by CHARLES M. BLOW
Wyclef Jean will be gone until November, if not longer. The hip-hop star officially announced in Port-au-Prince on Thursday that he’s running for president of Haiti. The election is scheduled for Nov. 28.
It is a fascinating bit of celebrity news. But it’s also a very serious pursuit by an utterly untested and unqualified candidate who has a strong chance of actually becoming the president of that crippled nation.
Jean, a Haitian citizen who grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey and who many simply call Clef, enters a crowded field. It includes his own uncle, Raymond Joseph, the distinguished silver-haired Haitian ambassador to the United States, whom Jean himself had encouraged to run.
But Jean has been catapulted to the front of that field because celebrity trumps solemnity. If he can prove that he meets the residency requirements, which some doubt, he has a serious chance.
So we must take his candidacy seriously. The question for Wyclef becomes: “Why, Clef?”
It’s a pressing question because whoever wins takes over what many considered a failed state even before the devastating January earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and worsened an already desperate situation.
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer put the question to Jean on Thursday on “Larry King Live.” Here is the sum total of Jean’s rambling, somewhat incoherent, answer: “Well, after Jan. 12th, I would say over 50 percent of the population is a youth population. And we suffered for over 200 years. Now that our country has a problem, it’s a chance to rebuild from the bottom on up. And I don’t even say I’m trying to be president. I’m being drafted by the youth of Haiti. Right now is a chance for to us bring real education into the school, infrastructure, security and proper jobs. So this is some of the reasons that I’m running.”
Wow! Let’s just say that he’s no Demosthenes.
When Blitzer asked him what made him qualified, Jean responded, “When I look at the past 200 years with what our people have suffered, Wolf — political instability, coups after coup d’états. I feel that me running, it bring as neutral situation — meaning that Wyclef Jean can sit with any political party, have a conversation. I’m coming in neutral.”
Neutral, huh? Some Haitians may not see it that way. During the 2004 coup that ousted then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Jean voiced his support for the rebels to MTV News and called for Aristide to step down.
As for management experience, one of Jean’s only stints was at the helm of his nonprofit Yéle Haiti Foundation. It came under scrutiny soon after the earthquake because of the way it uses its money. The Smoking Gun reported that, “Internal Revenue Service records show the group has a lackluster history of accounting for its finances, and that the organization has paid the performer and his business partner at least $410,000 for rent, production services, and Jean’s appearance at a benefit concert.” Jean has denied any wrongdoing and stepped down from the foundation on Thursday.
Since Jean has never held political office, left the country when he was 9, has little management experience and has yet to take any detailed policy positions, the only benefit of a Jean presidency at this point would appear to be his ability to leverage his celebrity. That sounds exciting in theory, but fame has its limits.
First, celebrity doesn’t necessarily loosen purse strings.
Former President Bill Clinton, one of the biggest political rock stars in the world, is already on the ground in Haiti as a United Nations special envoy and co-chairman of the international commission overseeing the billions in promised aid. Yet even he’s frustrated. Clinton told The Associated Press last month that international donors have given only 10 percent of the aid they have promised and 1.6 million Haitians are still living in tents.
So what would Jean do about this: “If that was me, I would get on my plane and I will go around the world, and — so, I’ll start right now and I’m looking at the donors and I’m saying what’s promised, we need it.” If only it were that easy, Wyclef.
As far as galvanizing other celebrities around Haiti, Jean could face just as much resistance as support.
The actor Sean Penn, who has been a major presence in Haiti since the earthquake, did not welcome the news of Jean’s run. In fact, he said that he was “very suspicious” of Jean’s motives. “For those of us in Haiti, he has been a nonpresence,” Penn said.
Jean can’t even count on his former band mates. On Thursday, a former Fugees member, Pras Michel, issued a statement endorsing one of Jean’s competitors, another musician named Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, “the most competent candidate for the job.” Besides being Jean’s former band mate, Pras is also his cousin. Ouch.
Even in terms of keeping attention trained on the country, celebrity only goes so far. CNN’s Anderson Cooper, one of the most recognized names and fawned over faces in news, has made covering Haiti his hobbyhorse. But his broadcast from that country on the six-month anniversary of the earthquake was met with disappointing ratings. If the Silver Fox of newshounds can’t keep people’s attention, I doubt if Jean will do much better.
Jean seems sincere, earnest and eager. He wants to help, and that’s noble. And the country has had so many poor leaders that it’s tempting to simply say: “Why not Wyclef?” But now is not the time to gamble. Haiti needs a serious and seasoned leader at this critical juncture — someone dedicated to the difficult and unglamorous work of applying the principles of good governance on a daily basis. In addition to rebuilding from the earthquake, Haiti’s next president must have the commitment and know-how to build viable health, educational and security infrastructures to support the country’s citizens, nurture domestic industries and attract foreign investment. It’s hard to see Jean as that leader.
A Jean presidency could not only prove unwise, it could prove disastrous. And the last thing Haiti needs right now is another disaster.
Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”