, but was dismissed from his post amidst food riots in 2008. Yves Cristallin is the national director of social affairs; Leslie Voltaire is the current special envoy for Haiti to the United Nations; and Yvon Neptune is a former senator and prime minister under former president Aristide.

Michelle Martelly, a Kompa music star known for stripping during his performances, is the only remaining pop-culture icon, and most see his candidacy as a joke.

Politics in Haiti has therefore returned to, well, politics, something many ordinary Haitians have grown weary of--with the political elite debating, seemingly to no end, while the masses struggle. 

With or without Jean as a political contender, Fils Aimé asserted, "we need a total change in focus and values and energy." Whether Haiti's politicians will rise to the challenge remains to be seen. But the remaining contenders--each with his own history of implication in Haiti's messy politics--will have to work doubly to convince the people that they can change the status quo and improve the lot of everyday Haitians.


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* Correction: This sentence originally implied that Manigat ran in the previous presidential election.

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Allyn Gaestel is a freelance journalist based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, who writes on international politics, social issues, and human rights. She is a former United Nations correspondent and National Press Foundation Fellow.

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