Pros and Cons: Wyclef for President?

by Couch Sessions

Two weeks ago, Wyclef Jean officially announced his intentions to run for president of Haiti. The election, slated for November 28th, will determine current president René Préval’s successor (and the heir to Haiti’s seemingly endless slew of crises).

By now, you’re certain to know the narrative: Haitian-born Jean, the son of a Nazarene preacher, emigrated to Brooklyn as a 9-year-old and soon after moved to northern New Jersey with his family. And there began the tale of his modern-day American dream (or, Haitian-American dream, if you will): a musical career that has spanned two decades and tens of millions of dollars.

Over the years, Clef has tended to lean more towards socially and politically aware content than many of his peers (that is, if you don’t count numbers like Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” and T.I.’s “My Swag”). So it was no surprise that, in 2005, he launched Yéle Haiti, a non-profit organization whose stated mission is to support “projects that are making a difference in education, health, environment and community development.”

Of course, that’s commendable. But does it qualify him for public office? Frankly, we’re not entirely convinced. Some reports suggest that Clef is a possible frontrunner and a favorite among Haitian youth, who make up over half of the country’s population. But many critics, including the likes of Sean Penn, have vocally, and vehemently, opposed the move. Though we’re finding it difficult to take Clef’s candidacy seriously, we decided to give him a fair assessment in the form of a good ol’ fashioned pros-and-cons list.

Jean announces the launch of a new job creation initiative. (Photo via Yéle Haiti)

Clef’s celebrity status could be beneficial to Haiti. One of Jean’s talking points, and his only real upper hand, is that he can potentially keep the world’s attention on Haiti. And given that only a handful of the governments who pledged post-earthquake relief funds have delivered thus far, international outreach is essential.
Jean has done work in Haiti through Yéle. The charitable organization has been involved with education, health, and community development initiatives in Haiti; it’s also been active in earthquake relief. The extent of Jean’s personal involvement remains unclear, but, hey, at least he’s not completely clueless.
Jean is a Haitian ambassador-at-large. Current president Rene Préval appointed Clef as a goodwill ambassador in 2007. Sure, that doesn’t mean much and it’s not exactly public office. But, if anything, it intimates a degree of participation in the country’s political dialogue.
He’s a member of Haiti’s vast diaspora. As a Haitian who has lived abroad, Jean could have a fresh and engaging approach to politics in a country where corruption has been long been a dominant theme. That’s not to say that, as an American, he’s immune to corruption—just that being an outsider who’s not particularly entrenched in Haitian politics can be as much a good thing as a negative.

Clef has no political experience. There’s only so much to say about this one: he’s a musician, not a politician.
Under him, Yéle was mismanaged. Damning reports over the past year have alleged instances of corruption during Yéle’s brief history. In his defense, Jean claimed that the issue was one of mismanagement, not corruption. While that may be true, it’s not much of a defense for someone hoping to, essentially, manage a country of nearly ten million.
He doesn’t pay his taxes. According to the Smoking Gun, Clef owes over $2 million in back taxes to the IRS. Of course, it may just be an honest mistake (or a case of “bad accounting,” as he has claimed). But who wants a president who makes those kinds of mistakes, anyway?
Jean has no clear policy positions. This is the area where he had the chance to redeem himself. But, other than vaguely emphasizing “poverty alleviation” through the garment manufacturing industry and a return to agriculture, Clef has not publicly, or at least clearly, articulated any policy positions.

In brief: more American meddling, after decades of it, is the last thing Haiti needs; Jean’s Creole and French, Haiti’s two official languages, are less than fluent; Haitian and non-Haitian experts do not want him to run; his own cousin, and former bandmate, Pras refused to endorse him. Really, the “cons” seem endless. But, in closing, allow me to point out that Jean constantly refers to himself in the third person. If that isn’t unsettling, I have no idea what is.

As Charles M. Blow put it in his Times column last week: “Why, Clef?”

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.