Wyclef Jean was not the only presidential hopeful rejected by Haiti’s electoral commission after a much delayed announcement last week. With him were 14 other candidates, including all representatives of the Haitian diaspora. And while Jean and at least four others prepare to appeal the decision, debate has sparked in Haiti over what some perceive as an attack against the diaspora.
Though the CEP declined to identify the motivations behind the exclusion of Jean, New York doctor Kesler Dalmacy and Miami activist Lavarice Gaudin, among others, most of them were likely rejected on residency grounds. The Haitian constitution requires all candidates for presidency to have resided in Haiti for the five consecutive years previous the election. Hip-hop musician Jean has lived in the United States since age nine, though his lawyers have recently argued otherwise.
As former ambassador to Washington, his uncle Raymond Joseph was exempt from the residency requirement, but was rejected on a technicality, which some perceive as an excuse for a politically motivated move to eliminate the competition of wealthier and influential diaspora members. Joseph announced yesterday that he is also appealing.
“It’s clear something wrong happened with the diaspora candidates, because most of the accepted local candidates had the same problems as the rejected ones,” said Jean-Junior Joseph, a political blogger and outspoken member of the Haitian diaspora.
The decision, according to Joseph and many others, was not technical but political. But the diaspora, which can play an enormous role in Haitian elections by mobilizing votes and funds, seems ready to pick up the fight.
“Friends in the diaspora told me they got the message,” Joseph said. “Our voices will be heard. We will build up a vast campaign against those accepted candidates, once they come to collect money from us.”
Before the January earthquake, Haiti’s large, professional diaspora contributed some $2 billion in yearly remittances, making up almost 25 percent of the country’s GDP. They were first in mobilizing funds after the earthquake and have been actively involved in reconstruction efforts, Minister of Haitians Living Abroad Edwin Paraison said in an interview last month.
After the CEP’s decision, his Ministry released a statement saying that “it regrets that no candidates from the diaspora have been accepted to participate in the next presidential election” and “it is under obligation to direct attention to a number of important points necessary to guarantee the CEP works more transparently.”
The statement argues that the electoral law fails to indicate the minimum number of days a candidate is required to remain in the country each year to meet the 5-year residency requirement. It also urges progress on a Dec. 2009 law proposal that would allow Haitians residing abroad the right to vote.
“There is a certain fluidity around the question of residency, which leads to different interpretations, often negative for the aspirations of diaspora candidates,” Paraison said in another statement.
“This is a situation that must be clarified through constitutional reform.”
There are an estimated 1 million Haitians of voting age living abroad. If one counts those with foreign nationality – and aspiring to the right to hold dual citizenship – the number doubles.
“It’s time that our diaspora is no longer only a cash cow, but that the Haitian state allows it to enjoy its rights,” Paraison said. Before becoming minister Paraison himself lived in the Dominican Republic for 26 years.
“Personally, I believe the right of the diaspora to vote will be indisputable by 2015,” he added. “Time has come to open doors to the political participation of the diaspora.”
Paraison also met last March with the Commission of Electoral Observation (OEA/CARICOM), a body of foreign observers from the Organization of American States and the Caribbean Community, appointed to monitor the Haitian electoral process.
“It’s the first time that international observers have expressed favor towards the participation of the diaspora in an electoral process,” Paraison said.
But the diaspora’s political participation has been less welcome than its economic one. One diaspora representative sits on the country’s Interim Reconstruction Commission as non-voting member. And though proposals to change it have been in the making for years, the 1987 constitution prevents Haitians from holding multiple nationalities, and therefore keeps many expats from voting or seeking office.
Reversing the law to allow dual citizenship and granting Haitians abroad the right to vote was virtually the only specific proposal Wyclef Jean put forward before his campaign was cut short by the CEP’s ruling. But he was not the only one calling for greater diaspora participation in the country’s politics.
“Haiti cannot develop without the support of the Haitian diaspora, even the people who are anti-diaspora depend on the diaspora to live,” said Raymond Joseph last week, before he learned of his candidacy’s rejection.
Joseph acknowledged that some in the Haitian political elite are fearful of the diaspora’s competition, but argued it is in their interest to open their doors to them.
“There are some who believe in keeping their little pie a small pie and eating it by themselves,” Joseph said in an interview. “What I propose is to bring a mammuth pie. Those used to eating pie will have a bigger slice, but everyone else will also eat pie. That’s what the diaspora coming back will do.”
Born in Haiti, raised in New York and based in Miami, Bryenne Jonassaint is a 38 year-old school teacher who at some point spent 17 years without returning to her country. But since the earthquake she has been back three times and is planning more trips.
“Sometimes people here feel like we are aliens in their territory, but we are the ones with the money and the education,” said Jonaissant, who said she would move to Haiti “tomorrow’ if she could, but cited security concerns as one reasons why she doesn’t.
Jonaissant’s American husband and daughter have never been to Haiti, and she is admittedly more concerned with the four Haitians running for US Congress from Florida than with the Haitian presidential elections. But she is also one of many expats that since the earthquake have felt the need to get involved back home.
“We are coming to help not to hurt. The government needs to understand that and make people understand that,” Jonaissant said about hostility she faced. “And the local elite want change too, they want to be able to drive in a nice street, because they have been to other places and they know what it’s like there.”
Many in Haiti are suspicious of returnees like Jonaissant, whom they perceive as removed from their reality and ready to move overseas at the first sign of instability. But they are more weary of those with political ambitions in Haiti. They feel the diaspora hasn’t done enough for Haiti and suspect it is motivated by the prospect for power and profit at a time when enormous capital is being moved into the country, rather than by a genuine, long-term commitment to its people.
“These diaspora candidates haven’t been doing anything for us. They are great doctors and engineers, but you only hear about them when the election time comes,” said Carel Pedre, a popular radio host in Port-au-Prince.
“They should have been involved in Haiti much before the election,” he added, pointing to Wyclef Jean as an exception and an example for the diaspora to follow.
“Diaspora people only run for president, you don’t see them running for other positions,” Pedre said to explain the bids for presidency by members of the diaspora. “I would love to have a well-educated, diaspora mayor of Port-au-Prince, but they only come here when they think they can become president.”