Wyclef Jean's uncle to run for president of Haiti

Wyclef Jean's uncle, Raymond Joseph – who is Haiti's ambassador to the US – tells the Monitor that he is running for president this fall. Will the hip hop artist and his uncle team up – or compete against each other in Haiti's presidential campaign?

By , Staff writer

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    Haiti's Ambassador to the United States Raymond Joseph, shown here in January, told the Monitor that he will be running for president this fall. Joseph is the uncle of the Grammy-winning musician Wyclef Jean.
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Wyclef Jean’s uncle, who is Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, says he will run for president of Haiti this autumn.

Ambassador Raymond Joseph says that he will formally announce his candidacy next week, hinting that he would be campaigning alongside his immensely popular nephew, the hip hop singer.

In a turn of fate, it was Ambassador Joseph who helped push Wyclef on a Grammy-award winning musical career decades ago.

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Joseph won't dispel reports that Wyclef Jean might run for president, citing respect for the Jean family’s privacy. But he says that the two wouldn't run against each other.

“No, I wouldn’t say running against, I would say running parallel,” says Joseph, ambassador since in 2005, speaking by telephone Tuesday. “I think Haiti needs all her sons and daughters.”

“We talked about this – we talk all the time,” he adds. “We are family. And we won’t allow politics to divide.”

Wyclef Jean, President of Haiti: Do Haitians like the sound of that?

Wyclef encourages uncle to run

Wycelf, who was appointed Haiti’s ambassador-at-large in 2007 and holds a diplomatic passport, has encouraged his uncle to run for president.

“I am not running for president of Haiti,” he said at an event in September 2009, adding that he wished that his uncle Raymond Joseph would, according to an article on BET.com.

Wyclef told The Associated Press in a recent interview he intended to be involved in the Nov. 28 election, but not necessarily as a candidate. "Do I have political intentions? At this time no,” he said. Campaigning alongside his uncle for a place in the presidential cabinet could explain what Wycelf meant.

"I think he [Joseph] would be a strong contender," says Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University and a close follower of Haitian affairs. "I’m not endorsing him, but I am saying that he does fit the profile of what many expect to see in the next round: someone able to engage the international community."

"Ambassador to the US is a position of very high significance," he adds. "It’s a significant post, and a good venue in which to embark on a presidential campaign.

Professor Gamarra says Joseph is the first to announce he will be running for president. Other presidential candidates could include heavyweights Jean-Max Bellerive, the prime minister, and Leslie Voltaire, the special envoy to the United Nations. Both men, like Joseph, are close to Haiti President René Préval and could be contending for his endorsement.

And would Wyclef Jean be a serious contender? "He probably has more resources to run a campaign than the other candidates. And money is an important thing," says Gamarra.

The Nov. 28 presidential election was originally scheduled for Feb. 28, but was postponed because of the Jan. 12 quake that killed an estimated 230,000 people and left another 2 million homeless.

It was that shattering event, says Ambassador Joseph, that inspired him to run for president of a country that once sentenced him to death.

From Haiti to Chicago

Born on Aug. 31, 1931, Raymond Alcide Joseph’s father – like Wyclef’s father – was a Christian pastor. The family grew up in the southern city of Les Cayes surrounded by missionaries from the United States, and at the age of 10, Joseph says, he could already speak his native Creole, French, and English.

In April 1954, a Baptist minister from Asheville, North Carolina, came to evangelize to the island. He needed a translator, and Joseph volunteered.

“I interpreted for him at a big convention of 10,000 people. After a week he said, ‘Young man what do you want to do?’ I said I wanted to study in America. He said to me, ‘count on me.’ ”

By August 1954, Joseph was studying at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago on a scholarship from Reverend Wesley Grant, Sr., who died in 2007. Joseph attended the funeral. “I have remained in touch with the family; his children consider me their elder brother,” he says.

Joseph graduated from Moody and then went on to earn his B.A. in anthropology from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., with the class of 1960, about a decade after Reverend Billy Graham attended the evangelical school.

Papa Doc takes control

Now fluent in Hebrew and Greek, Joseph says that he returned to Haiti just after Dr. François Duvalier, known as "Papa Doc," had taken over as president. Joseph spent two years translating the first New Testament, plus the Psalms, into Creole for the American Bible Society. Until then, it was only available in French.

But he remembers feeling unease already with the authoritarian government, and in 1961 he returned to the US to earn his Master’s degree in social anthropology/linguistics from the University of Chicago. He subsequently took a job in New York City. In 1964, alarmed by Papa Doc’s public execution of two men – Louis Drouin and Marcel Numa – he says that he condemned the government in a radio broadcast from New York City that earned him a death sentence in absentia.

Joseph became a radio personality, founding the weekly newspaper Haiti-Observateur with his brother in 1971, and then working as a financial journalist for the Wall Street Journal in the late 1970s and 1980s.

