Haiti’s President Ends 1st Year in Office With a Mixed Record

Michel Martelly
Haitian President Michel Martelly

Haiti’s President Michel Martelly was the king of Haitian music, a high-energy charmer who became president of a broken nation by promising sweeping changes in employment, education, energy, environment and the rule of law.

“Haiti is open for business,” Martelly declared as he took the oath of office on the grounds of a collapsed presidential palace, a tent city behind the iron fence serving as a visible reminder of the devastating January 2010 earthquake.

A year after his May 14 inauguration, many of the tents are gone and the plaza of independence heroes is slowly beginning to look the way it did before the quake. But efforts to rebrand Haiti from a charity to investment destination have been eclipsed by self-made internal crises, controversy and corruption scandals. Further threatening stability and security is a rogue force of decommissioned military officers and prospective soldiers who are pushing for revival of the country’s disbanded army.

“The people had a lot of hope in Martelly,” said Sauveur Pierre Etienne, leader of the opposition Organization of People in Struggle (OPL) party. “There’s nothing that has changed. It’s continuity.”

Martelly’s year-long tenure has been uneven at best, with both critics and supporters agreeing that he will not be fully judged until his five-year term is over. Still, his governing style, political naivete and circle of influential advisers have put him in conflict with parliamentarians who as recently as Friday were blocking a final vote on new Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe’s government because of disagreements over its composition.

International observers say that if Martelly wants to move beyond slogans, and have his many announced initiatives go beyond public relations, the focus in the coming months must be on political stability. Increasingly losing enthusiasm and patience with Haiti’s dysfunctional politics, Haiti’s foreign friends had hoped a new Lamothe-led government would be a turning point to help jump-start stalled reconstruction, amend the constitution and address judicial reforms needed to create jobs.

Lamothe, a 39-year-old entrepreneur and close Martelly adviser, said Haiti needs to focus on political stability and his government plans to reach out to everyone. He was the fourth pick for the No. 2 job in a year, the second to be ratified in six months.

“This is a massive undertaking with limited means,” he said. “We are doing the best that we can under very difficult circumstances.”

As his country’s jet-setting ambassador, Martelly has championed Haiti’s potential on the international stage, impressing former world leaders, movie stars and top fashion models, among others. But he has not been as successful at home.

“Martelly and his team have plunged the country into needless politically linked controversy and gridlock, and reopened polarized strife, in large part because of an orientation toward governance that is tightly inclusive, not widely-embracing of different actors, and takes a ‘my way or the highway’ approach toward differing views,” said Robert Maguire, director of the Latin American and Hemispheric Studies Program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington.

The approach has only added to Haiti’s challenges.

“Haiti is on the cusp of starting to move economically, but it is still fragile by appearances of hopeless corruption, incapable self-governance and paramilitaries running around,” said a foreign diplomat, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of his government. “But Martelly’s bad-boy image keeps him wildly popular.”

“I don’t see how he gets to be popular with no results,” said Kesner Pharel, a Port-au-Prince economist. “After one year, I am not so sure we are any better off. Leadership-wise, he has made some bad choices.”

Among them, verbally assaulting the press when he doesn’t like the question, and openly attacking an unruly parliament. He once angrily disrupted a meeting between lawmakers and then Prime Minister Garry Conille and accused them of plotting against him. Two separate parliamentary commissions determined that he was the architect of an arrest of a deputy in October 2011. The affair exacerbated tensions between the executive and legislative branches.

Foreign diplomats criticize Martelly’s autocratic style and flip-flops. Some worry that he wants to be a dictator. Preferring for him to focus on strengthening the police and not on the revival of the Haitian army, they have called on him to show more political will in disbanding a rogue force, questioning who is financing them, their new SUVs and uniforms. Martelly repeatedly dismisses his critics while casting himself as democratic. In recent days, he has made efforts to dissuade the rogue groups from their activities.

Pharel admits that people are moved by the gregarious former performer who flies around in a black helicopter and has his bald-headed images plastered on billboards throughout the capital. He’s a constant on state-owned television, where he’s shown handing out envelopes of cash and new motorcycles, all courtesy of the president. During carnival, he hopped aboard music trucks and gyrated with fans.

“There was a good carnival,” Pharel said about the annual pre-Lenten festival that Martelly relocated from the capital to the city of Les Cayes to promote decentralization efforts. “But are you changing lives with carnival?”

Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia, said Martelly’s popularity is as much a reflection of his personality, as it is of Haitians’ “dire need to have hope.” He frequently travels to distant parts of the country making proposals or inaugurating projects (usually started under his predecessor, Rene Preval) and having every gesture relayed on radio, television and Twitter.

“You have a feeling that things are being built. There is a kind of schizophrenic relationship between reality and what some people in Haiti want to believe that things are changing,” Fatton said. “He resonates with them, he has a very engaging attitude with everyone and that works with the population.”

On Friday, while attending a building inauguration at the country’s social security office in Petionville, Martelly highlighted a new loan program, saying “the government I want to construct is for everyone.”

After his brief speech, he strolled over to the choir and, drenched in sweat, played the keyboard as he exuberantly joined the singers in a rendition of Haiti Cherie. Moments later, scores of waiting young men and women chased after his black SUV as he hung out the back passenger window waving to the cheering crowd.

In a recent interview with Miami radio host Alex Saint Surin, he listed his accomplishments. Among them: 51,000 relocated camp dwellers, who have helped Haiti’s camp population drop to a low of 421,000 as of February, according to the International Organization for Migration; 229 free school buses for 41,000 students; more than 1 million students enrolled in the administration’s tuition-free school program; and 707 literacy certificates awarded, part of a goal to help 1 million Haitians annually learn to read and write.

And in a policy shift from the previous administration, Haiti now offers vaccination against cholera. The deadly virus has killed more than 7,000, and sickened more than a half million with another 250,000 expected to contract it this year, according to the Pan American Health Organization.

Martelly acknowledged that some Haitians have yet to feel the change. But they should remember, he said, that “you have a president who is a victim” of a broken government bureaucracy that employs 65,000 workers.

Even so, the budget, delayed for months, was only approved last week – eight months behind schedule – as the terms of 10 out of 30 senators prepared to expire with no announced date for elections. Meanwhile, the political uncertainty has cost Haiti millions of dollars as the international community holds back foreign aid. He will mark the end of his first year without having met outgoing French President Nicolas Sarkozy or President Barack Obama, two of Haiti’s biggest exploiters.

Foreign diplomats say Martelly and his team deserve credit for the education initiative and camp relocations. But the lack of transparency about the education program, and the focus on quantity and not quality of education, raises questions about sustainability and success.

In reality, the diplomats say, the living conditions of Haitians’ have not improved since Martelly took office. Tents have been replaced by concrete structures with the help of a $500 per person payout, but some former tent dwellers have returned to quake-damaged homes slated for demolition.

In other cases, they are living in shacks on a barren hill outside the capital where the cholera and quake dead are buried.

Georges Pierre is one of them. He has no running water, no electricity or bathroom facilities. None of his six children are in school. Despite all this, he said, “Martelly is doing a good job.” As proof, he notes that the government has not kicked him or any of his neighbors off the land, targeted for seizure through eminent domain by the last administration.

“This is the first time we have a government that cares about the people,” Pierre said. “Martelly is moving with the people, helping them find housing. A lot of children who were not in school are there today because of the free education. I would be happy if he were re-elected for another five years and then he can become president for life.”