THERE IS no doubt hip-hop star Wyclef Jean has injected a real buzz and excitement into Haiti’s wide-open presidential election. Desperate for hope, and inspired by his singular story of success and of escape, many of the island’s young – 50 per cent of the population is under 21 – appear likely to embrace his promise of “something new”. Six months after the earthquake that killed 250,000 and made 1.5 million homeless, crowds in the teeming Port-au-Prince slums cheered to the echo as he announced his candidacy.
Haiti undoubtedly requires an effective, legitimate government in order to rebuild, and the election and reconstruction are intimately linked. But whether, right now, it needs such buzz and excitement, and the naive, well-meaning enthusiasm of its most celebrated exile in the battered presidential palace is another matter. Haitians, who mostly earn less than $2 a day, one million of them still homeless and forced to live in the capital’s squalid and lawless 1,300 tent cities, complain they are worse off than ever. General food distribution stopped in March and there is little paid work. Only a small fraction of the promised $5.3 billion in international aid has materialised.
Government failure has compounded the lack of resources and outgoing president Rene Preval, barred by term limits from running again, is seen by many NGOs as part of the problem. His successor, and there is no front-runner among the five nominees, will be key to restoring frayed relations with the aid community and rebuilding a barely functioning state apparatus.
“I would like to tell President Barack Obama that the US has Obama and Haiti has Wyclef Jean,” the three-time Grammy winner told cheering supporters. Unlike Obama, however, the founder of the high-profile Yele Haiti charity which has to date raised $16 million for earthquake relief, has real problems conforming to the citizenship/residency requirement for office – he has been living in New Jersey for over 20 years. The electoral council still has to rule on the issue.
Some of his critics, like the banned party of deposed president Bertrand Aristide, see Jean as a stooge of the US, and among his sharpest critics is actor Sean Penn who runs a tent city for the homeless in Port-au-Prince. “He has been virtually silent, for those of us in Haiti he has been a non-presence,” Penn told CNN last Wednesday, pointing to allegations Jean misused funds donated to his charity. True to Haiti form, this is likely to be a no-holds-barred election campaign.