HAITI SPRUCES UP FOR MARTELLY SWEARING-IN
(AFP) - By Clarens Renois
PORT-AU-PRINCE — Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince, still shattered after last year's earthquake, is sprucing up as best it can ahead of this weekend's swearing-in ceremony for president-elect Michel Martelly.
Women with brooms fanned out along Port-au-Prince's Avenue Panamerican that links the capital to the suburb of Petion-ville, in a frenetic effort to clear away weeks of accumulated refuse ahead of Saturday's inauguration.
The sweepers are an essential element of the city's facelift, as Haiti prepares for its first major political celebration since Port-au-Prince was leveled by the powerful January 2010 quake.
"With the arrival of President Martelly, we want to give a new look to the capital," explained one of the workers, who said that the mounds of collected garbage would be incinerated.
It is, however, a Sisyphean labor. No sooner have the women cleared away debris than it reappears in the road, forcing them to repeat their efforts, sometimes several times over.
In addition to sweeping and scrubbing, there is lots of re-painting going on in many neighborhoods, with building facades scrubbed of political graffiti and commercial advertisements.
The cleanup effort is being carried out, by and large, by volunteers. One group, "Haiti Propre" or "Clean Haiti" discreetly toils day after day to rid the city of trash and to restore the charms hidden beneath tons of the rubble and refuse.
"Our capital is beautiful; We have to stop treating it like an enormous trash can," said one of member of the group, who said he hopes to introduce similar efforts elsewhere in Haiti.
Meanwhile, the Haitian capital has become a major construction site, with dozens of workers laboring to erect installations for viewing the inauguration, and to construct a dais from which Martelly will address the Haitian people and numerous dignitaries, including a dozen invited heads of state.
Haitians are praying for a fresh start under Martelly, whose ubiquitous picture beams down from posters plastered across Port-au-Prince.
His swearing in Saturday is the latest chapter in Haiti's tumultuous political history. After weeks of uncertainty about the election result, Martelly last month was declared Haiti's president-elect after winning 67 percent of the vote in a historic run-off.
But he faces a challenge to forge true national unity, with just slightly more than one million out of more than 4.3 million eligible Haitian voters actually casting ballots.
A popular former carnival singer, Martelly has made the recovery of his devastated country a top priority, after the earthquake killed some 220,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless.
He also faces the challenge of forging alliances that will allow him to govern, with parliament controlled by outgoing President Rene Preval's political coalition.
Down the Avenue Panamerican a bit, Jean-Marie Duplessy, who heads up a club of Martelly supporters, has placed a portrait of his hero between pictures of two other political figures he greatly admires: US President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
He has a separate message for each of the three leaders.
For Obama: "Help us but let us live in peace," he said, similar to what he has to say to the French leader: "Don't exploit Haiti. Help us to get ahead."
Duplessy said his message for Martelly, is to offer the support of the club's entire 45-strong membership for the rebuilding effort.
"We are ready to work together, for the love of Haiti," he said.
Once Martelly takes office on May 14, he has vowed that his first six months will focus on moving hundreds of thousands of quake survivors out of squalid tent cities, tackling a resistant cholera epidemic and boosting agricultural production.
He also plans reforms of Haiti's dysfunctional education system, which he hopes will lead to armies of newly trained teachers, and construction of new schools.
In a public market in his hometown of Petion-ville one recent day, a truck blared tunes by "Sweet Micky," as Martelly is lovingly known by his fans.
Some like John, a university student, are skeptical that even a figure who benefits from as much goodwill as Martelly can change decades of endemic corruption, dictatorship and cronyism.
"He can't do anything by himself. He's going to have to tackle (Haiti's problems) with the help of everyone together," he said.
Another supporter said she is hopeful about Martelly's vow to introduce long-overdue school reform. But she also is prepared to hold his feet to the fire.
"I hope he's not deceiving us," said Martelly-backer Marie-Rodele, 22.
"If he does like all the other presidents," she said, "we will be the first to ask him to go."