Wyclef Jean's brief but colorful attempt to get on the presidential ballot for the upcoming post-earthquake election in Haiti is over, but the controversy continues. While Jean, 40, was garnering international headlines for his fight to get on the ballot in his native country — he has lived in New York since age 9 — behind the scenes, a more intense battle was apparently brewing with a man you definitely don't want to mess with: actor and activist
The notoriously short-fused Oscar winner aired his grievances with Jean in an essay for the Huffington Post on Wednesday (August 25), in which he took the former Fugees leader to task for turning their disagreement into a fake "sensationalized celebrity feud," contesting the country's electoral laws in the wake of his rejected bid (when he didn't seem to have any opinion on them before) and for not spending his more time on the ground in Haiti helping those in need in the wake of January's quake.
Penn, who has lived in a small tent outside the crumbled capital of Port-au-Prince for much of the past six months, wrote, "I have never met Wyclef Jean, and all I really know of him on any personal level has come through the fond comments of a few mutual friends. Hence, nothing I might say, was in ANY way personal, or intended to be lambasting to anyone," he wrote, referring to comments he made on CNN earlier this month reacting to Jean's announcement of his presidential bid. "My comments were critical observations of a political candidate and a leader of an organization in Haiti."
Penn — who joins 'Clef's former Fugees partner Pras in questioning the logic behind the presidential run — also takes issue with the publicist hired by Jean, who he said has worked to "make the case that Wyclef Jean gave indispensable world attention" to Haiti's incredible misfortune.
"I was there for those six months after the earthquake and so many of us on the ground wondered where he was when that kind of attention was so necessary and absent, and why he was NOT helping to keep this desperate situation in the news," Penn wrote. "None among us felt or expressed anger toward it, but rather a universal sadness for his silence, as he is America's most admired cultural link to Haiti. As the six-month anniversary approached, it triggered the return of the world media, and of Wyclef Jean to Haiti. He'd referred to himself as 'His Excellency Wyclef Jean' and 'The most famous man in Haiti' on a self-generated flier in the lead-up to his troubling announcement."
The actor explained that on a recent appearance on the "Larry King Show," he was expressing his concerns about the American media's support of Jean's run despite a lack of critical questions about it "simply because they were familiar with him."
He also said that though current laws put limitations on the contribution of "Haitians returning to their own country following an education abroad," it would have been more valuable had Wyclef drawn attention to that fact at another time "or in a less divisive ambition. However, the only attention that Haiti seems to be getting today is on a presidential campaign of personality that threatens to create a new swell of social unrest in a plagued country. I would caution Mr. Jean against research, or prospective policy, by sound bite."
Penn noted that he's been running a non-governmental organization while living in a 55,000-person camp in Haiti and that his organization has distributed "thousands of water filters, food, medicine, medical supplies and volunteers" throughout Port-au-Prince over the past six months. Jean said on "Larry King" that his Yele Haiti organization has raised $9 million to date for Haitian relief.
Jean's publicist, Marian Salzman, sent MTV News an e-mail response to Penn's comments on Wednesday afternoon: "I am flattered he knows my name and more flattered that Wyclef called to sing [sic] me," she wrote. "I'm sorry since we're surprised by the anger over a disagreement between people who all care deeply about Haiti. Not sure why we need to argue versus hunker down and demand human rights and a positive Haitian future?"
The actor was also clearly miffed by a comment Jean made on the "Gayle King Show" on August 9, in which he said he wanted to tell Penn, "I do not react on emotions when it comes to the Haitian people. I do not have to sacrifice my life and live inside of a tent to prove that I am for the Haitian people."
That drew this sharp response: "No, he doesn't have to live in a tent. But it would be nice if he visited once and awhile." He ends by pointing again to the "Larry King" interview and asking readers to ponder Jean's response to questions about his residency in Haiti (he says he lives in the United States) and his fluency in French and Creole (he suggests the nation's people should also learn English), the island's native languages.
"Yes, I still support those Haitians who believe in him. But, I recommend that Mr. Jean and his advisers keep their future musings on more important topics than discrediting someone involved with a really good NGO," Penn said. "The real and devastating human issues in Haiti must be handled and led by a qualified president's deft hand. These elections are crucial, and I have no part in them. Neither should Mr. Jean."
What do you think about Penn and Jean's back-and-forth? Let us know in the comments.