Another disaster has hit Haiti but this time it’s not Mother Nature. The political class has been ripped apart with the election of Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, a hugely popular pop musician who was taken lightly and is now dancing all the way to the crumbling national palace.
Martelly soundly defeated former first lady Mirlande Manigat, a college professor and an establishment favorite. How Martelly went from being the bad boy of Haitian pop to the presidency is no surprise to those who know him from the music industry. But the political class failed to realize that this man transcended class and generations with his onstage antics, like dressing in drags, wearing diapers and cursing that makes a sailor blush.
For nearly two decades, Martelly has remained at the top of the music scene reinventing himself each time his star was fading. He picked up epic battle with bands and created rivals and made them so personal that eventually the other bands simply gave up because it was not worth it.
But Martelly, the self-proclaimed “president of Konpa” as Haiti’s pop music genre is known, began his road to the palace shortly after his musical career began in the late 1980s. He created an organization that donated aid to the destitute across Port-au-Prince, the capital city. In one of his songs, he gave a shout out, “Cite Soleil men jazz ou,” or “Cite Soleil here is your band.” That gesture, as small as it was, resonated loudly among Haiti’s untouchable class.
Martelly has became an outspoken opponent of Jean Bertrand Aristide and settled in Miami for most of the former priest presidency, claiming that his life was in danger. So last year when he threw his hat in a field of more than 20 candidates, the most feared in that group was the hip-hop star Wyclef Jean, the target of the establishment. Jean, who was deeply popular in the country, was disqualified from running because of a series of technicalities. Quietly, Martelly ran a brilliant campaign and finished in second place according to official data and this week, he was declared the winner, defeating Manigat 3 to 1.
So who is this man who will manage the country’s reconstruction for the next five years. Martelly is a complex figure that brilliantly distanced himself from his alter ego, “Sweet Micky” the foul mouthed iconoclast who has pushed Haiti’s conservative mores to its edge.
He has argued persuasively that the two are completely different person and that he is no more Micky than Arnold Schwarzenegger was “The Terminator.” Indeed, it was a clever move that has pushed him all the way to the presidency, every Haitian dream.
While everyone takes issues with Martelly’s onstage antics, they don’t offend me. To me, they are the least of his shortcomings.
The last time I spoke with Martelly was in late September when he was in New York for a black tie fundraiser in tony Great Neck. He spoke to me and other journalists about his aspirations and his vision for his beloved homeland.
I was deeply touched but not enough to want to vote for him as the leader of a country that needs to be completely rebuilt for it to become a functioning republic.
For one thing, Martelly badly managed his band. Most of his associates were thugs who stole money from naïve promoters with the tacit approval of the musician. I remember one of his managers who came to our offices and proclaimed. “now I understand why Jojo is the way he is,” the manager said referring to Jojo Lorquet, Martelly’s New York rep for a long time. “Michel pushes people to steal for him.”
Even the Haitian Times had its legal issues with Martelly. In 2000, we gave Lorquet a deposit for Kreyolfest when he knew that the band was booked in Miami for that same date. When I asked for the deposit back, Lorquet refused and I called Martelly to explain the situation. He couldn’t care less and told me that it’s his manager and not him and too bad.
The Haitian Times sued and won a judgment in small claims courts and we never pursued the issue, although we could have put a lien on his property. We decided that winning the suit was more important because it sent a strong signal that the Haitian Times, which was barely two years old and a novice in the music industry would not play business as usual in the community.
Martelly pistol-whipped one of his musicians in public because of a dispute. He has humiliated his musicians on stage when he felt they weren’t performing up to his satisfaction. The only millionaire to emerge out of Sweet Micky is the man himself. It’s not that he’s the most brilliant businessman; it is because the lion share of the money stayed with him.
So now, Martelly has won the presidency, it is unclear what kind of president he will make. But one thing for sure, he will be colorful and entertaining. There will be no middle ground. He will either be the best of the worst president in Haiti’s inglorious history. Democracy is a messy thing and now we have to deal with a president who mocked education because his predecessors, who held university degrees, were colossal failures.
But we all have to accept Martelly and rally around him for the benefit of the country, even if Sweet Micky lurks in the background constantly.