In its hit song “Haiti”, the Konpa group System Band rhapsodizes about the hard luck country, bemoaning its troubled history, particularly in the last 25 years.
“Nou eseye ou ak dokte, nou eseye ou ak milite, nou eseye ou ak pwofese, nou mem eseye ou ak pe, a la mise,” bellows Isnard Douby, the band’s lead singer with his trademark nasal baritone delivery. “We tried a doctor, we tried the military, we tried a professor, e even tried a priest.”
Now we may have to add singer to System Band’s list of failed leaders from various professions, if Wyclef Jean, the Haitian former front man of the hip-hop group the Fugees succeeds in his bid to become president of Haiti. Last week, Jean held a meeting in New York with many Haitian community leaders to strategize and now media reports say that he is seriously considering a run for the presidency in November.
If Wyclef thought that growing up poor in Newark may have been difficult, he will find out that hardscrabble past is more like living in the hills of South Orange when trying to tackle Port-au-Prince’s intractable problems. It will be a major coup if he manages to get on the ballot, get elected and govern successfully. He would be the first to achieve that feat in the country’s 206 year history as a republic.
The rumors of his intended run surely has created a buzz in the Haitian American community, with several people saying that the presidential bug that ails many Haitians has not eluded the hip-hop star who rose to international stardom in the mid-1990s.
Wyclef is respected by almost every Haitian because he has embraced his Haitian roots unlike many other famous sons and daughters of the troubled Caribbean nation. Before Wyclef, many stars with Haitian parents would never publicly admit their ancestry. You might hear rumors that this person and that person is Haitian, but it was never acknowledged. Wyclef made being Haitian cool again after we fell out of favor as the exotic black Frenchmen of the late 1960s and 70s.
For that he will always be respected, if not loved. He literally wrapped himself in the Haitian flag while he accepted a Grammy in 1997. It was the apex of Haitian pride, particularly in the United States where it wasn’t easy to be Haitian since the influx of boat people began arriving here in the 1980s.
Wyclef made a brief performance last month at Kreyolfest, The Haitian Times’ signature festival in Brooklyn, to the delight of the crowd who went wild when he graced the stage. He sang for about five minutes and left.
Still, I think Wyclef would be making the biggest mistake of his life by entering the most impossible situation in the world. New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg told me last year during an interview that while he had a difficult job running the Big Apple, Haiti’s then Prime Minister Michelle Duvivier Pierre-Louis had an impossible job. The task at hand is insurmountable even the casual observer of Haiti.
For a while, Wyclef had denied that he harbored any political ambitions, even though many people saw his philanthropy as a veil for his interest in politics. He told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he was only supporting his “uncle”, Haiti’s ambassador to the U.S., Raymond Joseph. But the challenges in post-earthquake Haiti appear to have shattered his common sense. This is by no means a jab at this celebrity. In the last 20 years, I’ve watched many people be chewed up and spit out while trying to help Haiti. I’ve also seen many killed in the process. Even if the most successful presidents and political leaders in North America were to convene an all-star team to help lead Haiti, I doubt they would succeed.
The problem in Haiti is not the lack of leaders per se, though most of them have been scoundrels. The crucial problem is that the country has become a society of cynics and a people who would rather be anywhere but in Haiti. You have two types left in Haiti, those who have too much at stake to leave and those with nothing at stake to stay. Bill Clinton has been tapped to be the UN Special Envoy to Haiti and in interviews he has voiced deep disappointment about the situation on the ground.
The first thing Haiti needs is to build a society from scratch. It needs to train people to think and act for the collective good and not for their narrow self-interests. How else do you explain that the average Haitian house — the owners’ financial lot notwithstanding – is impeccably tidy. While the trash piles sky high on the streets of all major cities. I know of CEOs of private enterprises and executive directors of government ministries who lament the fact that they can’t find a decent secretary to type a grammatically correct letter. The goods ones are working in Miami and Manhattan.
Wyclef has been successful at reinventing himself. He refashioned his brand as an entrepreneur — philanthropist while most of his contemporaries in the music industry are being profiled on VH1’s “Where Are They Now?” But entering the world of Haitian upper echelon make Washington’s brass knuckle politics seem like Power Rangers.
After almost a dozen years, I decided to quit my position at the New York Times to launch the Haitian Times. Idealistic and at the top of my game, I thought this would be welcomed with open arms. I thought I was bringing energy and experience to the community. That move was immediately viewed suspiciously by many who wondered why I was leaving my comfortable perch at the nation’s most prestigious news organization to toil in the community trenches. Motives were given. He was a CIA plant; the New York Times was behind the move. It never dawned on anyone that I was driven purely through a sense of noblesse oblige and that I saw my community was at a critical crossroad and needed such a publication to help it navigate through the complicated and complex world that is the United States.
I was able to last this long by relying mostly on non-Haitian businesses interested in tapping the Haitian community. Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with Haiti itself, you’re on your own and there have been few success stories to report out of the place. The irony is that the country is brimming with energetic, entrepreneurial people, the kind that America yearns for. No wonder we’re doing alright in this country.
Wyclef is going to need all the help he can muster to navigate this treacherous water in which he is about to dip his toes. He will have to understand the true meaning of the word Yele, or scream. He will be doing it everyday.