NEW HAITI PM TOUTS ANTI-POVERTY, PRO-INVESTMENTS AGENDA
(Miami Herald) - By Jacqueline Charles
Haiti’s new Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe took office and immediately got to work, declaring ‘we have four years to develop this country.’
PORT-AU-PRINCE - Haiti’s latest prime minister is a tech-savvy, driven decision-maker who is determined to drag this pen-and-paper society into modernity as he strives to break the cycle of misery.
But Laurent Lamothe, a close friend and former business associate of President Michel Martelly, also is a political novice who officially took over the second toughest job in Haiti on Wednesday as he and his 21-member Cabinet were sworn-in.
“I have the ambition of working and being the prime minister that takes care of the people’s needs,’’ Lamothe, 39, told The Miami Herald. “In Haiti … you have to focus on tomorrow, and make sure tomorrow is better than today.”
And that work begins immediately said Lamothe, announcing a massive street clean-up, road improvements and increased security measures. The makeover will be combined with several new reforms he plans to send parliament, he added.
“We have four years to develop this country,” said Lamothe, who never goes anywhere without his iPad. “We have to get moving.”
The swearing-in marked a new chapter for Lamothe and Martelly, who ended the first year of his five-year presidential term Monday. That same day, Haitian lawmakers completed the final steps to ratify a new government. With parliament and Martelly at loggerheads, many hope this “fresh start” is what post-earthquake Haiti needs to rebuild. Until now, the political bickering has stalled reconstruction and delayed political progress.
“At some point the two branches have to grow up and decide if you want to have an effective government,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia. “Then there has to be some common ground, and so far there is no common ground.”
FOURTH IN LINE
Lamothe was Martelly’s fourth pick, and the second prime minister to be ratified by parliament in six months. Former Prime Minister Garry Conille resigned after only four months amid friction with Martelly. In the nearly three months leading up to his ratification, Lamothe has reached out across the political divide, courting politicians and members of the formal business community. He preaches inclusion and breaking the political gridlock.
“We don’t have any other choice,” Lamothe said after his regular morning workout with a personal trainer at his home in Turgeau, one of Port-au-Prince’s oldest residential neighborhoods. “It is the same fight. It’s the fight to reduce inequalities, it’s the fight to bring better living conditions to the most vulnerable and it’s a fight to bring the country out of this cycle of misery and instability that has plagued it for so long.”
Long the go-to guy in Martelly’s inner-circle for some foreign diplomats, Lamothe is viewed as a “deliverer” and “determined doer” who offers sage advice to the president even if he doesn’t always follow it, according to insiders.
While acknowledging that he may not be the best qualified politically for the job, the international community says he’s the last chance for Martelly to make progress.
Still, as foreign minister, a post he’s keeping, Lamothe has ruffled diplomatic feathers with his outreach to leftist governments in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.
“We need to find partners that will come and assist us, and we need to re-dynamize the relationship with them,” Lamothe said, noting they inherited Haiti’s relationships.
At home, Lamothe’s rising star has not been well received, which endangers his longevity. Since 1988, Haiti prime ministers have averaged 453 days in office and his anti-contraband position has put him in conflict with some in his own camp. Haiti loses between $400-$500 million annually along its 243-miles porous border with the Dominican Republic, Lamothe said.
“We feel the brewing of a future confrontation. He has to watch out so that within his political family, he doesn’t get eaten, politically speaking,” said Rudy Heriveaux, a former senator and member of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party. “There is already a fight going on.”
Jocelyn McCalla, a New York-based Haiti expert, said if Lamothe “wants to move things forward, he has to build a good team, build cohesion, shake things up and achieve results in a relatively short time while building for the long-term.”
“It’s a steep hill and he can roll down the hill at anytime,” McCalla noted.
Others are hoping that Lamothe’s close relationship with Martelly will help weather any political storms.
“Laurent is probably the best thing that can happen to Haiti at this juncture,” said Stephan Coles, the head of the Coles Group of manufacturers and coordinator of the Economic Forum, an umbrella group of professional associations and chambers of commerce. “The fact that you have a president and prime minister going in the same direction bodes very well.”
Still, Lamothe has his detractors. During the ratification process, opposition lawmakers argued that in a five-year period, he had only spent 106 days in Haiti, rendering him constitutionally unqualified to hold the post. For weeks, allegations of vote buying for and against Lamothe dominated radio airwaves. His team denies buying votes, but says detractors paid money to try to block his confirmation. Those allegation could not be confirmed.
There are also questions about his dealings in Africa as CEO of Global Voice Group, a telecommunications firm with auditing contracts. In Senegal, a short-lived contract spurred protests and a suspension of all Internet traffic for one day. .
Lamothe said Global Voice routinely ran into resistance in trying to carry out its auditing work.
“What happened in Senegal,” he said, “they were not accepting the audits and they launched a very, very wide … smear campaign and fabrication of all sorts.”
“It’s business,” he added, noting that he has resigned from the company. “When you go into foreign countries and you audit, sometimes what you find, people won’t like it.”
Both detractors and supporters say reservations aside, there is a collective sense of goodwill for Lamothe to succeed, for the sake of Haiti.
He has laid out an ambitious program that touts not just political stability, but investments and anti-poverty initiatives. One of two new cabinet posts focuses on the poverty fight; the other on rural sectors. Both are headed by women, who account for 40 percent of the new government.
The anti-poverty strategy, Lamothe said, will be waged on several fronts: free tuition for primary-school age children; monthly conditional $20 cash transfers targeted at 100,000 mothers with two or more children who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods and who have their children vaccinated; and assistance with micro-enterprises.
Though some analysts criticized his government as weak, Lamothe said it will be results-oriented and complaints about ministers will be reviewed. Meanwhile, to spur economic growth, he’s pushing for investments in public buildings, roads and transforming the southeastern seaside town of Jacmel into a tourism Mecca.
“We have sun all year long, white sandy beaches and we need to take advantage of it through investing in tourism and tourism infrastructure,” he said.
Meanwhile, he has recruited advisors from various walks of life. Their résumés read like a who’s who of North America’s most prestigious universities: Harvard, MIT, McGill.
“We are focusing on bringing competency, not only doers, but people with highly qualified degrees to sit down and figure out policies to bring the country forward, to bring economic growth,” said Lamothe, who holds an MBA from St. Thomas University.
“We want to bring a new type of leadership, a leadership where optimism has no borders, a leadership of young, energized dynamic managers to tackle the big issues that the country is facing,” he added. “We have the will. We have the perseverance to do so and the margin for error is little. We are determined to succeed.”