Haitian President Michel Martelly returned to Haiti from the United States Monday, summoning his “Sweet Micky” persona to help quell rising tensions a day after several thousand anti-government protestors marched through the capital complaining of government corruption, rising food prices and higher costs of living.
A former carnival performer turned president who went by the stage name ‘Sweet Micky,’’ Martelly took to the streets — walking the 6.5 miles from the Port-au-Prince international airport to the ruined presidential palace — to respond to the anti-government protests that have sprouted across Haiti during the past three weeks.
Wearing jeans and hiking boots, Martelly was escorted by a caravan of state-issued Toyota Land Cruisers transporting Haitian government ministers and secretaries of state.
Festive bands and DJs playing carnival music and several hundred demonstrators joined in. While some came on their own to welcome the president back home after he attended the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week, others were bused in by the government and wore T-shirts advertising government social programs.
The crowd was far smaller than the several thousand who filled the streets a day before calling for Martelly’s departure, said journalists on the scene and international observers.
On Sunday, anti-government marchers who support two time ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide also commemorated the 21st anniversary of the Sept. 30, 1991 military-backed coup against Aristide. While some held up photos of the former priest-turned-president, who returned to Haiti last year after seven years in exile, others held up red placards to display their anger against Martelly. In soccer, a red sign indicates a player has been ejected for doing something dirty.
“He did this to respond to our protests yesterday. But clearly today demonstrated that while President Martelly may have control of the Central Bank of the country, the economics of the country, ... we are in control of the politics,” said Sen. Moise Jean-Charles, an opposition senator who has led two protests against Martelly in Haiti’s second largest city, Cap-Haitien, and rode on top of a horse during Sunday’s protest. “He has lost control of the politics.”
Robert Fatton, a Haiti-born political scientist at the University of Virginia, said 17 months after Martelly came to power, it is clear that for the Haitian people, “the honeymoon is over.”
“When you have large protests in the streets, whether they are organized or not, there is a problem. If there are protests, it means something is not going well,” he said.
But dueling protests, Fatton said, are “risky business” in earthquake-recovering Haiti, which in recent weeks has seen political parties, civil society and long-time political enemies form alliances against Martelly.
“Both people opposed to him, and Michel Martelly, should calm down,” Fatton said. “Otherwise we’ll be back to where we were in early 2000 where everyone is against something and it leads to chaos.”
At stake is not just the support of frustrated foreign donors who have already held back billions in promised aid, but badly needed direct foreign investments to create jobs and Haiti’s very stability.
About 370,000 people are still living in tattered tents, a deadly cholera epidemic has killed more than 7,500 people and sickened half a million more, and drought, rising food prices and Tropical Storm Isaac all have served up “a high risk of worsening food security” in Haiti, according to a recent U.N. report.
“If Martelly wants to leave a legacy, he must put Haiti on the right track,” said Michel Eric Gaillard, a Port-au-Prince-based political analyst. “To do this, he must surround himself with a steady flow of talent, with key advisors who are honest and who can protect him by keeping him on a steady track.”
In addition to economic woes, Haiti has been stymied by deteriorating security and political paralysis as the opposition and civil society disagree with Martelly over the creation of a permanent electoral council to oversee elections.
The process has been tarnished by allegations of corruption, and feelings by lawmakers that the deck has been stacked against them in the long overdue senatorial and local elections. Political infighting and Martelly’s own authoritarian style have only added to the turbulence.
“Most Haitians want President Martelly to succeed,” Gaillard said. “However, he has been lavishly spending his political capital and taking risks. He should remember that power erodes quickly. Although he has the skills to exercise leadership, he has been reverting to an authoritarian style, which is not applicable in a democracy.”