New president to take power in struggling Haiti

AP News
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Posted: May 13, 2011 4:32 PM
New president to take power in struggling Haiti

The musician Michel Martelly will be sworn in as Haiti's new president Saturday in front of the collapsed National Palace and a shantytown filled with thousands of people displaced by last year's earthquake _ two stark reminders of the challenges faced by the neophyte politician.

The performer known to Haitians as "Sweet Micky" is not expected to have much of a honeymoon amid deep frustration with a political leadership that has made little progress toward earthquake reconstruction or addressed many other problems, from a deeply dysfunctional judicial system to almost universal unemployment.

The 50-year-old leader, who during the campaign provided few specifics of how he would fulfill his promises, is expected to lay out some of his vision during an inaugural speech. Whatever they are, his goals won't be easy to achieve given the country's entrenched problems _ and the fact that the Senate and Chamber of Deputies will be controlled by political opponents from the party of outgoing President Rene Preval.

"All eyes are on Martelly, and he has an opportunity to show what he can do," said Mark Schuller, a professor of African-American studies and anthropology at York College, City University of New York.

The inauguration marks the first time that a president of Haiti will turn over power to a member of the opposition in a country marred by a long history of dictatorship, coups and political turmoil.

Martelly made many promises during the campaign, including pledges to build houses in the capital; bring economic development to the long-neglected 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.

Many voters say they weren't swayed by his campaign pledges, but rather by the promise that he offered a change from past leaders who failed to provide even basic services, such as decent roads, water and electricity.

"I voted for President Micky because he can do something, he can bring change," Jonathan Charles, a 22-year-old college student, said on a recent morning as he walked past the National Palace, where workers were repainting the walls in preparation for the inauguration.

"He'll help the youth believe in a future."

Martelly appealed to young voters like Charles 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 on top of the National Palace if he were elected president.

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 he must he do so in a very short time frame.

"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. It's not known if either will attend.

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.

On Thursday, Martelly holed himself up for a couple of hours with his advisers in a hotel suite. They polished his inauguration speech as he practiced behind a lectern and read from a teleprompter.

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."