From showman to president, Haiti’s Michel Martelly insists he’s in charge. But can he lead his fractured country out of crisis?
It is hardly the best of times for Haiti’s President Michel Martelly. His finance minister, widely praised for her rectitude, resigned in April, citing “lack of solidarity.” The U.S. State Department’s country report remarked on Haiti’s “near absence of the rule of law,” and “chronic, severe corruption in all branches of government.” And more than three years after a devastating earthquake killed more than 200,000 people, the World Food Program says that two-thirds of Haiti’s 10 million people are still “food insecure.” It’s the only place on the planet to have a U.N. peacekeeping force without an actual war. But in a late April interview Martelly, the former singer known as “Sweet Mickey,” insisted that things are getting better. “I’ve always been a winner. I don’t expect to transform Haiti overnight.” Excerpts, edited and condensed for clarity, follow:
Foreign Policy: You’ve just completed two full years in office. Did you ever expect to be marking this anniversary? Your swearing-in was the first time in 207 years of Haitian history that an incumbent president peacefully transferred power to someone outside their party.
Michel Martelly: It was not peaceful. They kicked me out in the first round. I was the one they called the bad boy. But my people — the people of Haiti — said they wanted a bad boy because too many good boys had been president before and not enough things had been done.
FP: But the point is that you have completed two full years in office. Did you ever expect to be marking this anniversary, to be sitting here as president two years later?
MM: Certainly. Haiti is not as unstable as they claim. Many times, the instability in Haiti has been sponsored by foreigners.
FP: How much of the political stability of the last two years can be credited to the presence of the nearly 10,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force?
MM: It’s very important to have that force here. But they have not had to interfere in internal affairs. We haven’t had any riots.
FP: When do you want them to leave?
MM: As a true Haitian, I wish they had never come. But due to bad governance, at that special moment, we needed the force to intervene. Today, they should be thinking of reviewing the mission. Because it was a mission of maintaining peace in Haiti. I suggest that before they leave they turn this mission into a development mission. Haiti is not the most insecure country in the region. The [U.S.] Attorney General Eric Holder was in Haiti and he cited the most insecure countries — Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Haiti wasn’t even third. And yet, because we are kind of unstable, because we’re the one with the foreign force here, and because we do not have our own force to take control of insecurity and because we’re economically dependent, it makes us a very insecure country.
FP: More than 320,000 people live in tent cities three years after the earthquake; 56 percent of your people live on less than $1 per day; Haiti is 98 percent deforested; 70 percent unemployed; and has the lowest energy access in the Caribbean. What are your priorities?
MM: Before I pick one or two, I should say the whole stage was set to maintain the exploitation of Haiti, the poverty of Haiti. We need to tell the world that we no longer need assistance. The Haiti that had its hands out, begging, that Haiti no longer exists. This Haiti wants to work.
FP: But 90 percent of your development budget is from foreign aid, so it’s not like you’re turning away handouts.
MM: I tell my people all the time, if you plant a tree today, you will have to wait five years to be able to enjoy the shade. I’m not expecting great changes today. I’m setting the stage…. Presidents from any country come to Haiti; they just land and say ‘Hey, what’s up? We’re here for the summit,’ without asking ‘Do you have security,’ ‘Do you have armored cars,’ ‘I’m going to send my army,’ ‘I’m going to send my private security people.’ It shows that Haiti is a regular country.
FP: Amnesty International alleges that people have been forcibly evicted from tent cities.
MM: There are always allegations. I don’t do allegations. It’s not true…. Anyways, let’s get into rule of law. No one can deny that I’m the very first one who wants rule of law and equitable justice for every single Haitian. When I came to power we didn’t have a president of the Supreme Court for seven years. The first thing I did, I put one. For seven years, we were lacking six judges in the Supreme Court. I nominated them. I put in place the Superior Council of the Judiciary, which gives the judiciary its independence.
FP: Will you be able to re-house everyone in tent cities during your term in office?
MM: Every president would like to transform it into reality because it would be political capital for him, a great success. But the idea is not to rush. By rushing I would do it wrong and open the door for Amnesty International and all our friends to come and say that things are being done the wrong way. Yes we’re going to do it but the idea is to do it right and so it’s time-consuming. Because we need to either build homes, restore homes, and identify the people living in the tents. But it’s costly so we need to identify money and take the time. From 1.5 million people under the tents, to be able to reduce it to 257,000, that’s a great effort. Of course, even one person living under a tent is too much. We just finished signing another contract with Venezuela for 4,400 homes. Of course, 4,400 homes can probably accommodate, at most, 20,000 people.
FP: Are cholera cases rising or falling?
FP: The Haitian Ministry of Health website says that there were roughly 5,000 more cholera cases between January and April this year than the same period last year?
MM: 5,000 more? I’m not aware of these numbers.
FP: Why was the Haitian government not a party to the legal case against the U.N., seeking compensation for the cholera victims?
MM: I was never asked to be a party. I was not aware of that lawsuit.
FP: Might you file a case against the U.N.?
MM: I won’t say that I might or might not. I will consult my jurists and take the right decision at the right time. Sometimes you don’t just focus on what you want. What you want might have consequences for so many other things. Let’s say we cherish the work that we do with the U.N. — we might still want to do the lawsuit and, at the same time, work to make sure relations with the U.N. do not deteriorate. It’s not about choosing where the next performance is, I’m no longer a singer. I’m leading a country.
FP: Your government declares that Haiti is open for business. The World Bank ranks Haiti as 174 of 184 countries for ease of doing business. A stampede of investors is heading for Myanmar, until recently an international pariah. Not so Haiti. Why?
MM: Can you believe that our partners, who are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in Haiti, suggest not to come to Haiti? What sense does that make? Why invest in something you don’t believe in? We don’t want donations. Right now, we’re not allowed to borrow money because our debt has been erased, but later, we’d like to borrow a big sum to do developmental work. Of course, no one may give us the money because we have proved in the past that we are incapable of managing money. But help us manage it. Show us. Tell us who to hire. Come and fix the institutions with us. But at the end of the day, what do we want? For you to be right, for us to be wrong. We want things to change.
FP: You say you’re not a singer anymore, you lead a country…
MM: No, no, I don’t sing anymore but I will die a singer. Even my governing is like managing my band. Every one of my ministers is an instrument-player and I, the chief of the band, I’m making sure that each instrument does something different, but the whole thing is my vision, what I want, that is pleasing the people.