Wyclef ‘Very Serious’

Wyclef Jean’s planned run for Haiti’s presidency is bound to make entertainment headlines, but the hip-hop artist’s brother knows trying to take charge of this earthquake-devastated and politically unstable country is a deadly serious affair.

Schoolhouse charts of past leaders are crowded with monthslong presidencies and group shots of the military juntas that overthrew them. Heads of state have been flown into exile, crowned themselves emperor or been killed more often than they have completed constitutional five-year terms. One president was torn limb from limb by an angry mob.

Whoever wins the Nov. 28 election will face the Herculean task of rebuilding from the Jan. 12 magnitude-7 earthquake that killed a government-estimated 300,000 people while managing billions in international reconstruction dollars amid feuding officials, families and an estimated 1.6 million earthquake homeless, all hungry – some more literally than others – for their share.

Jean is expected to announce his bid for the presidency on Thursday from Haiti.

After The Associated Press first reported that an announcement was coming, the singer’s brother, Samuel Jean, said the Haitian-American family was going into the process with its eyes open and breath held.

“It’s not something that was taken lightly. It’s not a joke. It’s something very, very serious,” the younger Jean said by phone from his consultancy office in Los Angeles. “It is different for us, but we are proud of him and we are going to support him in any way we can.”

The former Fugee was born on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince but grew up in Brooklyn. His published age is 37, but his 39-year-old brother said that in fact Wyclef is likely 40, ascribing the confusion in part to their history as immigrants and Haiti’s often confusing record-keeping.

Scores of candidates are expected to compete for the presidency in the November contest. Among them is Jean’s uncle Raymond Joseph, who is Haiti’s ambassador in Washington. Other likely candidates include former prime ministers, mayors and another popular Haitian musician, Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly.

Former Chamber of Deputies leader Pierre Eric Jean-Jacques told the AP that the hip-hop artist will run as part of his coalition in the election. Jean’s brother said he could not immediately confirm what party the singer would run with.

Controversy already surrounds the election, as opponents accuse President Rene Preval of stacking the deck for an as-yet-unnamed candidate of his recently formed Unity party. He has ignored calls from U.S. senators and others to reform the eight-member, presidentially approved electoral council ahead of the vote and ensure the participation of all parties.

The last election Preval oversaw, a 2009 legislative contest, was held after more than a year and a half of delays and marred by extremely low turnout, allegations of fraud and a few, small outbursts of violence.

The party of ousted ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide – who was flown into African exile in 2004 aboard a U.S. plane – was barred from running based on a technicality. It is expected to be banned again this year.

Questions surround Jean’s bid as well. He must prove he has resided in Haiti for five consecutive years, owns property in the country and has no other citizenship but Haitian.

His brother said that unlike much of the family, Jean has never held a U.S. passport. He added that he believes that Jean’s residency requirement will be waived because he has been a presidentially appointed Haitian goodwill ambassador since 2007.

Jean would have to deal with voters undecided on Haitians abroad. Many families are dependent on successful overseas relatives for remittances but often see them as foreigners. The singer’s American-accented Creole and lack of French – for many things still the language of government here – will be constant reminders he did not grow up here.

He will also have to field questions about his Yele Haiti charity, which raised more than $9 million after the quake. The organization was widely criticized for alleged financial irregularities after the quake, when scrutiny revealed that it had paid Jean to perform at fundraising events and bought advertising air time from a television station he co-owns, among other suspected improprieties.

Yele hired a new accounting firm after the allegations surfaced.

“I think what he demonstrated in Yele was leadership. When a problem was brought to his attention he immediately dealt with it openly and transparently,” Samuel Jean said.

A businessman named Kesner Valmacy stopped by the electoral council Tuesday to register himself to run for president. He said he welcomed Jean as a competitor but that his overseas credentials should disqualify him.

“He’s a very successful man in the United States, but Haiti is very complicated,” Valmacy said.

Nearby, a 28-year-old woman who has never held a job said Jean’s youth and outsider status were attractive. In a Haitian twist, she compared his age – favorably – to former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who was so-named because he succeeded his father at the age of 19, just a few years before the Jeans’ parents yanked them from the oppressive country.

“Haiti needs something new. I’ll vote for him,” the woman, Michelle Voma, said.

While still weighing his options last month, Wyclef told the AP that he saw his role in the upcoming election as ensuring young people participate in the country’s rebuilding.

“I don’t want to be a puppet. I just want to be able to do more,” the artist said.