Wyclef Jean for Haiti president: Four challenges he'll face

Wyclef Jean is expected to officially announce his run for Haiti president tonight on Larry King Live. The Monitor spoke with Wyclef's brother and spokesman about the major challenges he'll face before he can win Haiti's presidency.

Allison Shelley/Reuters
A woman and a child pass graffiti Thursday on the streets of Croix-des-Bouquet, Haiti, promoting Wyclef Jean's presidential bid.

Wyclef Jean enjoys massive popularity and financial resources as he prepares to run for Haiti president, but he already faces several potential roadblocks.

The 40-year-old was today set to finalize his candidacy, filing his papers with the election commission in Port-au-Prince and appearing on the Larry King Live show to formally announce his run.

“Win or lose, Clef’s participation in this election has the potential to change the landscape of Haitian politics," says his brother, Sam Jean, who is acting as spokesman. "It’s going to bring an incredible amount of scrutiny, and that’s good for the Haitian people."

IN PICTURES: Wyclef for President

Wyclef is a strong contender to win the whole thing, say analysts, although he will face questioning in the coming weeks over at least four issues: his residency, his education, his political ideology, and allegations of improper practices at his non-profit Yéle.

1. Residency

Wyclef’s residency is in the spotlight because the Haiti Constitution requires, in Article 135, that a president never have taken foreign citizenship and to have resided in the country for five years consecutive to the election.

Wyclef was born in Haiti and moved to the United States when he was nine years old. He now owns homes in New Jersey and Jérémie, a coastal town about 280 km west of Port-au-Prince. And while he represents Haiti as ambassador-at-large, he is also frequently touring the world playing music.

So it remains unclear if he has lived in Haiti long enough, or consistently enough, to meet the constitutional requirement.

“Our Haitian legal team has looked over it,” says his brother, speaking to the Monitor by telephone Thursday from Los Angeles, where he runs the small consultancy Majenation Inc. Sam, who has taken American citizenship himself, says his brother Wyclef “has never, ever become a naturalized citizen. I suggested that it would make things easier [while on music tours]. He said, ‘No, I’m keeping my Haitian passport.’ ”

As such, Jean says Wyclef's candidacy is legal, but it is widely expected to be challenged in the coming months.

2. Education

Beyond questions of legality, Wyclef faces scrutiny over his lack of education. After graduating from Vailsburg High School outside of Newark, he briefly attended Five Towns College on Long Island in the late 1980s. He dropped out after less than a year to pursue a professional – and very successful – music career with The Fugees and then as a solo artist.

While he has taken classes at Berklee College of Music in Boston in the past year, according to Jean, he hasn't earned an undergraduate degree.

Nevertheless, in May he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Western Connecticut State University.

Brother Sam dismisses suggestiongs that a formal education is necessary to run for president. “If running for office means one has to be a highly educated candidate, then a lot of candidates would not pass the test and democracies would be run by elites,” he says. The more important question, he says, is: “Can you articulate the needs of Haiti? None of that is contingent on having a classic education.”

3. Political ideology unknown

Nor does Wyclef fit into the classic mold of a politician rising through the ranks: He has never held public office, and his political ideology remains largely unknown.

“I would be hard-pressed to tell you what he believes in. I don’t know if he’s on the left or on the right,” says Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University.

Wyclef does not fit into any clear ideological mold, says his brother.

“I would use the term progressive,” he says. “A lot of the issues here in America, such as gun control, the death penalty, taxation, don’t really translate to Haiti.” There, he added, “We’re talking about basic nation building.”

Wyclef is expected to run on the ticket of the new coalition party Ensemble Nous Faut (We Must Do It Together), which was formed by Pierre Eric Jean-Jacques, former leader of the country’s Chamber of Deputies. Wyclef in 2005 voted for current President René Préval, a close ally of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

“If he wins, he will have a cabinet that has a broad coalition… a cabinet of reconciliation,” says Sam Jean.

4. Problems at Yéle

Yet another potential challenge is Wyclef’s management skills. “Everything I’ve heard is that his management skills are not what make him attractive,” says Professor Gamarra of Florida International University.

Wyclef has been accused of enriching himself through his non-profit Yéle Haiti, which raised more than $9 million for earthquake relief. Days after the Jan. 12 earthquake, a report in The Smoking Gun claimed that Wyclef and his business partner charged the foundation at least $410,000 for rent, production services, and a performance at a 2006 benefit concert. Moreover, the NGO paid for airtime on a Haitian radio station owned in part by Wyclef.

Wyclef offered an apology, but insisted he never personally gained financially from the NGO.

Sam Jean says that independent auditors looked into all allegations and found no misconduct. He adds that the radio time from Wyclef’s station was the cheapest of all advertising options. “These stories are designed to attack a person’s credibility without presenting the full picture,” he says.

Wyclef officially resigned from Yéle on Aug. 4, according to a statement from the organization, in order to focus on his campaign.

"While my role with Yéle may be changing, I am not stepping down in my commitment to Haiti," Wyclef said in a statement. "On the contrary, regardless of what path I take next, one thing is certain – my focus on helping Haiti turn a new corner will only grow stronger.”

IN PICTURES: Wyclef for President

(With additional research from Leigh Montgomery)

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