Candidates vie to lead the rebuilding of Haiti

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MIAMI — The presidential dreams of a rapper-turned-political-hopeful ended bitterly. But Wyclef Jean's brief campaign brought needed energy to one of the most important elections in Haiti’s history.

Jean was ruled ineligible to run because he hadn’t lived in the country for the five years before the election as constitutionally required.

Yet, for the few weeks he was a viable candidate, Jean “energized the youth, including the young people living in the slums in and around Port-au-Prince,” said Jean-German Gros, a Haiti native and political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Sixty percent of residents are under the age of 24 and Jean’s rock star persona and international fame instantly made him their candidate. Now that he’s gone, the question is who can capitalize on his momentum.

“He was very attractive to the youth. I think he transferred the energy he uses on the stage to the electoral process, which has quite a bit of appeal,” said Bernice Robertson, senior analyst for Haiti at the International Crisis Group, by telephone from Port-au-Prince. “He helped provoke interest in the process. We have to see if there are other candidates that can continue it.”

Jean told his Twitter followers Tuesday that “he will not support any candidates at this times, but country, facts & the truth.” The message was included in a speech in Creole posted on his political party’s website.

Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, a well-known Creole musician considered less of an outsider than Jean — who left Haiti for Brooklyn at age 9 — is an obvious choice to pick up where Jean left off. But he’s a neophyte sharing space with career politicians on a list of 19 candidates.

Although the January earthquake destroyed parts of an already weak government, Haitians should be able to go to polls on Nov. 28 — thanks, in part, to the international community funding most of the $29 million election.

Campaign season begins in earnest the last week in September. And observers are hard pressed to pick an early favorite. If front runners exist, among them are Jude Celestin, who oversaw the government’s work to haul rubble after the Jan. 12 earthquake destroyed the capital. Celestin has the backing of current President Rene Preval and, therefore, inherited the “political infrastructure that gives him a campaign advantage,” Gros said.

Preval chose Celestin over two-time Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis. Alexis served as prime minster from 1998 to 2001 and again from 2006 to 2008. Alexis is running with a different party.

Other candidates with name recognition include former first lady Mirlande Hyppolite Manigat, the current Minister of Social Affair Yves Cristalin and Leslie Voltaire — a former minister and U.S.-educated urban planner.

The backing of an established party will be important in getting out the message. Analysts told The Miami Herald that a candidate will need between $10 million and $20 million to mount a serious challenge. That’s considerably more than in 2005 when analysts estimated $3 million to $6 million was needed. The job pays $72,000 a year.

The new chief will take over a decimated country: The quake killed at least 250,000 and left millions homeless or living in temporary shelters, a situation that continues. Port-au-Prince, the government and commercial center, is largely destroyed and the government, barely functioning before January, is running largely thanks to international assistance.

Rebuilding from rubble will be a long process. An August report issued by U.S. think tank RAND Corporation said the country needs to focus on key areas — including governance, the justice system, health care and education — during the next three to five years. But, it said “without executive decisiveness and legislative action, state-building cannot proceed.”

Along with a litany of problems, the next president will be charged with the overseeing the $10 billion in international donations pledged to the country — though it’s not clear how much of that money will actually be delivered.

Key to deciding how that money will be spent is the question of how to effectively decentralize the population. Haitians long flocked to Port-au-Prince seeking jobs as the country’s agricultural base disappeared. Experts say the best example of the evaporation of the agricultural economy is rice: Thirty years ago, the country grew enough of the grain to feed itself and to export. Today, it imports 80 percent of the rice it consumes.

In a reversal of that trend, hundreds of thousands left the city after the earthquake. But many have since returned.

“They are going back because there are no jobs here and they hear that in the city there’s food on every corner and that the NGOs are handing out jobs,” said Marc Boisvert, who runs an orphanage, five schools and a vocational center near Les Cayes in southwestern Haiti.

A study based on data from cellular telephone provider Digicel confirmed Boisvert’s observation: By mid-March, just two months after the quake, 41 percent of the displaced had returned to Port-au-Prince.

Bustling and growing, Port-au-Prince, a port city built on a fault, is home to nearly one-fourth of the population.

“Port-au-Prince is an overcrowded city and, like with any city, that will lead to security problems and crime,” Robertson said. “If the government is able to strengthen the services provided in the other provinces, that will help to strengthen decentralization.”

Creating jobs in the countryside can go a long way to providing an incentive for residents to spread out. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, which is led by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and is charged with deciding where the aid dollars go, recently proposed spending $1.6 billion on key projects, $200 million of which was slated for an agricultural development fund.

But analysts said that many of the questions facing the next president — such as spurring agriculture, decentralizing the population and controlling crime — are problems that have long confronted Haiti. The election might only provide a change of scenery.

“Frankly, the main problem ... is getting problems solved and I don’t see this election providing a political breakthrough that would provide Haitians an opportunity to [run the country] better than it had in the past,” said Susan K. Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. “I can’t see a situation where one person will be able to change the way the country can deal with a crisis of this magnitude.”

Editor's note: The article was updated to refer to Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly as a musician, not a rapper.