Dumarsais Siméus, the most successful Haitian-American businessman in the US today, is going home to run for president of Haiti.
"I wanted my fellow native sons and daughters of the Artibonite Valley to hear it from me first.... I am a candidate for president of Haiti," Mr. Siméus, the son of illiterate peasants, announced Wednesday in his rural hometown of Pont-Sondé. "Today marks the start of a new beginning for our country ... in a time of crisis."
After months of speculation, the CEO of one of the largest black-owned businesses in the US told supporters he will start campaigning for the November election, the first since Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted following a violent rebellion in February 2004.
"What a contender!" says James Morrell, director of the Haiti Democracy Project in Washington. "Here is the richest and most successful Haitian around - running to lead a country where nothing works. This has to look awfully good. Here is evidence of someone who can get things done."
But the hurdles ahead are many. Siméus has no political experience, no name recognition, and no party in Haiti. Then, there are the worsening problems of the hemisphere's poorest nation: The gang violence, kidnappings, and other crime now are such that it is unclear whether the elections will take place this fall.
Even if the vote goes ahead, under the current interpretation of the Constitution, Siméus would be ineligible to run.
Article 135 of the Haitian Constitution states a presidential candidate must "be a native-born Haitian and never have renounced Haitian nationality," and have resided in the country for five consecutive years before the election. Siméus, 65, has taken US citizenship, and has been living in the US for 44 years.
But in a phone interview Wednesday, Simeus disagreed: "I don't have anything to overcome in terms of the Constitution or getting on the ballot. I never renounced my citizenship....My residence has been listed here ever since I was born. I have been fortunate to have other homes and other citizenships, but I never gave up my Haitian ones."
Siméus, a father of three, is a Howard University graduate with an MBA from the University of Chicago, and has held key management positions in companies such as Atari, Inc., Rockwell International, Bendix Corporation, and PromoCapital, the first investment banking firm in Haiti. He served as CEO of TLC Beatrice Foods, a $2 billion multinational conglomerate.
Today, he is CEO of Siméus Foods International, Inc. based in Mansfield, Texas, the largest minority-owned businesses in that state, according to Black Enterprise magazine. It does some $160 million in yearly sales to such customers as Denny's, T.G.I. Friday's and Burger King. He runs his own foundation, sending money to help poor communities in Haiti, and he sits on Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's Haiti Task Force. His parents, who once sold a plot of land so as to be able to send their eldest of 12 children to college in the US, still live in Haiti.
Emmanuel François, head of the Washington-based Alliance for Overseas Haitians, and a friend of the candidate, says Siméus will challenge the current interpretation of the constitution in Haiti's Supreme Court and set a precedent for other Haitian-Americans with political ambitions. "The Alliance has encouraged him to run. He has the name, the power, stamina, desire. He is a man who made a fortune but never forgot his roots," says Mr. François.
Others note that Haiti is far from a close reader of its own Constitution lately. "There is no parliament," says Morrell, "...and a permanent electoral commission has not been constituted," he adds. "With so many provisions of the constitution already breached, what logic would it make to suddenly be a stickler?"
There are an estimated 2 million Haitians living in the US, but significantly, they cannot vote in Haiti. "There is a tendency in Haiti, to look askance at members of diaspora who come back and seemingly throw their weight around," says Robert Maguire, a Haiti specialist at Trinity University in Washington. "Mr. Siméus would have to find a way around this and build trust."
Moreover, says Mr. Maguire, the country is filled with "political wannabes" who see Siméus as a threat and would "do everything they can to derail his candidacy." There are already at least half a dozen Haitians who have indicated they will run for the presidency in the elections.
But it's not certain there will be elections in November. "Adequate security, public understanding of the elections, and broad participation by those who want to register and vote are essential if there are to be fair and free elections," says Alain Délétroz at the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Washington think tank. "Unfortunately, there is little sign any of these are possible right now."
In a report released earlier this month, the ICG suggested that elections be postponed. "Empty elections that produce a government with little legitimacy could drive Haiti into permanent failed-state status, run by drug and criminal networks," it said.
Other observers differ. "Anytime is a good time to hold elections. There is no bad time, because whenever you do it - its going to be messy," says Simon Fass, author of "Political Economy in Haiti: The Drama of Survival." "Everyone is saying you have to have peace before you can hold elections - but you need a real government to make peace, and to have a government you need elections."
Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the world. It is chronically dependent on international aid, along with an estimated $800 million sent home annually by Haitians working abroad. An interim government and a 7,400-member multinational UN force has been trying to keep order in Haiti since Aristide fled the country in 2004 and lawlessness engulfed the capital.
But Siméus is undeterred "Running a country like Haiti, which is broke and in bankruptcy," he admits, "takes many of the same skills as a successful businessman: leadership, knowing how to pick the right people to work for you, knowing how to create jobs for people."
He vows to create a "country that can function properly and an environment for investment.... I want to be realistic about how long this turn around will take. It will take at least a generation, but within the first year change will start taking off. We will start the rebuilding process."
• Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.