Tuesday, May 17, 2011


(Miami Herald) - By Jacqueline Charles

Challenges — and hope — await Michel Martelly as he begins his presidential term

PORT-AU-PRINCE -- On the campaign trail, musician-turned-politician Michel Martelly promised the works — from agrarian reform to the rebirth of a national army, free schooling to the much-needed construction of 2,000 houses a week. In speech after speech, he told Haitians that he wants to establish a new image for the aid-dependent nation.

Now as president, longtime Haiti watchers say Martelly must figure out how to do the nearly impossible: delivering on his promises.

“He’s inheriting a dysfunctional government that has been running on fumes, thanks for the most part to international subsidies and a dysfunctional economy that is extremely vulnerable to international price fluctuations,’’ said Jocelyn McCalla, a Haitian-born political strategist and human rights expert.

In other words, said the outgoing head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, Edmond Mulet: “He’s inheriting a failed state. . . . In the next few days, President Martelly and his team will find that the state institutions, ministries, government agencies that should implement the vision and plans of the new government cannot deliver.’’

To transform Haiti, Martelly the showman must become Martelly the statesman. To realize his agenda of change, he’ll have to reach out to both friends and foes to build confidence. But with no senators and only three deputies in parliament, he faces an uphill battle in often-treacherous political waters.

His rumored choice of prime minister —businessman Daniel Rouzier — has triggered friction. Because Martelly didn’t consult the parliament about the selection and the choice doesn’t reflect the masses who elected him, it appeared that the new president was imposing his own choice. And last week, lawmakers dealt him his first political defeat by rejecting his support of an extension in office for 10 senators and a change to the Haitian constitution that would have allowed him to seek reelection at the end of his five-year term. The extension was supported by Martelly but opposed by then-President René Préval.

Meanwhile, Martelly’s verbal attack on the Provisional Electoral Council, coupled with the misstep over the prime minister, triggered public and private scolding by politicians.

Referring to him by part of his former stage name, “Mr. Micky,’’ the head of Préval’s political coalition publicly accused him of acting like a “bull in a china shop’’ for imposing his presence and disregarding the independence of Haitian institutions.

“If this is a declaration of war, we welcome it,’’ Sen. Joseph Lambert said on radio.

The honeymoon period for Martelly and his mostly inexperienced team will be short and depends largely on whether Haitians see “tangible improvements in their day-to-day lives.’’

“Conditions beyond his immediate control, however, such as current food and fuel prices and the approaching hurricane season will complicate matters, testing him as they tested his ‘unlucky’ predecessor,’’ said Robert Maguire, a Haiti expert at Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Martelly will, however, benefit from more than $1 billion in big-ticket projects — including a new industrial park and university — that are already under way or left in the pipeline by the Préval government. However, the new president will have to address not only social and political problems that have befuddled Haiti for decades, but new ones, like the presence of former Presidents Jean-Claude Duvalier and Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Unlike Préval, Martelly is a political novice. In preparation for the job, his advisors have put him through political boot camp, briefing him on subjects and world figures and providing an image makeover. “I already see a big improvement. He knows the economics, the statistics,’ said political advisor Daniel Supplice.

“It’s evident that we are going into a period that is very difficult. “We are conscious that we have a huge challenge. But there is a political will,’’ Supplice said.

Mark Schneider, a former U.S. official who serves as senior vice president with the International Crisis Group, said Martelly’s “biggest challenge is finding ways — not a single way — but a multitude of individual actions that bridge the divides of a polarized nation following a thoroughly unhappy electoral process.’’

“He can and actually must, given the balance in the parliament, offer ministries to many parties and hopefully different regions of the country,’’ said Schneider, whose group reports regularly on Haiti.

Sixteen months after the massive Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, Haiti still reels from the devastation. While the number of Haitians — 1.5 million — living beneath tents and tarps has been reduced by half, according to the International Organization for Migration, the reduction is not viewed as a sign of improvement. The number of newly built permanent homes remains shockingly low. Meanwhile, a large number of camp residents are returning to unsafe houses and neighborhoods because conditions in the camps are unbearable. And as the Atlantic hurricane season nears, one in four camp residents faces eviction.

“These are times of great uncertainties, where hope and optimism coexist with despair and pessimism,’’ said Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia. “Whether President Martelly will invigorate the former and vanquish the latter remains an open question, but he will have very little time to do so as Haitians have become impatient with the pace of reconstruction.’’

Wilneck Joseph, 34, and his mother, Anne-Marie Joseph, 72, say they voted for Martelly because they hope he’ll let them finally leave the Champ de Mars, the sprawling public plaza-turned-encampment in front of the broken presidential palace.

Said Wilneck Joseph: “He understands the suffering of the people underneath the tents. For 20 years, the traditional politicians have been governing the country, and they didn’t do anything. I hope they never forget this break. I am not saying we won’t bring them back, but when they come back, they won’t play with the population again.’’

Alex Dupuy, a sociologist at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, said while the 16 percent of the electorate Martelly represents hopes he will make good on his promises, most of those pledges are “empty.’’ He said promises of free education and thousands of new houses are unrealistic in the Haitian social and political reality. He also noted that Martelly’s promises have yet to address underlying issues of corruption, weak state institutions and foreign dependence.

During his first 100 days in office, Martelly wants to relocate quake victims living in six highly visible camps. The plan has triggered criticism from the international community, which does not yet know where people will go, who will pay for the move, and why more problematic camps and post-quake squatter communities are not part of the mix.

Indeed, finding land and housing for the victims will be one of Martelly’s major challenges. He could find resistance from both parliament and from private landholders unwilling to have the government take their property, even for a price.

For the United States and former President Bill Clinton, co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, addressing Haiti’s complex land problem is key to reconstruction. They are seeking leadership from Martelly to steer Haiti forward while maintaining political stability.

Dupuy said that given Martelly’s inexperience and Haiti’s challenges, “the only constant in all of this is what the international community wants.’’

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