A group of about 20 college-age girls and boys cram inside a small cinderblock classroom precariously perched atop a hill in the Port-au-Prince slum of Carrefour Feuilles. I’d told my friend Getro, who lives here, that I was curious to hear from his young neighbors about life since the earthquake. So many people have shown up to chime in that the crowd spills outside onto the cliff. Our room has no windows or doors. It’s shoddily built, the type of construction that the earthquake quickly turned into rubble. Miraculously, this place still stands in one piece.
All around us is evidence of the January katastrof–destroyed homes, donated tents pitched amongst the ruins, people getting by on crutches. But the desperation in the eyes of people crowded into this room says it all: the physical state of Carrefour Feuilles since the earthquake isn’t their biggest concern. They’ve got larger, broader battles they want the world to hear about.
“Our country was way behind in education, health services, infrastructure, and so much more before the earthquake hit,” says Hervé, a 24 year-old who hasn’t been able to return to college since January. “But now we can’t even believe in the promise of school or jobs in the future.”
When the conversation turns to the upcoming November elections, the room erupts with cynicism. A young mother of two insists she won’t be voting. Even if they vote, someone else breaks in, their votes won’t matter. Political office in Haiti corrupts and “curses” all leaders, Hervé adds, repeating a common saying here, “and besides, there aren’t any leaders who have what it takes to fix Haiti.”
Hip hop star Wyclef Jean now says he’s got what it takes. Jean has been positioning himself as a leader who can relate to the masses for years, but especially since the earthquake. He’s young, outspoken and seemingly proud of his humble upbringing. He’s also savvy and well-connected–his uncle, Raymond Alcide Joseph, has been the Haitian ambassador to the United States since 2005, with presidential ambitions of his own.
Through Jean’s Yéle Haiti Foundation, he has given scholarships to 4,500 needy children and supported mentoring and sports programs for hundreds more. This month he launched Yéle Corps, a program designed to help support youth and their families by paying them to clear the trash and rubble covering Port-au-Prince streets.
On Wednesday night, Jean ended days of media speculation and announced his plans to seek the presidency in November. “For the 250,000 people who died in the earthquake, that’s the reason we ought to see a change in the system,” Jean told listeners of a Miami-based Créole radio station, and that change starts with him. He registered his campaign in Haiti Thursday. Authorities have until Aug. 17 to approve or reject his candidacy.
The news comes as no surprise to Haitians, who have been talking about Jean’s political ambitions since his 2004 song “If I Was President” was heard over the radio.
Instead of spending billions on the war
I can use that money to feed the poor
I know some so poor, when it rains that’s when they shower
When screaming “fight the power.”
“Everyone knows that Wyclef has been wanting to be president for years,” explains 27-year-old Adolphe Miradieux as we drive past a large billboard featuring Jean, wearing a trendy fedora-type hat and dark shades. “But just because he’s young and Haitian doesn’t mean he’s one of us.”
One of us. Miradieux means the almost 1.5 million homeless living in tent camps in and around Port-au-Prince. The unemployed who can’t even land a temporary cash-for-work job paying $5 a day. The many young Haitians who want to pursue an education but can’t afford it. The families who have grown tired of depending on–and begging for–international aid for their basic needs.
Those global donors handing out aid talk about fixing and rebuilding Haiti. In the provinces and on the streets of Port-au-Prince, people talk in grander terms about the country’s needs. It needs to be re-envisioned and reinvented, to include the majority of the country’s population–women, youth, peasants, the sick, the homeless, and the ti machanns street vendors who fuel Haiti’s huge informal economy.
When I first traveled to Haiti in 2008, people were already articulating Miradieux’s uncertainty about whether Jean is the sort of leader who can create that sort of new vision for Haiti. As a U.S.-based celebrity, Jean not only appeared disconnected from the needs of poor Haitians, some believed he was using them to advance his own career. I’d come to the country to report on the real impact of foreign aid on Haitian society, and as I looked around at the hundreds of charities operating on the ground, I encountered recurring grumblings about Jean being more into photo-ops than deeds.
Back in the U.S., Yéle Haiti has fended off charges that, at best, it badly mismanaged the money it has raised. This week, the Smoking Gun published records showing that, after 12 years of operation, Yele Haiti filed tax returns for the years 2005, 2006, and 2007 only in August of last year. Those documents showed that Jean and his business partner and Yéle Haiti board member, Jerry Duplessis, had paid themselves $410,000 for services provided to their foundation. They also revealed that in 2006, the foundation paid $100,000 for the rental of a recording studio (Platinum Sound, owned by Jean and Duplessis, no less) which was used for the “musical performance services of Wyclef Jean at a benefit concert.”
Shortly after the January 12th earthquake, as Yéle Haiti was receiving up to $1 million in donations every day, Jean finally addressed his critics. He acknowledged accounting mistakes, but also issued an emotional defense of his organization and himself. “Did I ever use Yéle money for personal benefits? Absolutely not,” he said, in tears.
Now, as Jean looks ahead at his bid for the presidency, he faces new challenges both large and small. He will need to prove that he has a Haitian-only citizenship, that he has lived in the country for five consecutive years, and that owns land there. He’ll also have to prove his qualifications for running a country–not just any country, but a place with immense inequality, weak government institutions, and a population made up mostly of young people who no longer believe in the promises of politicians. More than half the population is under 21, the kind of demographic who consume Jean’s music and style–when there’s money to do so. But when it comes to reinventing and building Haiti, it remains to be seen whether young Haitians will see Jean as one of them.