When Michel Martelly was elected President of Haiti in 2011, expectations for his performance as a head of state were fairly low. And in many respects, unfortunately, he’s met them.
The former carnival singer, who had never held elected office, pledged to rebuild the western hemisphere’s poorest country from the ruins of its 2010 earthquake. But halfway into his five-year term, Martelly often seems more adept at building a reputation for indecision, crony corruption and populist authoritarianism. Not to mention a failure, or refusal, to hold parliamentary elections that should have taken place two years ago.
That latter controversy – a third of Haiti’s 30 Senate seats remain vacant – was a large reason for anti-Martelly street protests in Port-au-Prince and other Haitian cities last Monday, on the 210th anniversary of the battle that secured Haiti’s independence from France. The demonstrations (which also saw Martelly supporters clashing with protesters) left one person dead. The opposition said it plans more for this week.
But the larger question rising from these outbursts – and one that South Florida’s large Haitian diaspora is starting to ask as well – is whether Martelly’s presidential days might be numbered.
The protesters say their goal is Martelly’s resignation, especially since the economic situation feels more dire than ever: The government itself reported this year that two of three Haitians don’t have enough food to eat – although past administrations share the blame for that crisis – and the number of Haitians leaving on rickety boats is on the uptick again, according to authorities in neighboring Caribbean countries.
Still, the premature departure of “Sweet Micky,” as he’s known, isn’t likely, say most pundits. “Martelly is paying for a lot of mistakes, and the protesters’ complaints are largely well founded,” says Haitian historian and political analyst Georges Michel. “But they’re in the minority. Martelly still enjoys a lot of popularity with the grassroots.”
That got lost behind the burning tire barricades on Haiti’s streets last week. Martelly won by a landslide in 2011 – one of the largest margins of victory ever in a Haitian presidential vote and a resounding rejection of the nation’s ossified ruling establishment. Polls, though not always reliable in Haiti, still give him a high approval rating.
“On the ground there is more evidence of change than you generally hear about,” says Haiti expert Chantalle Verna, a professor of history and international relations at Florida International University. “You’re seeing more road and infrastructure improvements, for example, and more Haitians getting those contracts, which is a good change.”
In the United States, the Obama Administration still backs Martelly, if only to keep Haiti’s reconstruction on track, and because new political upheaval could mean more economic upheaval – and a mass Haitian exodus to Florida shores.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited Haitian schools this month and touted Martelly’s education reforms, which are key to his efforts to lure more manufacturing and high-tech jobs. Right after last Monday’s unrest, in fact, Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe flew to California’s Silicon Valley to network.
When Haitian police arrested prominent Martelly critic André Michel last month on questionable obstruction-of-justice charges, the White House used kid gloves. It said U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Martelly and, while reminding him about the long-delayed legislative and local elections, “commended [him] for his efforts to work with the Haitian parliament and political parties to resolve outstanding issues.”
But that, say Martelly’s critics, is precisely the problem: He makes no effort to work with anyone who doesn’t toe his line. Martelly, who has expressed admiration for Haiti’s brutal, 1957-1986 Duvalier family dictatorship and for Venezuela’s late, authoritarian President Hugo Chávez, in fact usually ignores Haiti’s other branches of government and democratic institutions.
Since the U.S. is Haiti’s biggest donor, Martelly’s failure to hold elections – which Washington and the U.N. want to see before the end of the year – is beginning to try Congress’ patience. U.S. aid has “done a lot of good” in Haiti, Representative Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said during a House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee hearing last month. “But I also want us to have conditions” that Martelly seems to be flouting.
Cutting aid to Haiti in its still precarious post-quake state would probably be a last resort. And even if the elections aren’t held by Jan. 1, Martelly appears to be planning them for next year. As for the resignation his foes want, even analysts critical of the Pwezidan (Creole for president) say the interruption of another Haitian presidency would hardly be good for the country's democracy – even if Martelly himself isn’t always good to it.
“The last thing we need here is a political Somalia,” says Georges Michel.
But if Martelly wants to avoid that kind of chaos, Michel adds, he’ll start learning from his mistakes.