Wyclef Jean's disqualification signals Haiti diaspora not welcome in politics

Wyclef Jean and all the other presidential hopefuls from the diaspora were disqualified from running in the Haiti election. Many see it as a politically motivated decision.

Ramon Espinosa/AP
Haitian-born singer and presidential candidate Wyclef Jean, second left, walks surrounded by security after Haiti's Electoral Council rejected his candidacy in Port-au-Prince on Aug. 20.

The disqualification of Wyclef Jean and all the other candidates from the Haitian diaspora who sought to run in the country's presidential election has led to allegations that the domestic political elite is manipulating the country's election commission to freeze out strong challengers.

In all, 15 presidential hopefuls were disqualified by Haiti's election commission (CEP), which has not explained the reasons for any of the dismissals.

“It’s clear something wrong happened with the diaspora candidates," says Jean-Junior Joseph, a Hatian political blogger. He says that many of the 19 approved presidential candidates had similar problems with their applications as those identified in the case of diaspora candidates.

The allegation of favoritism has implications beyond the diaspora. The upcoming elections are expected to cost some $29 million, with most of that to be paid by the United States and other donors, leaving foreign governments holding the bag for what critics say could be an unfair poll.

While allegations that the election commission may be politically biased are not unique to the current election cycle, there are hopes that the star power of Mr. Jean can bring attention to the issue and push the international community to demand change.

The Commission of Electoral Observation, a body of foreign observers from the Organization of American States and the Caribbean Community appointed to monitor the Haitian electoral process, has already met with Minister of Haitians Living Abroad Edwin Paraison. “It’s the first time that international observers have expressed favor towards the participation of the diaspora in an electoral process,” he says.

Among the 19 approved candidates, the front runners are seen as former prime minister Jacques Edouard Alexis, former government construction agency director general Jude Celestin (endorsed by current President René Préval), former UN envoy Leslie Voltaire, former Delmas mayor Wilson Jeudy, and former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune. No polling has yet been done.

Each of them is considered part of the political establishment. A recent editorial in Le Nouvelliste, Haiti's main newspaper, referred to the approved candidates as "the status-quo."

No reason for Wyclef Jean's disqualification

The CEP declined to identify the motivations behind its exclusion of Jean, former ambassador Raymond Joseph, New York medical doctor Kesler Dalmacy, and Miami activist Lavarice Gaudin, among others. Lawyers for Jean and Joseph announced Tuesday they will appeal the decision.

Most of them were likely rejected on residency grounds, as the Constitution requires all presidential candidates to have lived in Haiti for the five years leading up to an election. Grammy-winning hip-hop musician Jean has lived in the United States since age nine. His lawyers have argued that since Jean owns a home and business interests in Haiti, and in 2007 was appointed the country's roving ambassador-at-large, he should qualify.

The Ministry of Haitians Living Abroad, in a statement Monday, argued that the electoral law fails to indicate the minimum number of days a candidate is required to remain in the country each year to meet the 5-year residency requirement. “There is a certain fluidity around the question of residency, which leads to different interpretations, often negative for the aspirations of diaspora candidates,” Minister Paraison said. “This is a situation that must be clarified through constitutional reform.”

The ministry called on the CEP to operate with more transparency and explain its reasoning for excluding candidates.

'Our voices will be heard'

The CEP did release a document evaluating each candidate on 17 requirements set by electoral law, but in many cases that didn't explain their decision. For instance, Jean appears to have met all 17 requirements.

Jean's uncle, Mr. Joseph – who first announced his candidacy to the Monitor – was exempt from the residency requirement because he was appointed ambassador to the United States in 2005. But according to the CEP he failed to meet the requirement for a "decharge" (discharge), which is a clearance procedure whereby the Superior Court of Accounts says the candidate has properly managed public funds while on his previous post.

Joseph argued that, as an ambassador, he was not in charge of public funds as local office holders might have been, and therefore he says the requirement shouldn't apply to him.

The blogger Jean-Junior Joseph, who is not related to the former ambassador, says that nine Haiti residents also failed to meet that requirement but were approved nonetheless. “Our voices will be heard," he says. "We will build up a vast campaign against those accepted candidates.”

Money welcome back. Politicians not.

The diaspora has long retained strong economic ties to their homeland. Before the Jan. 12 earthquake, Haiti’s diaspora contributed some $2 billion in yearly remittances, making up almost 25 percent of the country’s GDP, according to Paraison, the government minister. He adds that the diaspora was first in mobilizing funds after the earthquake and has been actively involved in reconstruction efforts.

Yet the diaspora’s political participation has long been less welcome than its economic assistance. The 1987 Constitution prevents Haitians from holding multiple passports, which prevents many expatriates from voting or seeking office.

There are about 1 million voting age members of the diaspora, though it's not clear how many are eligible to vote. About 4.5 million Haitians inside the country are eligible to vote. One diaspora representative sits on the country’s Interim Reconstruction Commission, but as a non-voting member.

“It’s time that our diaspora is no longer only a cash cow, but that the Haitian state allows it to enjoy its rights,” Paraison said in a statement Monday.

Reversing the law to allow dual citizenship and granting Haitians abroad the right to vote was one of the few actual proposals that Wyclef Jean put forward before his campaign was cut short by the CEP’s ruling. Others, including his uncle Raymond Joseph, were also calling for greater diaspora participation, and that appeals both to Haitians living abroad and those who have returned home to find that they lack the same rights as their countrymen.

“Sometimes people here feel like we are aliens in their territory, but we are the ones with the money and the education,” says Bryenne Jonassaint, a diaspora member who recently visited Port-au-Prince. She was born in Haiti, raised in New York, and now lives with her family in Miami, where she works as a school teacher.

'Diaspora people only run for president'

Ms. Jonaissant’s American husband and daughter have never been to Haiti, and she is admittedly less interested in Haiti elections than she is in the four Haitians running for US Congress from Florida. But she is also one of many diaspora members who have felt the need to get involved in reconstruction efforts. Since the earthquake she has been back three times and is planning more trips.

“We are coming to help, not to hurt," she says. "The government needs to understand that and make people understand that."

Many in Haiti are suspicious of returnees like Jonaissant, who are perceived as removed from their reality. They often see returnees with political aspirations as carpetbaggers. They suspect that some returnees are motivated by greed at a time when millions of dollars are being moved into the country, rather than by a genuine, long-term commitment to its people.

“These diaspora candidates haven’t been doing anything for us," Carel Pedre, a popular radio host in Port-au-Prince, told the Monitor in an interview. "They are great doctors and engineers, but you only hear about them when the election time comes."

“They should have been involved in Haiti much before the election,” he says, while pointing to Wyclef Jean as an exception.

“Diaspora people only run for president, you don’t see them running for other positions,” Mr. Pedre says. “I would love to have a well-educated, diaspora mayor of Port-au-Prince, but they only come here when they think they can become president.”

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