Originally: Southlake businessman still eyes Haiti’s top job
PORT-AU-PRINCE ? His detractors say he’s an American citizen and has no business running for president of Haiti.
But Dumarsais Siméus, the wealthy chairman of a Mansfield, Texas, food-processing company, says he’s determined to stay in the Nov. 20 race, despite being told by Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council that his U.S. citizenship bars him from running.
Mr. Siméus said he qualifies because he never gave up his Haitian citizenship. He has appealed the council’s decision and vows to fight to save his candidacy.
“I will take this fight to the Supreme Court because this movement is committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure that every Haitian has the right to choose their next leader,” Mr. Siméus said in a radio address Friday.
Some Haitians struggling to keep the country from descending into complete bedlam say that Mr. Siméus ought to be given a chance.
“The presidency of Haiti is such a hard job, it should be advertised as an international position,” said Leslie Voltaire, education minister under former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. “We should open it up to the best-qualified person in the world.”
Mr. Siméus, 65, certainly has credentials. Born to illiterate peasants in the Haitian countryside, he journeyed to the United States in 1961, put himself through college and worked at Atari Inc. and other companies around the world before creating Siméus Foods International, now the largest black-owned business in Texas.
“Let’s be real,” Mr. Siméus said recently, sitting at a restaurant next to the swimming pool at the posh Villa Creole hotel in Pétionville, his unofficial headquarters in an upscale Port-au-Prince neighborhood. “Haiti is broken. The debate should be over how we put together the optimum team to move this country forward. Forget about whether a candidate lives in Haiti or not. We need the best sons and daughters of Haiti to come save it.”
Indeed, Haiti is a mess.
More than half the population subsists on less than $1 per day. Millions have no clean drinking water, and more than 70 percent no electricity. Government institutions provide few services and have little control over 60 percent of the nation’s territory. Gangs hold sway over large swaths of densely populated slums in Port-au-Prince. And earlier this year, murders, kidnappings and assaults hit their highest level in the capital since 1994.
This is the nation Mr. Siméus wants to lead.
But under Article 135 of the Haitian Constitution, candidates for president must be Haitian citizens who have lived in Haiti continuously for five years before running for president. Mr. Siméus has been living in Southlake, Texas, and it doesn’t appear he is eligible, said James Morrell, director of the Haiti Democracy Project, a Washington, D.C., research group.
“But,” Mr. Morrell asked, “why be a stickler about this? His qualifications are certainly there. He’s shown the ability to make things work.”
Others wonder how he would make the transition from his cushy Southlake lifestyle to the gritty, often murderous world of Haitian politics. And they ask how running a company that makes sausage links and nacho dip qualifies one to be a political leader.
Charles-Henri Baker, a Haitian businessman who is also vying for the presidency, questioned whether Mr. Siméus knows what’s been going on in his native land.
“How can he really understand what occurs in Haiti? With what he sees on the Internet?” Mr. Baker told a Miami radio station in August.
Mr. Siméus brushes aside such talk.
“I respect all those candidates who are running. I believe they are patriotic. However, I don’t think any of them match the credentials I bring to the campaign.”
While Mr. Siméus was barred because of his U.S. citizenship, other candidates were rejected mostly because they submitted incomplete paperwork, officials said. The council rejected 22 candidates in all.
Another candidate, the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, a prominent figure in ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Lavalas Party, was barred because he has been jailed on suspicion of involvement in the abduction and slaying of a local journalist. Mr. Jean-Juste has denied the accusations.
The 32 approved candidates include two presumed front-runners: former President Rene Preval, a one-time close ally of Mr. Aristide, and Marc Bazin, a former prime minister.
If no one wins more than half the vote, runoffs will be held Jan. 3.
As president, Mr. Siméus said he would:
“Make sure that all the kids who want to go to school can go. Make sure they have at least one meal a day to eat. Make sure you have a government that really serves the people. And I’d make sure I bring hope to Haiti. It’s a country with a lot of misery.”
Kimberly Siméus, the candidate’s 46-year-old wife, said she’s not surprised her husband decided to run for president.
“He loves his country so much,” she said. “This isn’t about power or a title. I think he wants a legacy in his life.”
Simon Fass, a University of Texas at Dallas professor and author of Political Economy in Haiti: The Drama of Survival, said that Mr. Siméus’ chances “depend a lot on how he markets himself, and how much money he is willing to invest in political marketing.”
Mr. Fass said poor Haitians might find his rags-to-riches story appealing. But, he added, he isn’t convinced that Mr. Siméus will do anything different or new.
Mr. Siméus, a former adviser to Mr. Aristide, said he is paving new ground, raising funds from supporters in Haiti and abroad lest anyone accuse him of trying to buy the election.
He is also trying to build alliances in Haiti, which has been deeply divided, particularly since Mr. Aristide’s forced departure in 2004.
“From all the feedback I’ve gotten, our candidacy has shaken up the political establishment,” he said.
Still, many ordinary Haitians haven’t heard of Mr. Siméus.
“We don’t really know him,” said Jean-Réné Auguste, 42, a teacher in Port-au-Prince.
“He’s been gone for 40 years,” said another man, Ernso Talius, 25. “He doesn’t know the reality of Haiti, the problems of Haiti.”
Arielle Jean-Baptiste, an associate with the Haiti Democracy Project, agreed.
“He’s a stranger,” she said. “He has no footprints here.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Place of birth: Pont-Sonde, Haiti
Education: bachelor’s degree, Howard University; master’s in business administration, University of Chicago
Experience: Worked at Atari Inc. and other companies including the now-defunct TLC Beatrice Foods, where he rose to president. Started Siméus Foods with the help of a $55 million loan in 1996, according to Black Enterprise magazine. The company supplies such firms as Burger King, T.G.I. Friday’s, Quizno’s Subs and Hardee’s.
Marital Status: Married to Kimberly Siméus, a former human resources employee for Unilever
Quote: “The people are connecting with our message. We need security. We need to create jobs. We need to send children to school. All the people of Haiti are ready for that. And that’s why they are going to elect us president of the country.”