Wyclef Barred From Campaign, but Streets Remain Calm

Bill Haiti Image 1.jpg

Image by Justin Thomas Ostensen. Haiti, 2010.

Under Friday's searing mid-day sun, I was interviewing Haitians living in a makeshift camp since the January earthquake when the heavy thud of rotor blades began to drown out our voices. At any minute the national election committee was supposed to announce the names of approved candidates for the November presidential race. My translator said his neighbors had stayed up dancing and waiting by the radio late into the night. But the rumor that Wyclef Jean's name would not be on the list had him worried that organized political violence might erupt. He eyed the helicopter looping high above us and checked his cell phone again for text message updates from friends about potential hotspots around the city.

Jean was born in Haiti but grew up and made his millions in the U.S.-- first with the Fugees, then as a solo recording artist and producer. His month long campaign had captivated the international press and kept the spotlight on Haiti's troubles. Late that evening, at a last-minute press conference, the announcement came that Wyclef Jean was not eligible because he hadn't made Haiti his permanent residence in recent years. He joined with UN peacekeepers in calling for fans to maintain order.

The next day, as I went out on patrol with peacekeepers in Cité Soleil, the streets were calm and we heard no reports of violence. Aid agencies and the Haitian government tout as a major accomplishment of the seven month relief effort here the lack of any major riots -- for which the Haitian people undoubtedly deserve much credit.

"This is a very poor area," Capt. Dornelles, a 34-year-old peacekeeper from Brazil, told me in Spanish (the one language we shared), as we passed an IDP camp of 2500 people, then a line of flimsy scrap metal shanties, and turned into an informal market. "Before, you couldn't pass through here without an armored vehicle."

'Before' was just a few years ago, when Cité Soleil had a reputation as the most dangerous slum in Haiti, if not the Western Hemisphere (until UN troops pacified much of the sprawling community in 2004-2006, it had a murder rate equal to that of Medellín at the height of drug related killings in 1991, according to a report from MSF). Although more than 4000 prisoners escaped from jails in the wake of the earthquake, they scattered around the country, said the captain. This part of Cité Soleil is relatively calm -- a few smalltime criminals armed with pistols, but no big gangsters (although there have been some skirmishes in a neighborhood to the south).

Wyclef appeared here in a scene from the 2007 documentary "Ghosts of Cité Soleil," in which two gangster protagonists tracked him down to enlist his help launching their music careers. Clef promised to build a music studio for Cité Soleil residents. Those plans were put on hold following the January earthquake that killed 300,000 people, including the two protagonists and most of the film's characters. While I've spoken to Haitians who consider Wyclef to be the Sarah Palin of the Caribbean, he has much love among the young and poor, a demographic he's courted with megaphones in recent months from trucks bumping Creole gangsta rap (Clef has also long pointed to his Haitian roots as a source of street cred, as in many of the songs off the album, "From the Hut to the Projects to the Mansion." Representative sample lyric: "If you're making money let it rain/ see I was raised among children of Cain/from a donkey to a hoopty to Ferrari/ from a crook in the hood, now I'm a diplomat in Haiti").

In long impoverished communities like Cité Soleil, as in neglected makeshift homeless camps around Haiti, it's easy to see the appeal of a fresh face on the political scene. Clef was reportedly shocked when he visited and found people selling mudcakes, 12 cent cookies made of sand, water, and salt that are cheap as bread, but better at suppressing a the gnawing appetite of chronic hunger. In one song, Clef raps, "Where I'm from/ life has no worth/what y'all know about birth?/ they cakes made outta dirt."

On patrol, I met a young teen, an ardent Wyclef supporter, who was standing near blankets covered in rows of mudcakes. Wyclef seemed the only candidate who cared about the enduring hardships of life in the slum, he told me. "We find nothing to eat here, so we are eating sand."