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Texas businessman returns to Haiti for presidential run

Published October 20, 2005

MIAMI - As if Haiti wasn't democratically challenged enough, elections due to be held later this year have hit another unexpected obstacle - a wealthy Texan.

A legal battle over the candidacy of a naturalized U.S. citizen, Dumarsais Simeus, has thrown the Nov. 22 election date into confusion after contradictory rulings on whether the 66-year-old businessman is eligible to run for president.

Almost 20 months after the violent ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country remains in the hands of a weak caretaker government backed by United Nations peacekeepers.

Simeus, who was born in Haiti, is the former president and CEO of Beatrice, one of the largest food companies in the United States. His candidacy was originally ruled out by the Electoral Council on the grounds of his U.S. citizenship.

A unanimous Supreme Court ruling last week put his name back on the ballot. But the government later stripped the Supreme Court of authority in electoral disputes. Instead, it named a commission to investigate the nationality of all 34 presidential candidates - a process that could take weeks.

"What we're interested in knowing is whether all the candidates are Haitian. We are going to screen them," said Haiti's justice minister, Henri Dorlean.

Haiti's constitution states a presidential candidate must "be a native-born Haitian and never have renounced Haitian nationality," and have resided in the country for five consecutive years before the election.

Although Simeus has lived in the United States for 45 years, he said he has never given up his Haitian passport. "I am a Haitian. I go all the way back to slavery," he said by phone Tuesday from Haiti.

Adding to Simeus' woes, this week the Electoral Council submitted a criminal complaint to Haiti's chief prosecutor alleging that he falsely claimed to have met residency and citizenship requirements.

"Who cares if someone has dual nationality?" said Simeus. "The country is broken and the people want someone who can fix it and put food on the table."

He said electoral officials had already overlooked or violated a host of rules and were making a special case to exclude him. Several other candidates are believed to hold French, U.S. or Canadian passports, but so far only Simeus has been singled out.

The election was already a politically volatile smorgasbord of candidates before Simeus threw his unlikely hat in the ring. Other candidates include former loyalists of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, as well as a leader of the armed rebellion that toppled him on Feb. 29, 2004.

Aristide is in exile in South Africa and has not endorsed any candidate. A former Miami priest, Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, who was expected to run for Aristide's Lavalas Family party, was excluded after he was jailed.

Simeus' candidacy is widely seen as a threat to Haiti's traditional political elites: the country's wealthy private sector and the left-wing popular movement that claims to represent the country's poor majority.

"He's a new factor; a Haitian tycoon who made his fortune outside the country," said Dan Erikson, a Haiti analyst at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. "At a time when Haiti is looking for new solutions he cuts an interesting figure."

Simeus' Texas roots and ties to the Republican Party have opened him to accusations that he is Washington's candidate in a race that previously had no obvious U.S. ally. He also sits on Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's Haiti Task Force.

Born to illiterate peasant rice farmers in Haiti's Artibonite Valley, he grew up in a two-room hut with 11 siblings. At the age of 21 he left Haiti with the help of several benefactors to study at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, before transferring to Howard University, the prestigious black college in Washington, D.C. After earning a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering he went on to the University of Chicago to study finance.

He has held management positions in companies such as Atari and Rockwell International, as well as setting up Haiti's first investment banking firm. After leaving Beatrice Foods, a $2-billion multinational, he set up his own food processing business, Simeus Foods, based in Mansfield, Texas. His customers include Denny's, T.G.I. Friday's and Burger King.

Seven years ago he created the Simeus Foundation, which runs a medical clinic in his hometown of Pont Sonde and provides clean drinking water to 200 local families.

Exactly when Haiti's election will be held remains unclear. Last week, the government said the Nov. 20 vote would have to be delayed and likely would be held in the second half of December.

Simeus says he is determined to fight for his candidacy with the same determination that got him to the top of the corporate world. "My parents taught me at an early age there was nothing I couldn't do if I put my mind to it," he said.


AGE: 66. Home: Southlake, Texas, in the Fort Worth/Dallas area.

BORN: In Pont Sonde in Haiti's Artibonite Valley to illiterate Haitian rice farmers; eldest of 12 children.

EDUCATION: Attended parochial school in Haiti. At 21, came to the United States with the help of benefactors and the sale of family land to study at Florida A&M University. Transferred to Howard University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. Earned a master's of business administration from the University of Chicago.

EXPERIENCE: Held management positions at Atari, Rockwell International, Bendix, KB Homes and PromoCapital, the first investment banking firm in Haiti. President and CEO of TLC Beatrice Foods, a $2-billion multinational conglomerate. In 1996, founded Simeus Foods - based in Mansfield, Texas - a food processing operation with customers in the United States and Canada. Has lived in: Paris; Caracas, Venezuela; Barcelona, Spain; and Brussels.

PERSONAL: Naturalized U.S. citizen. Has brought 40 relatives to the United States but parents remain in Haiti. Married, with three children.

Sources: Boston Globe, Associated Press, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, Miami Herald, Dumarsais Simeus Campaign for President of Haiti, Who's Who in America.

[Last modified October 20, 2005, 01:20:19]

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