Can Wyclef Jean Tap Haiti's Youth Movement?

Since the departure of Aristide, Haiti's youth have created a network of grass-roots organizations that could propel the hip-hop candidate to power.

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Wyclef is a djaspora, a sometimes pejorative term for expatriates who straddle the line between what is Haitian and what is American. Although Haitians have been leaving Haiti for generations, the title djaspora is a relatively new phenomenon that began with the mass exodus under the first Duvalier regime in the 1960s. Today more than 2 million members of Haiti's "Tenth Department" participate in this complex transnational identity.

Wyclef epitomizes the pinnacle achievement of this djaspora identity, which had captured the dreams of Haiti's youth long before his rise to fame. While Haitian youths are struggling to chèché lavi (seek a life), as the saying goes, Wyclef has jwenn lavi (found a life). And why not, when these same youth have been raised by the estimated $1.65 billion in remittances that djaspora members abroad send back each year? Simply put, it's not Wyclef; it's what he symbolizes.

Should Wyclef win the November elections, assuming he's even eligible to run, a new chapter will begin for Haiti and its diaspora. Electing a djaspora president could signal to the thousands of Haitians who have made it overseas that it's time to come home and reverse the country's so-called brain drain.

Most reports show that the hype behind Wyclef's candidacy is just that -- hype. Wyclef, whose portrait already graces murals and the colorful public buses throughout the country, celebrated his candidacy last Thursday with a pageant of street bands before leaving for his other "home" shortly after. His pseudo-activist music and less-than-reputable charity (Yéle Haiti) make him an ambitious visionary, not necessarily a grass-roots populist.

Knowing the decisive role that personality cults play in Haitian politics, we must question how much of this is genuine consensus building among the youth, and how much is shameless self-promotion. So while Wyclef's international visibility might offer Haiti something it's never before experienced in a chef d'état -- after all, it's difficult to imagine a foreign coup ousting one of the world's biggest hip-hop stars -- the question is whether the youth groups can determine if he will be president of Haiti.

Landon Yarrington is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the College of William & Mary.

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