PORT AU- PRINCE- Last week, Michel Joseph Martelly, AKA “Sweet Micky”, was sworn the next president of beleaguered Haiti in the shadows of the collapsed gleaming white Presidential Palace, once a symbol of the country’s strength now a metaphor for its weakness.
Under a torrid sun, dignitaries, diplomats and people from the private and public sector watched as the presidential sash was put around Martelly’s neck. It was a welcome relief for Haiti, a country that has not much to celebrate in recent years.
In Port-au-Prince, a city whose nocturnal life has remain bleak in the last several years, the festivities were compared to Christmas and New Year’s eve when throngs of people take to the streets to celebrate.
Still, people did not take out brooms to sweep clean the usually dirty canyons as they have done for Martelly’s predecessors, Rene Preval and Jean Bertrand Aristide, despite the fact that the former entertainer won the elections by a landslide.
“The Martelly sweep was as much a vote against the political establishment as it was for Martelly,” said a political science professor at the State University of Haiti, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “So they are guarded in their hope. Martelly has a lot to do to gain the adoration of the people.”
According to polical experts, Martelly, who outpaced his opponents by running a brilliant campaign, must quickly unite a fractured nation, broken physically and emotionally as Haitians try to pick up the pieces 16 months after an earthquake shook the country to its core.
The entertainer turned politician rode into office amid a wave of popular support, promising compulsory elementary education, massive job creation and competency in a dysfunctional political system.
These are promises made by every candidate who has sat in the presidential chair, and unfortunately these vows have remained elusive to the grasp of the people since Haiti began its democratic experiment in 1986.
If Martelly, who won a runoff against former first lady Mirlande Manigat in March, is to become the first elected president to honor his promises, he has to gain the trust and respect of Haiti’s disenfranchised masses, the Diaspora, the international community and a political opposition whose raison d’etre is to derail the ruling administration, even if it is to the country’s detriment.
Martelly’s easiest and most malleable ally remains the Diaspora. For nostalgic reasons, this group has always yearned to be woven in Haiti’s fabric and has thrown its support, for the most part, to whomever occupies the palace. Last week, Haiti’s Parliament gave Martelly a huge Diaspora shot in the arm when legislators voted to allow Haitian born people dual-citizenship even if they have pledged allegiance to another country after years of debate.
Haitians emigres – particularly those living in the United States – have grumbled that while they support the country with more than $1 billion in remittances, they have had little say in shaping their country’s future. They had few rights, including the ability to vote or own property.
So now, Haitian overseas are feeling empowered and are more likely to return to invest in the country that has struggled to entice serious financial investors, but needs just about everything from hotels to car rental companies to supermarkets. As the country’s proxy middle class, the Diaspora has not played a destructive role in Haiti, if one considers being gullible to be detrimental. All Martelly has to do to woo the Diaspora is to remind them of their importance and how integral it is for them to help Haiti and they’re with him.
The international community on the other hand, has been exasperated with Haiti and is looking for any cornel of progress so it can justify the billions it claims has been spent in an effort to turn Haiti from a neighborhood eye sore to a well manicured plot in the Americas. Few Haitian presidents have been able to develop warm relations with the Non Governmental Organizations that operate their own parallel governments in the country, weakening a state that receives little direct aid from American or European nations.
The international community has to build the capacity of the Haitian state by helping recruit and retain a coterie of highly qualified Haitians living overseas to fill the void created by decades of brain drain. But whether that will be done remains a riddle that needs to be solved if the country can turn itself around from a chronic welfare state that depends on food aid to survive to a functioning society that is responsive to its people’s needs.
A strong cadre of professionals can hold the international community accountable in Haiti. If ministries are made up of honest and competent people with years of proven track records overseas, the so-called friends of Haiti can no longer throw their hands in exasperation and blame all that is wrong on Haitians’ cretinism, which has been the narrative of the last 50 years.
The masses, however, are restive. They have seen their standard of living gone from bad to worse. The prices of most basic goods have increased ten-fold. Farmers have abandoned the countryside because they can no longer compete in their own market, which is flooded with inexpensive foodstuff from the United States. They have flocked to the main cities and swollen the ranks of the slums. They are used interchangeably by politicians of all stripes are they are the open wounds of government’s failure. The masses throw their support at anyone with a populist message but they have been disappointed time and again.
The kind of change necessary to improve the lot of the average Haitians requires more than a generation to achieve economic development so that the pie is large enough for everyone to have a piece.
But the day- to -day realities like where the next meal is coming from has always overtaken any attempt at much needed long term strategic planning. Matelly’s challenge here it to provide a healthy dose of reality and explain to the people that the road to recovery is long and patience is required.
The political class in Haiti has totally misunderstood its role in democracy, wittingly or unwittingly. It has mastered the art of zero sum game that has been detrimental to Haiti and has stymied everything from social to political to financial growth in the country. While this class doesn’t have the ability to lead, it has shown great skills at gridlock. This is the group that is still sulking that not only a musician has ascended to the presidency, but of all people, Martelly, the most vulgar of them all.
Martelly’s who has shown little ability to be patient, will be tested quickly by this group as he finds himself fighting the most mundane fight as if it was an epic battle. His dark side will come out and may be terrible for the country.
Looming in the shadows is former president Jean Bertrand Aristide, who has remained eerily quiet since he returned to Haiti in March a week before the run off, despite U.S officials urging him not to do so. According to people in Haiti, Aristide – Martelly’s long time nemesis – has been holding daily marathon meetings rebuilding his base in the country after seven years of exile in South Africa. The fiery former priest, remains the most charismatic leader in the country and will be a thorn on Martelly’s side, more than Martelly ever was.
This is no small task for a man with no political or diplomatic skills as Martelly inherits what is considered the toughest job in the world, excluding President of The United States. What is working for Martelly, however, is that he is either going to be the worse president or the best. Given the country’s tortured history, the bar for both has been set quite low.