Wyclef Jean on Why Only He Can Transform Haiti

Wyclef Jean Ramon Espinosa / AP

Despite being embroiled in various controversies—including management of his former charity, Yéle Haiti, and his eligibility to run for president—hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean believes himself to be a leading contender in Haiti's upcoming election.. The country suffered a devastating earthquake on Jan. 12 that killed more than 200,000, and whoever wins this November must oversee some $10 billion in promised international aid. Jean spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jerry Guo earlier this week, shortly before he went into hiding over death threats. Excerpts:

There are several competent candidates running, including your uncle, Raymond Joseph, the former ambassador to the U.S. How are you qualified?

When you have a population where over 50 percent of the population is a youth population begging for a transition into the 21st century, as a voice [for them], this is why I have chosen to go ahead and run. I understand Haitian politics and where it has gotten this population this far—with masses not being able to read or write, with no infrastructure. The party I've started, Viv Ansanm, is a neutral party. That's a model for moving forward.

Before the earthquake, you've said, "Taking a political position is not really going to help." Why the sudden change of heart?

If you were with me on that trip with my wife—on the ground, we picked up bodies of these kids and brought them to the cemetery, and got on that plane and went home—you would say, "Whoa." I got close to 230,000 of my countrymen who were under the ground. The youth population is over 50 percent. What am I going to do about it? My whole thinking and strategy started: "This is the most effective way you can get better policies for Haiti," I thought.

Have you been surprised by all the negative reaction to your campaign?

No, not at all. At the end of the day, when you're singing a song, you become popular and you get these awards for popular music. There's nothing popular about running for president ... That field needs new blood and new energy to galvanize the diaspora all over the world. I didn't get involved to be part of a popularity contest.

What's the mood there inside Haiti toward your campaign?

This movement has taken over the entire country. It feels like a youth campaign. Despite how the opposition wants to come at us, there's a current that's too strong, with this new party and the youth energy. We're going to rise to the occasion.

But the youths in Haiti are notorious for avoiding the polls. How are you going to mobilize them?

We have a campaign to get them the electoral card. I voted five years ago with my electoral card, to show the youth the power of voting. When I come out, they come out. We're going to galvanize them, and they're going to come out in force. The energy is so strong—not just in Haiti, but if you Google me, it's the most talked about story in the world.

How is the recovery going?

It's very slow. When I say Haiti is open for business, we have to look past Port-au-Prince to the north and south of Haiti. There's 10 departments [provinces]; Haiti isn't just Port-au-Prince. In Jamaica they started developing Montego Bay and others. If we want to provide people with jobs, let's start building resorts. These are some of the best beaches in the world and they haven't been discovered. The Haitian diaspora every year sends $2 billion through remittances. That's $10 billion in five years, or as much as the five-year plan [designed by international donors]. I would galvanize the diaspora to start investing back in the country.

Only 10 percent of the promised aid from international donors has come in, and 1.6 million people are still living in tents. What are you going to do about that?

The international community has a plan in place, in terms of decentralizing Port-au-Prince. I will be coming in with a set of technicians. There's a lot of land near Port-au-Prince. Why don't we start agrarian villages? You provide the people with a piece of land and a home, and provide their community with vocational schools and hospitals. Now you can start decentralizing by the tens of thousands: mangrove, coffee, sugar cane, cocoa villages. These are naturally what's coming out of Haiti. Everything is being imported because we're not producing inside of our country.

You have said yourself that Haitian politics is very corrupt. How do you propose changing the system?

Welcome to Haiti. The game is going to be the game. But I can't get caught up in that. We have to make sure people are getting paid. That's not the president's department, but if I can provide opportunities, then I can help eliminate a lot of the corruption and make stronger laws. I will not be soft when it comes to respecting the law.

Having lived and worked in the U.S. for so long, as president, how would you maintain your independence?

I still have a Haitian passport. I haven't been naturalized [as an American citizen]. My first interest is the people, giving them an education and getting them back to work. There's ways of developing the country and putting millions of Haitians to work. That's a fight and we're going to do it. We have a pretty big team we're going to announce. What's important for me is that within the team, the immediate technicians are Haitians, like the economists and agronomists.

The electoral commission is going to rule this Friday on whether you are eligible to run, based on residency in Haiti for the last five years. What are you going to do if they say no?

If they say no, then I will challenge the courts with the paperwork we do have. At the same time, I wouldn't want the country to go in an uproar, because I'm all about promoting peace. We would see who best goes with the movement that we're trying to push and back them at the very end. I'll never quit; I'll run in another five years.