PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Dumarsais Simeus, the son of illiterate Haitian rice farmers, overcame daunting obstacles to study in the United States and rise to run a $2 billion US-based food empire.
Now, Simeus, 66, is back in his impoverished homeland and says he wants to do for Haiti what he has done for several businesses: fix what's broken, create jobs, generate wealth. But he faces odds that may be more intractable than those of any in his rags-to-riches life.
Two months after Simeus declared he was running for Haiti's presidency, his candidacy is in peril. Following a ruling last week by the Haitian Supreme Court that Simeus, a naturalized US citizen, should be on the ballot for upcoming elections, a newly formed commission is expected to counter as early as today that his dual nationality bars him from running.
''I represent major change. I am independent," Simeus, the former president and chief operating officer of TLC Beatrice Foods who later founded his own international food company, said in an interview yesterday. ''We need to get rid of the status quo, dirty tricks, and corruption.
''If somebody is a Haitian and has a passport here and a passport there, who cares? This country is broken. Let the people choose who can fix it," he said.
The election is seen as a critical moment for the country, which has been without an elected leader since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in 2004. Simeus, a political novice who started a foundation six years ago to provide medical care and clean water in his hometown, has become nationally known through radio and television interviews over the last two months. He has presented himself as a homegrown Horatio Alger, a man of the people.
But the electoral process has been marred by delays in registering voters, violence in the capital, infighting among the electoral commission, and disputes over candidates' eligibility. Scheduled for next month, the vote for president as well as more than 1,000 local, municipal, and legislative offices is expected to be delayed until December or January.
Some 22 presidential candidates were scratched from the ballot last month, including Simeus and the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, a popular Catholic priest and Aristide ally who has been jailed by the interim government. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticized the decision to bar the two men's candidacies, urging the government to ensure ''open, fair, and inclusive presidential elections."
Last Tuesday, the nation's Supreme Court overturned the exclusion of Simeus, concluding that despite becoming a US citizen in 1970, he never lost his Haitian citizenship.
Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue criticized the court's decision, saying the electoral commission should be the final arbiter.
Yesterday, Simeus railed against the entrenched political powers in Haiti, asserting that Latortue and other powerbrokers are trying to block his candidacy because they are afraid of radical changes he says he would bring to wipe out privileges that favor the elite.
Ordinary Haitians, whether or not they favor him as a candidate, admit that Simeus's life story is an inspiration, not only for 2 million Haitians who live in the United States and send hundreds of millions of dollars home annually, but for the majority of 8 million Haitians here who struggle to afford one meal a day.
The eldest of 12 children born in a two-room hut to peasants in the western town of Pont-Sonde, Simeus recounts dreaming of sailing for a new life in America. He attended a parochial high school in Port-au-Prince, later earning admission to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. Simeus says he worked his way through school with menial jobs at factories and restaurants, eventually graduating from Howard University and the University of Chicago business school.
Simeus climbed the corporate ladder at companies including Atari Inc. and
Over the years he has brought 40 relatives to the United States, but insists that his roots and soul remain in Haiti, where his parents live. ''I have been coming back always. . . There is no one in the political elite who speaks Creole [the language of Haiti's majority] as well as I do."
''I'm here because my country has suffered too long. I want people who look like me and who look like my wife," his American spouse, Kimberly, who is white, ''to have the same opportunities. . . . I don't want the privileged class [of any color] to have a monopoly on all the opportunities," he said.
In other countries, expatriates have run for high office. Naturalized American Valdas Adamkus was elected president of Lithuania, though he later renounced his US passport.
In Honduras, President Ricardo Maduro's candidacy was challenged but upheld, after it was revealed he was born in Panama and acquired Honduran nationality at age 36. Former world soccer star George Weah is running for the presidency of Liberia, despite controversy over his adopted French nationality.
Asked what he will do if the electoral commission overturns the Supreme Court's ruling, Simeus replied: ''Don't think I'm going to pack my bag and leave. . . . I bet you 99 percent of the people in this country don't even know what the term double-nationality means, and they don't care."