NEW PRESIDENT TAKES POWER IN STRUGGLING HAITI
PORT-AU-PRINCE — A pop star known for his bad boy antics on stage, Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, became this earthquake-devastated country's new president Saturday and urged Haitians to set aside their divisions and raise the country from rubble.
The 50-year-old was all business as he was inaugurated on the lawn of the collapsed National Palace before a crowd of thousands. He told his compatriots to respect laws, pay their taxes, and pitch in to ensure that a more independent Haiti moves forward after a massive earthquake last year flattened the capital and outer areas, killing more than 300,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands more living in tents.
Martelly spoke as if he wanted to distinguish himself from outgoing President Rene Preval, who was seen as aloof and meek.
"Hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, we're going to change Haiti," Martelly told the roaring crowd in a mix of Creole and French. "We want to re-establish order and discipline in the country."
As if to dramatize the challenges facing this desperately poor country, a power outage interrupted the inauguration ceremony.
The inauguration marked the first time in Haitian history that a president had transferred power to a member of the opposition.
An emphatic and self-confident Martelly laid out his top priorities for rebuilding the country, a plan that focused on education, tax collection, security and foreign investment. To "change the face of Haiti," he said everybody had to do their part.
Martelly told his audience not to throw rocks in protest or build homes on precarious ravines. When he told his audience to pay taxes to improve services, the message seemed aimed at the business class sitting in the shade of the stands.
Louis Gary Lissade, an attorney and former justice minister, said the new president wanted "no more monkey business."
"He told the business class to be straight," Lissade said. "He talked about this civic duty: You must pay taxes."
Martelly reiterated a pledge to rebuild the crumbling capital of Port-au-Prince, revive an economically depressed countryside and bolster security. Universal education for children, he said, would not only be free but also mandatory. The country has so far struggled to recover from the last year's magnitude-7.0 earthquake and depends heavily on foreign aid.
"This is how Haiti is going to get out of its misery," Martelly said. "Haiti was asleep — now it's going to stand up."
Martelly had been a dark horse candidate leading up to the Nov. 28, 2010, elections but made it to a March 20 runoff against former first lady Mirlande Manigat. Initially barred from the second-run and readmitted under international pressure, Martelly won the presidency in a landslide with more than two-thirds of the vote, appealing mostly to young voters in urban areas.
"For me, he's going to do a whole lot," said 24-year-old Sonson Edmon, who lives in a makeshift camp across from the National Palace. "He's going to send our kids to school, and the high cost of living is going to go down."
Political observers have stressed that Haiti's government needs to hasten a multibillion-dollar reconstruction effort to help house more than 600,000 people still living in settlements.
"His administration will have to show progress fairly quickly in order to provide confidence to the population," said Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the nonprofit think tank International Crisis Group in Washington, D.C.
Martelly also faces a cholera epidemic that threatens to erupt again as the rainy and hurricane seasons approach, as well as a Parliament controlled by legislators from Preval's party.
Despite speculation that Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier and ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide would accept invitations to the ceremony, neither of them showed up.
Since Duvalier made a sudden return in January, the ex-despot has been charged with embezzlement and human rights abuses, and advocacy groups criticized Martelly for inviting him.
Martelly took the oath of office in a building specially made for the occasion after the parliament building buckled in the quake. The power stopped minutes before Preval took off the presidential red-and-blue sash to place it over his successor's shoulders. Paying no mind to the blackout, Martelly's wife, Sophia, stepped on stage to straighten his crooked sash.
Dignitaries came from more than a dozen countries, most of them in the Western Hemisphere. The special guests included former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the U.N.'s special envoy to Haiti, and Edmond Mulet, head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission that's been in Haiti since 2004.
Martelly "wants to take charge, to assume responsibility, to make decisions, and this is what the country needs," Mulet told The Associated Press. "You can sense all over the country there's new energy, motivation."
Martelly was a star of the Haitian genre known as compas. Many said his history of crude onstage antics would prevent him from winning.
He is the son of an oil company executive and attended a prestigious Catholic school in Port-au-Prince and junior colleges in the United States, though he never graduated. He worked as construction worker in Miami in the 1980s.
A few years later, Martelly found his calling — playing compas, Haiti's high-energy, slowed-down version of merengue.
Over time, Martelly's shows became legendary, for he was a bona fide provocateur. As the self-proclaimed "bad boy of compas," Martelly mooned the audience, cursed his rivals, and donned diapers and dresses. Many credit him for reviving compas and proving Haitian musicians could earn a decent living.