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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But things fell apart once Aristide left. The ti legliz model spawned an ever-increasing number of localized peasant organizations for support that the fragile state either cannot or will not provide. Haiti’s labyrinthine political culture, which saw 34 presidential candidates and 36 separate political parties on the ballot in 2006, is partly due to this explosion of civil society organizations.

My research with baz (grass-roots) youth groups suggests a new trend in the way citizenship is exercised in Haiti. Baz modified the peasant organizations of the Aristide era into a model of citizenship defined by their mobility and relationship with other baz. These groups travel long distances to chita palé (literally “sit and talk”) with others, resulting in a national network of civic-minded youth.

When asked how baz differ from other civil-society groups, one member said that they represent a true movement; they insist that a decentralized dialogue replaced the centralizing force that Lavalas exerted over the past generation. Baz members believe this movement is the key to dismantling the hegemony of the “Republic of Port-au-Prince,” but it may also have an important impact on the coming elections, especially for Wyclef Jean, who has made his appeal to the youth base clear.

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.