Wyclef Jean Makes Bid For Haitian Presidency

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He is a native Haitian and a Grammy-winning hip-hop star, a former member of the popular group The Fugees. Now Wyclef Jean is running for president of Haiti. Jean, who announced his candidacy last week, says, as president, he would assemble a capable team of administrators to lead the rebuilding effort in his earthquake-ridden country.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Since a massive earthquake killed an estimated 230,000 people and displaced more than a million, big names in politics and entertainment have stepped up to the plate to lend a hand. Now, as you may have heard, a Haitian-born man with rock star status has thrown his hat into the ring to not only help, but to lead the country as president. Wyclef Jean joins me in just a moment.

Also today, with the government and BP talking about vastly improved fortunes in the Gulf now that the oil leak has stopped, we check in on the mental health of residents closest to the water and we learn how children especially are feeling. Then we turn to one of a cadre of African-American oystermen who have been trying to stay financially above water since the spill began.

But first, Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean, a candidate for president of Haiti, which before the earthquake had the poorest economy in the Western Hemisphere and a legacy of poor governance. He joins us now to talk about his plans to lead and he's with us now. Welcome back, thanks so much for joining us once again.

Mr. WYCLEF JEAN (Musician): How are you? Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, we spoke back in April about your philanthropic efforts to address the situation in Haiti. And when we talk about the work, you know, why you were motivated to do this work, you said this is something you feel you had to do, that you should be doing, this is your country. But you said, I never wanted any title for it. And I wonder, were you thinking about it back then?

Mr. JEAN: No, I think that I was just thinking about how I can help the country. You have to understand, before the quake, Yele Haiti was still around constantly doing work in Haiti. I stepped up to the plate after going back and forth to the ground in Haiti and looking at the youth population which is over 50 percent.

And when you have a population that can't read, can't write, 80 percent living on less than a dollar a day, and 90 percent of the population has to pay for their schooling, and we're talking about education, it's a facade unless we start to put some policy in place that can get these people back in schools. This is some of the reason why I'm running. I never felt like government of Haiti necessarily stood for the benefit of the mass population.

MARTIN: What do you think your qualifications are?

Mr. JEAN: I think that my qualifications are, number one, that I am not a Haitian politician. The fact that you've had this corruption in this massive economy topple in the past 200 years, I think what makes me qualified is the fact that I am drafted by the youth, number one. I understand that to move Haiti forward, it's going to take policies with these four pillars with five points. And education, job creation, agriculture, security and health care. I clearly understand that.

I also understand what makes me qualified is if you have $5.2 billion sitting, which is promised by donors, somebody have to go get that money. And so you don't need just a local president, I think you need a president that's global that's going to be moving through the globe and basically telling people what you promised Haiti it's something that we need.

MARTIN: But on the governance question, on the question of administrative ability, which is I think something you've said that Haiti desperately needs, is your own track record one that would recommend you for this position? In our last conversation, we talk about the administrative difficulty with Yele Haiti, which is criticized for a lack of transparency and also for self dealing using philanthropic funds for purposes that were not considered appropriate. You said you were going to clean that up. And you said that you had. But given that experience, do you think that that experience recommends you to the people?

Mr. JEAN: You've hit it on the dot. Yele Haiti was not a foundation. It was an NGO, a non-governmental organization, that was practically ran by me. The tax situation, we dealt with that. The idea of the misuse of funds, this allegation was never proven. So in moving forward, this is why I'm even better for the position is because I've learned situations of the past firsthand. I've never said that I'm perfect, never said that there won't be mistakes.

But I understand putting the right team in place. The country will move forward. Take Wyclef Jean out of the equation. Show me someone that is qualified to move Haiti forward in the next five years that's going to take it from where it's at right now, from education to agriculture, to policy, to implementing law. I don't see that.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Wyclef Jean, hip-hop artist and Haitian activist. He says he's running for president of Haiti in this fall's election. Needless to say, you're obviously a major figure in entertainment and, also, you've been a major figure in the international scene in terms of fundraising for Haiti.

And so your candidacy has certainly gotten a lot of attention. And I just wanted to play a short clip from some people who we spoke to in preparation for our conversation, particularly Haitian-American. Sapphire Harris(ph) is a Haitian-American living in Maryland. She says several U.S.-based groups are not only excited about your bid to run, but have fundraising plans to support you. This is what she had to say about the debate over your lack of political experience.

Ms. SAPPHIRE HARRIS: The last few presidents had experience. However, the country was still not structured properly. Whereas with him, with no experience, he was still able to put into Haiti that the previous president was not able to. So, yes, you need experience; yes, you need some political background, but look at all that he has contributed to Haiti. I think that speaks for itself.

