PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – On Tuesday, Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council, or CEP as it is known by its French acronym, will disqualify some of the 34 people who have filed formal applications to become the next president for various reasons.
In the past, the thinning of candidates was a routine exercise meant to usher the campaign season. But this year, while the elections are scheduled for November 28, many believe that the CEP’s decision on August 17 will most likely determine the eventual winner.
The leading candidate by far is Wyclef Jean, hip-hop musician, philanthropist, and roving ambassador for Haiti. But Jean has a nagging problem. He hasn’t lived in Haiti for five consecutive years and has been ambassador for only three years. Had he been an envoy for at least five years, Jean would have fulfilled the residency requirement as stipulated under the Haitian constitution.
The hip-hop musician has retained a team of six lawyers who are poring over the ever-elastic constitution to find a way to ensure his candidacy. Tuesday’s decision by the CEP is likely its most anticipated in decades. It could either anoint Jean as Haiti’s next president or could plunge the country into its worst chaos in decades.
If he is rebuked, his supporters are expected to take to the streets and demand that he is reinstated. Failure to do so may result in political gridlock and paralyzed the capital city of Port-au-Prince, which is already crippled with more than 1.6 million people living under tents after the devastation of the January earthquake.
Jean’s slogan “FasAfas” or face to face, resonates largely with the youth, who he said drafted him to be president. On the streets of Haiti, people are already proclaiming Jean president. So an unfavorable decision by the CEP is likely to unleash the frustration of those youth, most of them disenfranchised by a society set up for a tiny elite to the detriment of the majority.
Such seemingly simple but sobering analysis seem to confound international political experts who cannot understand how a musician who barely speak Creole and French – the two official languages of Haiti – can rise so quickly to the political scene and be so endearing to the masses.
But to those who have followed Haiti’s recent history closely, Jean’s candidacy is familiar tune in Haiti’s political sonata. His candidacy is eerily similar to that of many other candidates from Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier to Jean Bertrand “Titid” Aristide to even Rene “Ti Rene” Preval, the man Jean is trying to succeed.
Jean’s story has all of the elements that the large majority of Haitians have said they want in a leader, only to be rebuked by the minority class bent on having things their way, no matter the consequences.
Jean was born of modest means in Croix des Bouquets, a small city outside of Port-au-Prince. His father was a minister who took his family to Brooklyn when Jean was roughly 10 years old in search of a proverbial better life in America. After struggling in the music scene for years, Jean made it big with the band the Fugees, winning a Grammy award for the album, The Score.
In accepting the Grammy, Jean drapped himself in the Haitian flag, and many believe that the first seed of his candidacy was sown that moment with millions watching across the world. He quickly became a hero to Haitians overseas and those in Haiti. Jean was a constant visitor to his homeland, many times with Hollywood celebrities and other luminaries in tow.
Duvalier was a country doctor loved by the poor for his work eradicating leprosy in the countryside. Aristide was and still is revered by the masses for speaking out against the excesses of Jean Claude Duvalier as a parish priest in the slums of Port-au-Prince. Preval was elected twice and most recently in 2005 for his self-deprecating style. Although he has lost most of his support since the earthquake and for failing to bring Aristide back to Haiti from his exile in South Africa as many people thought he would when they voted for him.
Jean’s candidacy is more reminiscent to that of Aristide. The former priest’s slogan was Lavalas, which rhymes with FaceAfas. Jean’s candidacy appears to have mushroomed overnight and was hugely popular in the slum areas and among some middle class Haitians who are disenchanted with the political class. The second most popular candidate is Michel Martelly, AKA Sweet Micky, another musician. Martelly was a favorite of the poor, but fell out of favor after his deep involvement with the rabidly anti-Aristide group GNB.
The coterie of candidates consists of some discredited old hands and fanciful candidates. None of them have a narrative that resonates with the people nor have accomplished something visible that can endear them to the people who are in need of just about everything.
While Aristide was largely a failed president – having been overthrown twice – if Jean is elected, he will be well served by studying Aristide’s tenure in office and learn from all of the former priest mistakes. Aristide thought that he was only the president of the masses and that the tiny elite was irrelevant in Haitian society. That shortsightedness costs him a chance to lead the masses out of its morass and a place in Haiti’s history as someone who was able to turn the country around. He could have convinced the population to follow him by bringing the poor together with the rich and build a stronger Haiti. Instead, he became a divider.
If Jean fails to learn the lessons of Aristide’s presidency, he will become the latest in a string of failed leaders who were ushered into the office with so much hope and aspiration only to disappoint the people yet again.