What the U.S. Can Learn from Haiti’s Politics
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by Chip Krakoff

Haiti, since it won independence from France in 1804, has never impressed the rest of the world with its ability to govern itself. For most of its history the country has lurched from one political crisis to the next, occasioning several military interventions by the United States, as well as severe poverty, corruption, and civil unrest. With 19 candidates now planning to contest November’s presidential election, chaos would seem to be likeliest outcome, probably accompanied by violence. And yet, at least one of the leading candidates has shown a degree of maturity and responsibility that few of our elected officials in the United States can muster.

The hip-hop star Wyclef Jean instantly became a front-runner when he announced his candidacy several weeks ago. He immediately became the favorite of Haitian youth, as well as of many of those worst affected by Haiti’s January 12 earthquake. His very celebrity, and the passion of his supporters, drew inevitable comparisons to another inexperienced presidential candidate who was also vastly popular with the poor, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who bears a large share of the responsibility for the past two decades of political chaos and violence.

In general, popular celebrities rarely make good political leaders.  Think of the Philippine movie star Joseph Estrada, removed from office as President for corruption (and it would have to be pretty spectacular corruption to attract attention in the Philippines). Think of the soccer star George Weah, who caused a moment of extreme nervousness when he initially refused to accept his loss in Liberia’s 2005 presidential election. Think of the many Bollywood stars who have been elected to high office in India, only to prove themselves as bad as any career political hack. Think of Jesse Ventura.

There were plenty of reasons to be concerned about a Wyclef Jean presidency. His Yele Haiti charitable foundation was the object of several accusations (none proven) of misuse of funds and commingling of the foundation’s assets with those of Mr. Jean’s private businesses, which include a popular commercial TV station in Haiti. Mr. Jean also reportedly owes the IRS over $2 million in unpaid taxes. These are serious concerns in a country that is to receive billions of dollars in international aid over the next few years to rebuild after the earthquake. It’s not that Wyclef Jean was necessarily guilty of any deliberate malfeasance, but by allowing these things to happen, together with his complete lack of political experience, he raised many doubts about his ability to provide the leadership and governance Haiti desperately needs.

Wyclef Jean’s quest for the presidency ended August 20, when Haiti’s Electoral Council ruled him ineligible to run, mainly because he had failed to satisfy Haitian residency requirements. Mr. Jean, 9 years old when his parents emigrated to the United States, has spent most of his life in the U.S. and still lives there with his wife and daughter. In many countries, rules like this are often used as mere pretexts, and that could even be true in Wyclef Jean’s case, though since he was only one of 15 candidates disqualified for one reason or another there is no real reason to suspect foul play.

A lot of politicians would have been tempted to call their supporters into the streets to demand his reinstatement, but Mr. Jean resisted this temptation. In a statement issued shortly after the council’s ruling, he said he disagreed with the council’s ruling but respectfully accepted its decision. He further said he planned to stay involved in Haitian politics, though in “a different role than I had anticipated it to be.” There is no reason to doubt his word, and plenty of reasons to think he can be a force for good, both during and after the electoral campaign.

To find a similar example of political grace in the United States we may have to go back to our 1960 presidential election, in which Richard Nixon refused to challenge the results even in the face of strong evidence that Joseph Kennedy had conspired with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to rig the vote in Cook County, Illinois in the Democrats’ favor, handing the victory to his son, JFK.

Posted 09-01-2010 10:44 AM by Charles Krakoff