I’m a huge fan of Wyclef Jean’s music, from 1996’s height of Fugees glory, The Score — an album played nonstop at every activist dance party that year — to his solo efforts, which never fail to lift my spirit. I was intrigued to hear that Wyclef was running for president of Haiti, one of the first places in the world to be hit hard by HIV in the ’80s. So was the AIDS activist group Housing Works, which does some organizing there and asked on August 2nd, Would President Wyclef Jean Make HIV/AIDS a Priority? Unfortunately, my research on Wyclef’s politics sang me a tune that was not music to my ears. It turns out Wyclef Jean supports the policies that keep 90% of the population desperately poor and without the resources to recover from famine, tropical storms’ destruction, and HIV/AIDS.
Well, the question may be moot, as Wyclef was kept out of the race by the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP). He has declared his intention to sue the CEP for deciding he has not lived in Haiti the past 5 years, but this may do no more than keep him in the election spotlight for the next few months. The media spectacle he is creating — with his song hating on the CEP and onstage pot shots at Sean Penn — may be exactly the point. Wyclef is global capital’s answer to the nation that freed itself from slavery in 1804 and refuses to accept the kidnapping and banishment of its beloved president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Haiti is still not free, but neither has it been defeated, because it has successfully resisted what Czechoslovakian writer Milan Kundera called “laughter and forgetting.”
I’ve always loved Wyclef Jean’s goofy humor, but lately he’s looking more like a minstrel show, playing the fool for the powers that be. He actually supported the right-wing coup against Aristide, who as president refused to sell the phone and electric companies, using their profits to cut illiteracy in half and make food accessible. Aristide wanted to raise the minimum wage to $2 a day, while Wyclef Jean supports Bill Clinton’s plan for more sweatshops. Even before January’s devastating earthquake, Haiti’s elected government was not allowed to implement its own recovery plans after the food crisis and the economic crisis. Haiti is occupied by UN forces, and its only resources for recovery are controlled by nonprofit organizations from the countries that staged the coup.
Yet Haiti’s popular movements remain strong, demanding Aristide’s return and $21 billion in restitution from France, which forced Haiti to pay French slave owners for its freedom after the revolution.
Aristide’s political party, Lavalas, remains the largest and most popular in Haiti. When Lavalas was officially banned from last year’s Senate elections, a popular boycott resulted in a meager voter turnout of 3 to 5%. This year, Lavalas was disqualified again despite full compliance with all requirements. To prevent another boycott, what else but the distracting dazzle that American voters know so well — the meaningless spectacle of celebrity posturing?
The challenge for AIDS activists in the U.S. is to reject our own brand of laughter and forgetting: our pragmatic acceptance of the status quo in fighting HIV/AIDS and poverty here, where large nonprofits only take on one “issue” at a time and are not accountable to any kind of popular democracy. Because we can’t imagine a different kind of system, one based on solidarity not charity, we can’t hear the demands of Haiti’s popular movements to control their own recovery from the intertwining crises of food, jobs, HIV, and environmental destruction.
For more information, please read this August 28, 2010 article by Haiti Action Committee member Charlie Hinton: “Haiti’s Election Circus Continues, and Wyclef Jean Won’t Take No for an Answer”