In a stroke of cowardice, Haiti’s electoral council postponed its decision yesterday to either accept or reject the 34 candidates who have filed papers for the presidency of Haiti.
Throughout the day yesterday, CEP officials as the council is known, kept mum while people anxiously awaited the decision. In the morning, rumors began circulating that the decision would come by early evening as a way to curb any potential civil disturbances that were anticipated if certain candidates were rejected.
But by the early evening, it was announced that a decision will be made on the 20th. The CEP has been poring over those documents for weeks and compared to previous years when more than 100 candidates have registered, 34 seem manageable and yet officials could not muster the courage to make the announcement who will get a chance to lead the Caribbean’s most troubled nation.
The reason for this delay is simple. He goes by the name of Wyclef Jean. The former Fugees front man is the leading candidate in Haiti, a major thorn on the sides of Haitian officials and a source of much debate among Haitians living in the United States.
Wyclef, according to the Associated Press, has been in hiding in his native country after receiving death threats. And so it is that as Haiti struggles to dig itself under the rubble of the January earthquake, it finds itself distracted by an election that some people thought were not a priority for a country with so many challenges.
But Haiti’s discredited political opposition and the international community felt it was necessary to hold the vote for the sake of democracy. So now, with an unpalatable front runners, the powers that be in Haiti find themselves in a curious position as to how to handle Wyclef’s candidacy.
While Haitian officials scramble for a strategy, people have remained calm and awaiting their news. On Monday, however, people were ebullient and looking forward to Wyclef making the ballot and voting for him on election day, November 28.
I, like many Haitian Americans and international observers found the people’s infatuation with Wyclef a bit puzzling. Why do they want him as their leader? What has he done for the country beyond the cosmetic? What organization has he led to show that he is a capable and proven manager?
After a week in Haiti last week, I realized these were the wrong questions. The reality is that since this democratic experiment began in 1986, Haitians have never elected a proven and competent president. Their vote has always centered around the cult of the personality rather than a thoughtful deliberation of a candidate.
This mindset was responsible for Jean Bertrand Aristide and Rene Preval, both failed presidents, although Preval managed to remain in office for both of his terms while Aristide was deposed twice.
Wyclef’s problems have been well documented in the US media but I don’t think they have gotten much traction among his supporters who see him more as Robin Hood than Billy the Kid. He owes the International Revenue Services about $2 million in back taxes. He owes a jeweler money and has been sued by his business associates. It’s been reported that he misused funds from his charitable Yele Haiti Foundation. Those stories are playing to traditional American and international audience, but not in Haiti where the voters reside.
Establishing a working democracy in Haiti has been a priority for the United States, which has poured millions of dollars to strengthen some institutions. But that money has not been well spent and as long as Haiti’s grinding poverty is not alleviated, the process cannot move forward. The idea that a country as poor as Haiti can be democratic is deeply flawed. The country has experienced a steady dehumanization process where children and adults rummage through garbage for something to eat. Many middle class families don’t know where their next meal is coming from. So facing such stark realities, voting rationally as some who want, became the least of people’s priorities.
In Latin America, it is said that the people choose their leader in their own image. That is so true in the case of Haiti and to me that what explains the Wyclef phenomenon. The voting public — Haiti’s most disenfranchised — see him as a son or a brother, despite the musician’s shortcomings.
In that sense whatever the CEP decides on Friday, Jean will remain in the political scene and if he’s serious, he can ensure that he establishes residency in Haiti for five consecutive years as mandated by the Haitian constitution and run again in five years. After all, he’s only 40.
That would give him ample time to get his tax issues in the United States in order and continue his work in Haiti. Frankly, the question of a Wyclef Jean presidency is not, if but when.