A portion of this interview appears in the August 2010 cover story, “The Country That Never Was,” on Bill Clinton’s looking for hope in the dirt to rebuild — no, just build — Haiti as the de facto CEO of a leaderless nation. But Jean, an influential leader in his own right, struck as so smart — so honest (“It’s the rising, and what I mean by the rising is destroy torebuild“) — that we’d thought we should share a bit more.
WYCLEF JEAN: Before the quake we had close to an 80 percent illiteracy rate. The population could not read and write. Before the quake you had a situation of child slavery. Before the quake you had a high prostitution rate. Before the quake, Cité du Soleil was in an inhumane situation — not even animals would walk in. Before the quake, Haiti got hit with back-to-back hurricanes, the city of Gonaïves was destroyed.
ESQ: That’s a good breakdown of how it was before, but what’s the change been like since?
WJ: One-point-two million homeless. There were homes then. No matter what kind of homes they were, they still were homes. Forget the fact that people live in tents these days. Now, no homes. That will catch up to them.
ESQ: Haitians talk about this being a new beginning.
WJ: Oh, yes. Haiti has an opportunity now to start from scratch, and what that means is, we can get real schools in there, there’s a chance of getting real hospitals, of teaching a population how to read and write, where kids can get a degree, and actually do something with the degree right now. As far as investment and business, this is the best time to invest in business in Haiti.
ESQ: But let’s say this is the moment people on the outside stop paying attention. Can that be reversed? Will Americans keep Haiti on their mind?
WJ: Definitely. I think it’ll stay that way that with Bill there. An ex-president of the United States of America — I don’t know too many stories like that in the case of history, where a former president goes and decides that he’s going to be part of helping run another country. That’s big. It don’t get bigger than that. You know what I’m saying? That signal is, “Yes, the Americans are there.”
ESQ: There’s still a lot of energy in Port-au-Prince — you see kids in their uniforms going to school here. It feels like there’s a certain reverence for school. Yet…
WJ: Let me ask you something: Is that really school? Or is that the façade of school? You and me, all of us here in the States, we know what school is. Nobody bluffs us. In Haiti, there is the façade of school. But this moment — the rebuilding — is an opportunity to actually provide real schooling for a mass population, which can turn things around in the next fifteen years.
ESQ: Should that be the focus of relief efforts?
WJ: Now the effort needs to change from relief to business, because if you don’t have a country where you’re bringing in business — where you’re sure that if you put in a dollar, you’re going to get three dollars back — no one will be interested.
ESQ: I don’t know if this is a difficult question or what, but from my reading…
WJ: There’s no question that’s difficult for me. My daddy was a minister, my grandfather was a voodoo priest, my uncle was a mason, I was raised with a lot of studies.
ESQ: …everyone agrees there’s a small group of families that control money and commerce in Haiti. If that’s so, how can you decentralize that structure in order to do things like reinvent health care?
WJ: The first question is not who they are. The first question we have to ask is, What are these families? They are capitalists. They believe in capitalism, in making money, right? We have to build an open system that doesn’t stop them from making money, that will work for them, if only because what they’re making could double, triple. Everything starts with policy. We just say, If you break the law, then you’ll pay for it, because there’s an enforceable policy in place. In America, we don’t stop people from making money. If you’ve got a dollar, and you can make three with it, make three with it, you can make six, make ten, but — pay your taxes, dude. Don’t do that and you’re going to be in trouble. That’s how I see it happening.
ESQ: Taxation. The Tea Party nightmare.
WJ: Yeah. Understand what I’m saying to you. I don’t bite my tongue — some people may be scared to talk about families — but I grew up in the States, and the reality of it is: if they are in the mansion, and around them is nothing but huts, and a bunch of people who can’t read and write, then it’s not a mansion; it’s the façade of a mansion.