MARTIN: On the other hand, your former fellow Fugees star Pras and, of course, actor Sean Penn, who's done a lot of work in Haiti after the earthquake, have also said that they will not endorse your bid for the presidency. Why do you think that is?

Mr. JEAN: First of all, we could talk about the Sean Penn bit. Basically, Sean says I haven't been in Haiti for six months. I haven't been visible. The way that I explain that is there's 9 million people in Haiti. Yele Haiti started five years ago. What we focus on is strong, concentrated areas with a lot of troubles that NGOs would not go into: Cite Soleil, Bel Air, Gun Avim(ph), et cetera.

The area which Sean Penn is in is the Pichon Villa, a golf club, which of course has turned into a tent city population. And my idea is not to go to the places that are doing good, but it's to go to the areas that are rough. Because if these areas get hot, it's going to have a domino effect on the areas that Sean Penn is in.

As far as Prakazrel, Michel, is concerned, I fully understand. Me and Prakazrel is from the same group, The Fugees. As I mature in life, I haven't if I look back at 10 years or maybe 12, I haven't had a conversation with Pras for more than 30 seconds. So the idea of him saying I don't endorse his policies with education, my policies are as follows. If you have a population where 90 percent is paying for school, how do we create free school for this population?

And we're going to have the plan up on the Internet that people can read, they can comment on. And just the growth of Wyclef Jean is what a lot of people are having problems with right now. And I plan to just work on it. And constantly -when I was taking this role, I knew what I would embark in. But I'm ready to put myself at service to my people of Haiti.

MARTIN: Here's another comment from a Haitian-American. This is Yves Louis-Jacques. He's not living in New York. He's a Haitian-born marketing strategist who's also been very active since in the earthquake and trying to raise attention and raise funds. And so this is what he had to say.

Mr. YVES LOUIS-JACQUES (Marketing Strategist): I certainly think that he's a great representative of my country. I think that he does best as a social ambassador. I don't know that he's capable of leading the country out of the mess that we're in. The country needs change and we need a strong leader.

MARTIN: And Mr. Louis-Jacques also raised the constitutional question. He said that it's his understanding that the constitution requires that a candidate for president be resident in the country for the preceding five years. Is that your understanding as well? And how do you meet that test?

Mr. JEAN: Yes, it's definitely my understanding. And to Louis-Jacques' point, is one of the things that I think is important, which I'm hoping that we bridge is there's two things when we talk about the constitution. One is the fact that dual citizenship and the fact that once you come to America or wherever, you give up your citizenship of Haiti, you no longer can have a vote in Haiti.

But the diaspora is who's sending $2 billion every year to Haiti? More than the remittance company. So that means that that dual citizenship within the constitution, that law has to be applied so that the diaspora has more of a say in what's going on in the politics of the future of Haiti.

MARTIN: And what about your uncle, Raymond Joseph, Haiti's current ambassador to the United States? It's also our understanding that he's also running for president. Did you discuss your candidacy with him? And might this make for some awkwardness in family relations?

Mr. JEAN: No, because family is tight. So our family has always had a bipartisan mood in the house. So I think the idea of my uncle running is a great thing.

MARTIN: And, finally, I'm sure you're familiar with this, a report issued earlier this summer by Senator John Kerry's office criticized the Haitian government for not doing more to push beyond these infrastructure barriers to achieve a faster pace in the rebuilding effort. I'm wondering if you agree with that assessment. And if you are elected president, what will be the first, second and third steps you will take to address this problem?

Mr. JEAN: I mean, every time I go on the ground it's basically I'm, like, okay, what are we doing here? It still looks like there are still 1.5 million people in the tents. Looks like the rubble has barely moved. I think it's very important that we pass the red tape and pass the bureaucracy and start working on a real plan on how we start to move these people.

One of the things which I'm suggesting is Haiti has so much land and despite the dispute for land, there's land that people could get for free. And one of the things that I think will help is agriculture. Start these agrarian villages, where you can provide people with a home and a piece of land and start decentralizing Port-au-Prince. That's one of the things.

So if I am elected, my focuses will as followed: education, how do we get free education for 90 percent of the people for a certain amount of time? How do we create jobs? Job creation within this rubble removal and in this reconstruction that we're talking. How do we make sure that Haitians a part of not only just picking up the rubble from the ground, but Haitian companies from diaspora are a part of the bidding to make sure that the infrastructure goes the way the Haitian people want it.

MARTIN: Wyclef Jean is a three-time Grammy Award-winning artist. He recently announced his candidacy for president of Haiti. He joined us from New York. Wyclef Jean, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. JEAN: Thank you for having me.

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