Amid Haiti’s Devastation, Musician-Politician Takes Over as President

Port-au-Prince, Haiti – A newly inaugurated Michel Martelly promised to change the image of his disaster prone nation Saturday while leading it into a new era of modernity: a country where education will be free and obligatory, he told Haitians, and change will not be compromised.

“Hand in hand, shoulder to should we are going to change Haiti. We are going to remake this country. We are going to remake its face,’’ Martelly said speaking forcefully and in Creole from the transformed grounds of the broken National Palace. “We cannot continue with this humiliation of having to extend our hand for help all of the time.’’

Martelly opened his speech by acknowledging former President Eartha Truillot and Rene Preval, who, along with the Provisional Electoral Council, were jeered by the festive crowds looking at the ceremony through the wrought-iron green gate. Speaking in Creole, French and English, Martelly, 50, emphasized strong leadership and continued with his campaign of promises saying that his will be a presidency that will not tolerate people blocking change, and that he will not tolerate anything preventing investments including land anarchy and instability.

Turning to the international community, he said in English, “Haiti is open for business.’’

Sitting in the audience was former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who serves as co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission. Also present among the 100 delegates were the presidents of the Dominican Republic, Suriname and Honduras, and the Prime Minister of Jamaica.

Martelly’s inauguration has been met with mixed reviews. While his supporters are optimistic that he will change Haiti for the better, others are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

“I hope he can do it, but you never know who will change the country really,’’ said Wilmene Desir, 25, who is unemployed.

Colin Abraham, 26, was more certain saying Martelly will help Haiti’s youth, who account for more than 50 percent of the 10 million citizens.

“We have given him power so he can remove all of the people from underneath the tents and he can create jobs for all of the country’s youth,’’ he said. “If he doesn’t succeed it’s because parliament is blocking him and we’ll block them too.’’

A popular musician, Martelly had long ago crowned himself president, but of konpa music, a popular form of Haitian music that made him a star on the party circuit. But it wasn’t until Saturday’s investiture inside a crowded temporary building that he became the president of Haiti. Taking the oath of office in the dark, after the lights went out, he swore to obey the constitution of this nation, a country wrecked by disaster and instability, and struggling to dig itself out from the devastation of last year’s 7.0-magnitude earthquake.

With the parliament, presidential palace and National Cathedral _ all destroyed in the quake that claimed more than 300,000 lives _ the $4.5 million inaugural affair took place underneath newly constructed structures, draped in the red and blue of the Haitian flag.

As Martelly and outgoing Preval sat side-by-side inside the “parliament’’ structure, the two-shared a joke, showing their familiarity and friendliness before last fall’s electoral crisis plunged Haiti into a months long political crisis. Martelly later reminded Haitians that Preval had written a page in the history books. He is the only president in 207 years of Haitian history to have served and completed two presidential mandates, and the first to peacefully transfer power to a member of the opposition, also democratically elected.

Bernardito Cleopas Auza, the Roman Catholic Church's Apostolic Nuncio, called Saturday a good day for Haiti.

“Personally, I'm very happy for Haiti, and I hope we can have some reconciliation going forward, he said.

The new president has generated energy, optimism. There is really a lot of hope for this new mandate that we can see progress and finally projects of reconstruction taking place, Auza said.

Gracia Delva, another well-known Haitian musician who was recently elected to parliament, agreed.

Martelly’s campaign was rich with promises, and we hope he can realize them all, he said.

Dignitaries at the inauguration included Clinton, Jamaica Prime Minister Bruce Golding and delegations from France, Brazil and Taiwan. The head of the U.N. Peacekeeping operations also attended.

“To see a democratic transition from one former president to another president is a great achievement for Haiti,” said Alain Le Roy, Under-Secretary-General of the UN Peacekeeping Operations.

The two-month electoral crisis finally ended with a second round between Martelly and former first lady Mirlande Manigat. Martelly won with 67 percent of the vote.

But with most of the 4.3 million voters staying home, and his victory representing just 16 percent of the electorate, Martelly has difficult road ahead.

As he arrived on the grounds of the broken presidential palace on Saturday, thousands outside the wrought iron green fence chanted. Earlier, a small band of protesters took to the streets wearing green and white T-shirts, saying in Creole, “We fired them,” referring to Preval’s government.

(Charles is a reporter for The Miami Herald.)

© 2011 McClatchy

Truthout has licensed this content. It may not be reproduced by any other source and is not covered by our Creative Commons license.