AP Interview: Wyclef Jean praises foreign investment in Haiti, defends personal finances in US

By Jonathan M. Katz, AP
Friday, August 6, 2010

AP Interview: Wyclef Jean’s vision for Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — After the hip-hop party was over, the cheering supporters back in their tents and the speaker trucks parked for the night, newly minted presidential candidate Wyclef Jean sat down to talk business — promoting Haiti’s and defending his own.

The potential front-runner in Haiti’s Nov. 28 election told The Associated Press that he supports the U.S. and U.N. vision for rebuilding Haiti’s economy after its magnitude-7 earthquake — a plan that encourages private investment in factories, agriculture and other areas.

He also hit back at critics of his own personal finances, including allegations over his use of post-quake charity funds and the revelation he personally owes $2.1 million in back taxes to the United States.

“We can provide a way to get (Haitians) out of the mess they’re in. And the way that that’s going to happen (is) education, job creation and investment for Haiti,” Jean said in the wide-ranging interview Thursday evening.

He spoke in a Port-au-Prince hotel room as aides, his wife and 5-year-old daughter looked on.

The Haitian-born, Brooklyn-raised singer is attempting a difficult and potentially dicey transformation: From multimillionaire international recording artist to leader of one of the world’s poorest and most dysfunctional countries — and doing so through a pivotal and difficult election.

Among the best known figures in his native country, Jean — who left as a child — speaks American-accented Creole to crowds and New York-accented English at home. His estimated annual income of up to $18 million is more than 13,000 times more than the average Haitian sees in a year — assuming that person even has a job.

If he wins the presidency, the ex-Fugee frontman said he would encourage donors to invest heavily in education. He also endorsed the economic vision promoted by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the U.N. special envoy who is in Haiti this week. Those plans include creating jobs in the garment export industry, boosting tourism and building the capacity of Haitian farmers to reduce the nation’s chronic dependence on imports.

“President Clinton is focusing on the garment industry and all that. I think that’s great. But also agriculture is involved,” Jean said. “We can work both components at the same time.”

Among other potential investment targets he mentioned mining, an industry whose ramping up amid the rising price of gold and other minerals has sparked controversy in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Jean’s leap from entertainer to prospective head-of-state is also leading to some interesting transitional moments. After previously listing his age as 37, as a candidate he suddenly jumped to 40 years old. On Thursday he traded his urban hip-hop style for a dark suit, better to hide the rubble dust and handprints as he crowd-surfed to open his rally.

The worldwide attention that his presidential bid attracts also means scrutiny and criticism — turning the campaign into what Jean called a “combat sport.” He responded directly Thursday to a revelation published this week on the U.S.-based website The Smoking Gun concerning his unpaid U.S. taxes.

“First of all, owing $2.1 million to the IRS shows you how much money Wyclef Jean makes a year,” he said, pledging to publish an accounting of his finances online and to repay the money he owes.

The singer also fumed when aides told him that actor Sean Penn, who has been managing an earthquake-survivor camp in the Haitian capital since the spring, had accused Jean of not spending enough time in Haiti after the quake and misappropriating $400,000 of the $9 million his charity, Yele Haiti, raised after the disaster.

“I just want Sean Penn to fully understand I am a Haitian, born in Haiti and I’ve been coming to my country ever since (I was) a child,” he said. “He might just want to pick up the phone and meet, so he fully understands the man.”

Jean stepped down from his chairmanship of Yele on Thursday ahead of his run for office. The organization has been accused of pre-quake financial improprieties that benefited the singer.

Before campaigning can begin, Jean must be cleared to run by Haiti’s eight-member provisional electoral council. Among the requirements he must fulfill are proving he has never renounced his Haitian citizenship by holding another — namely, U.S. — passport; and that he has been a resident of Haiti for the last five years — which by most accounts he has not.

The campaign will argue that Jean’s status as a Haitian ambassador-at-large, a post he was awarded in 2007, exempts him from having not spent more time in the country of late.

If approval comes, Haiti’s particular brand of Byzantine and often brutal politics will really begin. Jean’s charisma and popularity in Port-au-Prince’s vast slums could draw comparisons — some favorable, others not — to the popular but divisive former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was flown into African exile aboard a U.S. plane during a bloody 2004 rebellion.

On Thursday, Jean took the stage at his rally as supporters sang a traditional pro-Aristide song, replacing the exiled leader’s name with Jean’s. Asked what prompted that particular tune, Jean replied he hadn’t picked it.

The singer ultimately sees himself as an advocate for Haiti’s struggling youth. Officially running under the banner of the Viv Ansanm party — whose name means “live together” — Jean is more heavily promoting his youth movement called “Fas a Fas,” meaning face-to-face.

“Even if I lose, I win,” he said. “It gives us an opportunity to be a voice to speak to government about what happens.”

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