Published November 17, 2014
Charismatic pop star-turned-president Michel Martelly took over Haiti on Saturday, promising to rebuild its earthquake-devastated capital, develop the long-neglected countryside and build a modern army.
The 50-year-old performer known to Haitians as "Sweet Micky" was swept to power in a March 20 presidential runoff by Haitians tired of past leaders who failed to provide even basic services, such as decent roads, water and electricity in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.
Martelly was sworn in during a power outage in front of dozens of dignitaries including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the U.N.'s special envoy to Haiti, and Edmond Mulet, head of the U.N. mission that has maintained order in Haiti since 2004. Also present was Desi Bouterse, the president of Suriname who is on trial for the 1982 executions of 15 political opponents.
Former Haiti President Rene Preval took off the presidential sash and put it on Martelly as they shook hands and embraced, but did not say anything to each other. Martelly's wife, Sophia, then came on stage and adjusted the sash as their four children joined them.
Martelly did not speak as he left Parliament for the National Palace, where was to deliver a speech.
Outside the gated Parliament, more than 1,000 Martelly supporters gathered.
"Today is a party for us, for the masses, because the country is destroyed," said Esaue Rene, a 28-year-old mechanic who has high hopes for Martelly. "I would like him to bring jobs so that people aren't sitting around in public plazas because they don't have anything else to do."
Martelly appealed to young voters like Rene because he is the antithesis of Preval, who is seen as aloof and uninspiring. Martelly is effusive and charming. He once joked that he'd dance naked atop the National Palace if he were elected president.
But the challenges Martelly faces in fulfilling his ambitious promises were clear Saturday. He was sworn in front of the country's collapsed National Palace and a shantytown filled with thousands of people displaced by last year's magnitude-7.0 earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 people.
During his campaign, he promised to build houses in the capital; bring economic development to the countryside; provide universal education for children; develop agriculture; and replace the discredited armed forces with a modern army capable of responding to natural disasters. The previous discredited army was disbanded by ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1995.
Political observers say speeding up the multibillion-dollar reconstruction effort is paramount. That means Martelly's administration must make progress building houses for the more than 600,000 people still living in settlements; stem a cholera epidemic that threatens to spread during the rainy and hurricane seasons; and strengthen the judiciary. And a parliament controlled by political opponents from Preval's party could make passing bills difficult.
He must he do all this quickly.
"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 International Crisis Group in Washington, D.C.
Martelly will lead a country still divided over the presidential election itself. He was initially excluded from the runoff in favor of a candidate backed by Preval, only to be restored after the international community challenged the results.
One sign of the division: Martelly's opponents have recently alleged that he holds dual Haitian-U.S. citizenship, which would disqualify him for the presidency. He denies the allegation.
In what some view as a reconciliation effort, Martelly has invited to the inauguration both Aristide and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, the former dictator who made a surprise return to Haiti in January. Neither of them attended the swearing-in ceremony.
Since Duvalier came back, the ex-despot has been charged with embezzlement and human rights abuses, and advocacy groups have criticized Martelly for inviting him.
"Martelly's facing the need to knit together a polarized country," Schneider said. "Haiti just went through an election which was riven by discord, disagreement, and unhappiness. And given the makeup of the parliament, he has the major task of forging a national government."
In the weeks since Haitian authorities declared him the winner, Martelly has toured the countryside to learn more about reconstruction projects, announced ways to finance free education, and formed a transition team, led by Duvalier's former social affairs minister, Daniel Supplice.
Martelly was well-known as an entertainer. But what kind of leader he makes, many in Haiti aren't sure.
"He's unpredictable," said Patrick Elie, a defense minister under Aristide and an adviser to Preval. "He's got teeth that can both smile and bite. He's shown that."