It appears that Hip Hop star Wyclef Jean, who recently announced his candidacy for the president of Haiti in the country's forthcoming election, has a tremendous groundswell of popularity, particularly among the poor. He is saying all the right things to inspire hope in his embattled co-nationalists. But the question remains- should he win the presidency- how effective would he be?
The tenures of two popular presidents, who genuinely attempted to enact reforms for the benefit of the Haitian poor, might give an indication as to Jean's prospects. Dumarsais Estimé (1946-1950) and Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1st term, 1991) were both deposed by the military. That is one scenario Jean does not have to fret, because the military has since been disbanded. But, both Estimé and Aristide ran into an entrenched mulatto elite that felt their interests were being threatened by uplifting the poor. Jean's challenge is to convince the mulatto elite that programs for the poor are in their interest as well. Haiti has a 200-year history standing in Jean's way.
Aristide rode into power on the back of a mass movement. He had more experience than Jean has, leading the informal opposition movement that eventually swept him into power. Yet, he could not last in office beyond seven months. Estimé was a congressman before obtaining the presidency. Both Aristide and Estimé spent far more of their lives in Haiti before ascending the nation's highest office than Jean has. Jean, while evidently popular, does not have the political experience of either Aristide or Estimé. Will he be able to do a better job of fighting for the poor while placating the powerful? Does he have the diplomatic skills to pull off a feat no one has ever been able to achieve in the history of the country?
Experience is important because Wyclef Jean wouldn't merely be replacing current president René Préval. The Haitian presidency is fluid and flexible. In practice, it has not been a position with clearly defined roles. Préval was an ineffectual and relatively powerless president. Jean will have to form the role himself. Jean doesn't only need to build schools and hospitals. He needs to build education and health care systems. This is a challenge even for someone with government experience. Jean also has to contend with the prospect that the presidency is a position that has been known to change its occupants. There is debate as to whether Aristide always contained an authoritarian edge or if his first tenure corrupted him. Francois Duvalier used the throne to exact terror on his populace. Most have use it to add to their wealth.
Hope is an essential aspect of life. Wyclef Jean might be the man to infuse the feeling into Haiti's beleaguered population. But Haitians also need practical programs designed to give them an opportunity to thrive. Whether Jean has the technical expertise or the specific ideas to fulfill his dream of improving the lives of his people remains to be seen.