First shot at presidency

His newspaper, Haiti-Observateur, opened an office in Haiti in 1986 following the ouster of "Baby Doc" Jean-Claude Duvalier. Baby's Doc's ouster also opened the first window for Joseph to run for president, the ambassador says.

“I was the face of the opposition against the Duvalier regime. People thought I wanted to be president,” he says.

Instead, in 1990, he became Haiti’s chargé d’affaires in Washington and his country’s representative at the Organization of American States. He played a hand in the country’s first free election in decades, helping to bring in international observers to monitor the vote.

From 1991 to 2004, Joseph went back to leading his newspaper Haiti-Observateur, where he remained until he was called back to Washington in March 2004, first as chargé d’affaires and then promoted to ambassador a year later.

Wyclef on the scene

And all that while, Joseph’s nephew had been growing in fame, thanks in part to some gentle early prodding from Joseph.

Wyclef had moved to the United States at a young age with his family, first living in Brooklyn and then northern New Jersey. His father, the conservative Christian pastor of a Nazarene church in Newark, originally did not want his son entering the world of secular music.

“I took my Bible and sat down with him [my brother-in-law],” says Joseph, who is siblings with Wycelf’s mother. He says he pointed to Chapter 12 of the Book of Romans, which calls for people to utilize their gifts. “I said, ‘He has a gift of music. Let him play his music.’ ”

And that’s what Wyclef did. In the 1990s he teamed up with his cousin Prakazrel “Pras” Michel and Lauryn Hill to form The Refugee Camp (also known as The Fugees). They sold tens of millions of albums worldwide.

In a nod to a father who nearly ended his son’s musical career before it began, in 2003 Wyclef came out with the album, “The Preacher’s Son.” It rose to No. 22 on the Billboard Top 100.

Vision for Haiti

With Wyclef's growing fame and charity work for Haiti, he was seen as a de facto ambassador for the Haitian community, performing songs in Creole and draping himself with the Haitian flag on television. In 2007, he was appointed Haiti's Ambassador-at-Large in a ceremony conducted by his uncle Raymond, who had been asked to continue as ambassador to the US for the administration of President René Préval.

“I don’t know whether I will ask for the endorsement of anybody now,” Joseph says, referring to Préval. “I think I want to run on my record and my vision for Haiti, a decentralized Haiti, something I have been preaching about for quite a while.”

The Jan. 12 earthquake killed more than 230,000, displaced some 2 million, and destroyed or damaged 188,383 homes, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). While the earthquake only affected one-fifth of the island, it wiped out 80 percent of the economy, according to Joseph.

“What lesson do we need more than we have to decentralize? We can no longer decide that everything should be inside Port-au-Prince,” he says.

Joseph credits himself with shepherding the Haitian Economy and the HOPE Act of 2006, which opened up US markets to tax-free Haiti textiles. In 2008, HOPE Act II extended the tax-breaks for 10 years, and in January 2010 it became the HELP Act and opened the US market up to many more Haitian products. “I want to make Haiti a more open society to US business,” he says.

Battling the outsider image

As for Haitians who will challenge his candidacy on the grounds that he is out of touch with a land where he has not lived for five decades, Joseph has a list of challenges for his critics.

“I challenge them to speak Creole as good as I do.

“I challenge them to look in my background and see all I’ve done for Haiti and compare me with others. See how all these years I have been working for my country even at a distance.

“I challenge them also to think about what the Haitian diaspora has done for the country. The Haitian diaspora has transferred $2 billion in remittances every year – that’s a quarter of GDP! Diaspora and Haitians at home are one in the same.”

That’s why, Joseph says, he will campaign to push for parliament to pass a law allowing dual nationality.

Joseph-Wyclef ticket for 2010?

Joseph says he wants to instill pride in Haitians, and to dispel the negativity that surrounds the island's image as the hemisphere's poorest country.

“This little country that people are belittling – it should be a foundation of wealth, a foundation of liberation, for the whole hemisphere,” he says. “In 1804, there were only two independent nations in this hemisphere: the US and Haiti, and only one stood for the freedom of all individuals. And we showed it in action. I want Haitians to return to that vision that they are a great people.”

Professor Gamarra of Florida International University warns that Wyclef's super-stardom alone won't win the election for him or for his uncle. "It’s not just a connection with a single individual that is going to make anybody president of any country," he says.

With Joseph now running for president, Wyclef will test that assumption, as he will no doubt be a part of the Haiti election this fall.

A big question now looming is: Will Wyclef play a supporting role or a leading role?

Will Haitians see Wyclef Jean take the stage this fall to introduce his uncle as the family's presidential candidate?

“I wish that could happen,” says Joseph. “We don’t have to wait too long to see.”

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