PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Jovenel Moise was sworn in Tuesday as Haiti's president for the next five years after a bruising two-year election cycle, inheriting a chronically struggling economy and a deeply divided society.
The 48-year-old entrepreneur took the oath of office in a Parliament chamber packed with Haitian lawmakers and foreign dignitaries from countries including the U.S., Venezuela and France. He smiled slightly as the Senate leader slipped Haiti's red and blue presidential sash over his left shoulder.
In his inaugural address during the day of prayer and platitudes, Moise gave a rough outline of his government's priorities and pledged to bring "real improvements" to the economically strapped nation, particularly the long-neglected countryside.
He urged unity and promised to strengthen institutions, fight corruption and bring more investments and jobs to one of the least developed nations in the world.
"We can change Haiti if we work together," Moise said to applause on the grounds of what used to be the national palace, which was one of many buildings obliterated during a devastating earthquake that hit outside the capital in January 2010.
There's little expectation among citizens that Moise's new government can overcome Haiti's deep problems of poverty and economic malaise in the next five years, but he does have a majority in Parliament and some are hopeful the businessman-turned-politician will make steady advances.
"What we still really need in this country are the basics: working hospitals, better schools and security. I think it can be done," said Maxime Cantave, owner of a car wash and propane business in the Port-au-Prince district of Delmas 48.
Nearby, Charles Bichotte agreed but said he'd wait and see if Moise was sincere with his various vows. "We've heard so many pledges from our presidents but here we are, still struggling," said the houseplant vendor.
Robert Fatton, a Haitian-born politics professor at the University of Virginia, described the many challenges facing Moise as "herculean."
"He has to revive domestic production, increase foreign and local investments, rebuild the moribund agricultural sector, create a sense of national solidarity, and generate a sorely lacking political stability," he said, adding that all this will have to be achieved amid diminishing international assistance.
But Fatton suggested that Moise might actually benefit from citizens' low expectations of political leaders following many years of broken promises and failed policies.
"If he manages to deliver a modicum of change he may restore a sense of hope for the future," he said.
The Tuesday inauguration was the concluding step in Haiti's return to constitutional rule a year after ex-President Michel Martelly left office without an elected successor in place amid waves of opposition protests and a political stalemate suspending elections. A caretaker government was quickly created to fill the void and pave the way for elections.
While Moise won a Nov. 20 election redo with a dominating 55 percent of the votes cast, his critics suggest he did not gain a mandate as barely 20 percent of the electorate bothered to go to the polls. The results withstood challenges by three of his closest rivals.
That election victory came more than a year after Moise topped an initial vote in 2015 that was eventually thrown out amid suspicions of fraud.
Senate leader Youri Latortue, who led the swearing-in ceremony Tuesday and leads a party allied with Moise's Tet Kale faction, told the new president that lawmakers were "ready to cooperate with you for the benefit of the country."
A businessman from northern Haiti, Moise had never run for office until he was hand-picked in 2015 to be the Tet Kale party candidate by Martelly.
Some critics viewed Moise's ascent with suspicion, suggesting Martelly was using him as a proxy. Moise dismissed the criticism in an interview last year with The Associated Press, saying Martelly will still be a valued adviser but he is his own man. During his Tuesday speech, he thanked Martelly for choosing him as the Tet Kale candidate.
Moise comes to office with an unresolved judicial investigation hanging over him. Late last month, a Haitian judge questioned Moise about a confidential report leaked during campaigning that suggests he might have laundered money and received special treatment to get loans in years before he ran for the country's highest political office.
Moise asserts all of his business dealings have been above board. He has blamed rivals for trying to "create instability" in the deeply divided nation with a long history of political tumult and damage his reputation before his swearing-in ceremony.
The judicial examination into Moise is ongoing and it is unclear when it will be resolved. Moise asserted Tuesday that the "justice system will never be used for political persecution" under his administration.
David McFadden on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dmcfadd