PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Hip-hop star Wyclef Jean has entered the race to become president of Haiti, jetting into the impoverished Caribbean country on a private plane and asking Haitians to give him “power for change.”
“The United States has Obama, here you’re going to have Wyclef,” the Haitian-born founder of landmark 1990s group The Fugees said after arriving Thursday with his wife and daughter.
A crowd of young supporters sporting red and white t-shirts gathered in the Delmas neighborhood of the capital to escort Jean as he filed his candidacy papers at the electoral council office.
“We have to live together, work together to change Haiti, open more schools,” said Jean, calling on the youths around him to register to vote.
“I’m asking you not for money, but your power for change.”
Jean’s bid for the presidency of the quake-hit nation has won support in Haiti, where many hail him as a hero, but has also drawn sneers from figures skeptical of a hip-hop star in the national palace.
Among his sharpest critics was actor Sean Penn, who runs a tent city here for those left homeless by the devastating January 12 quake.
“He has been virtually silent, for those of us in Haiti he has been a non-presence,” said Penn in an interview with CNN on Wednesday, pointing to allegations Jean misused more than 400,000 dollars donated to his charity.
“So, I want to see someone who is really, really willing to sacrifice for their country and not just someone who I personally saw with a vulgar entourage of vehicles that demonstrated a wealth in Haiti that — in context — I felt a very obscene demonstration.”
Earlier this year, Jean broke down in tears after denying that his Yele Haiti Foundation had misused funds, as suggested by a 2006 tax return showing that more than a third of its revenues went to cover miscellaneous expenses.
The Grammy award winner told CNN’s “Larry King Live” program he hoped to usher in a new era for the poverty-stricken Caribbean nation.
“I think 200 years we have suffered the exact same thing and what I’m saying is when you vote for Wyclef Jean, you basically try something new,” Jean said.
“I represent the voice of the youth which is over 50 percent of the population.”
Jean said he would run on a campaign platform based on five key points.
“When I look at the situation of Haiti as a kid, I think the focus right now should definitely be on education, job creation, agriculture, security, and health care,” he told CNN.
Jean lives in the New York area but has traveled to Haiti multiple times seeking to defuse gang violence and help the poorest Haitians.
He said his inspiration to enter politics emerged from the devastating earthquake that left 250,000 people dead and 1.5 million homeless.
“After January 12th, the day after coming and being out here with my wife and picking up dead bodies from the ground, I felt that because of the youth of Haiti and the population, that this is not even Wyclef saying that I want to be the president of Haiti.
“I feel like I’m being drafted by the population right now to give them a different face, a different voice,” Jean said.
In Port-au-Prince, reactions to the campaign were split between established party politicians and people on the street.
“What’s happening now is an emotional reaction. With Wyclef, it’s improvisation, it’s an adventure,” said opposition party leader Evans Paul.
But Haitian youth appear attracted to the idea, though some seemed concerned he would have to give up his music career to lead the country.
“I’ll vote on one condition: if Wyclef is in the race,” Emmanuelle, a 21-year-old street peddler, told AFP Thursday.
Vendors on a bustling street corner of the eastern suburb Petionville were unanimous in their support for the rapper.
“Yes, we will vote for him,” groups of them said in unison.
Current President Rene Preval, who named Jean as a Haiti goodwill ambassador in 2007, is barred by the constitution from seeking a new term in the elections scheduled for November 28.
At least five people have already registered their bids to run for president.