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Hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean could be real contender for Haitian presidency

For a while, the hip-hop artist looked like a major contender in the Haitian presidential race. But legal issues appear to have prevented him from running.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 2010; 5:42 PM

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- In the space of two weeks, Wyclef Jean has redrawn the map of Haitian politics, emerging as a new force -- and perhaps the leading contender -- in a presidential election scheduled for November.

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When the Haitian-born hip-hop star filed Aug. 5 as a candidate to replace President René Préval, he announced that his goal was to lead this nation as it spends $10 billion in international aid funds to recover from the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and left the capital in rubble.

Jean's music has made him a household name in Haiti, but the New Jersey resident has never run for political office. He has, however, recorded a much-loved song titled "If I Were President" and spread around a lot of cash sponsoring an aid organization called Yéle Haiti, which pays battalions of teenage boys to take to the streets in bright blue T-shirts to pick up trash and debris.

Despite his newcomer status and U.S.-accented Creole, Jean's entry into the campaign changed the electoral equation overnight, analysts here say. On the one hand, his name is familiar to millions of illiterate Haitians who have no idea who the other candidates are or what they represent. On the other, his image as an outsider carries a powerful appeal for Haitians yearning for a new way out of their misery -- the fresh departure that traditional politicians have been unable to provide.

"Wyclef is a game-changer," said Lionel Delatour, a veteran Haitian political and economic consultant.

Former prime minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis, himself a candidate, agreed that many Haitians, particularly young unemployed men stuck in the slums of Port-au-Prince, are looking for a new face and might find it in Jean. "We have a political class here in Haiti that is exhausted," said Alexis, 62. "We need a new generation of young spirits."

But others wonder if Jean is the right spirit. He reportedly owes the Internal Revenue Service more than $2 million, raising questions about his competence as a manager. Reported irregularities in his charitable activities have prompted concern about his ability to guarantee that billions in aid money gets properly spent. Even his age is obscure; he has been variously said to be 35, 37 and 50.

Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, who head the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, said Tuesday they will continue raising and spending aid money without reference to the election. But having as president a hip-hop singer with shaky personal finances would inexorably raise questions about the wisdom of continuing to shower Haiti with aid funds.

"Wyclef cannot be president. He is an artist," said Dorvelus Gerald, a painter in Port-au-Prince. "His thoughts should be with his art."

Jean's candidacy has also been challenged before Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council on the basis of his residency in New Jersey. Having left Haiti as a young boy, he has visited frequently over the years but never lived here full time as required by the Haitian constitution. His attorneys argue that his official appointment as a goodwill ambassador in 2007 makes that requirement irrelevant.

The council was due to render its verdict Tuesday on the eligibility of Jean and 33 other candidates who have announced for the Nov. 28 first-round vote. But after deliberating late into the night, it said the decision would be revealed Friday.

The marathon consultations highlighted the seriousness with which Jean's candidacy is being taken. Police backed by U.N. peacekeeping forces erected steel barriers around the council building, in the upscale suburb of Petionville, to keep demonstrators away. Rumors flew that one of Jean's main backers had been arrested. Some said bribes were changing hands. Others described council members being summoned to Préval's office for advice.

Jean, Haitian analysts pointed out, has won support among many of the same disenfranchised poor who supported the populist Jean-Bertrand Aristide a decade ago. Disappointed by Aristide's failure to turn the country around, the capital's slum residents, many organized into gangs, were seen as a source of potential violence if the hopes they have pinned on Jean were frustrated by an administrative decision on his residency.

Aristide, a priest turned revolutionary, was elected in 2000 but ousted in a military coup. Restored to power four years later in a U.S. military intervention ordered by Clinton, he was driven into exile in South Africa before the end of his second term.

Since then, his Lavalas movement has fractured into competing streams and many of his leading followers, including Préval, now represent the political establishment that Jean wants to challenge. A potential rival to Jean for the presidency, for instance, is Jude Celestin, a bureaucrat who heads the National Equipment Center and was picked to run on the ticket of Préval's Unity party. Another is Alexis, who as Préval's prime minister gained a political foothold in the provinces as well as in the capital.

Other candidates include Leslie Voltaire, a U.S.-educated architect; Yvon Neptune, a former prime minister; and Yves Christallin, Préval's social affairs minister. All three benefit from their past under Aristide's mantle but suffer from a lack of exposure outside Port-au-Prince and an identification with politics-as-usual.

Even if the electoral council disqualifies him, Jean could influence the vote by supporting another candidate, analysts said. One choice would be Raymond Joseph, a retired former ambassador to the United States -- and Jean's uncle.



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