WASHINGTON -- Wrapping up a visit to Washington, Haiti President Michel Martelly said Friday he’s thankful for American support to his nation but wants the U.S. government to trust his country enough to provide direct aid to his administration.
“Haiti wants to move toward job creation and distance itself from charity,” Martelly said in an interview with McClatchy after two days of talks with President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and members of Congress. “Today we’re working at restoring confidence.”
The U.S. is the impoverished country’s biggest benefactor, but its $400 million in aid flows to non-government agencies, not to the Haitian government. That’s been a sticking point for the Martelly administration which, relies heavily on direct aid from Venezuela to carry out government tasks, from paving streets to building health clinics.
Martelly said the U.S. stance stems from the perception that the money will be wasted. Haiti ranks 163rd out of 177 countries on the nonprofit Transparency International’s Corruption Index.
“They didn’t do it because they wanted to hurt Haiti, they did it because there was corruption and lack of trust,” Martelly said of the U.S. “Now what we’re doing is building that trust, being more transparent, cooperating in that domain of fighting corruption.”
Martelly said it would be impossible to wipe out corruption in any government, but “having corruption rule, it’s very important that we stop that, and we’re working on doing so. “
Martelly told lawmakers this week that his government is taking corruption seriously, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., told McClatchy. Martelly told House members that the country “will have new laws” and that “a lot of people are being jailed and that they’re taking these cases to court, people are being sentenced and they are paying the price,” she said.
Pierre Esperance, executive director of Haiti’s National Network for the Defense of Human Rights, disagreed with Martelly’s assertions about jailing people for corruption.
“The people who are in his entourage, in corruption, he hasn’t touched those people,” Esperance said.
Congress has been reluctant to give money directly to the Haitian government. Current U.S. law says no funds can go to Haiti’s central government until the secretary of state certifies that the country, among other things, “is combating corruption and improving governance,” including passing an anti-corruption law to prosecute corrupt officials and putting in place financial transparency and accountability requirements for government institutions.
While Martelly was in Washington, his prime minister, Laurent Lamothe, called on Haiti’s Parliament to vote for an anti- corruption law.
Despite a recent spate of anti-government protests, Martelly said Haitians are seeing progress. Obama cited gains since the devastating 2010 earthquake, saying that while there was much work to be done, Haiti’s economy was growing and business was returning.
“Even the Haitian people, they feel better about this government than they ever did about other governments because they can see what’s happening,” Martelly said. “It’s the first time a government is tackling real issues. Finally the people of Haiti feel better about their government.”
He noted his government still has not rebuilt Haiti’s ornate presidential palace, which collapsed in the earthquake.
“Any president would be happy to be living in a palace, but that’s not a priority for us,” he said.
He waved off recent teacher strikes that have sent public school teachers and students into the streets demanding back pay and higher salaries. He said he’s revamping the country’s education system, which he called “a mess,” and said that many of the protesting teachers are political party hacks and not instructors.
“We know that on the quality of teachers we have a big problem and we’re working on it,” he said.
Martelly, who was lauded this week for agreeing to a compromise to hold long-delayed legislative and local elections, said he has matured politically since he was elected to the five-year term in 2011. The former singer, who wooed fans with his raunchy performances as “Sweet Micky,” can still be found singing around the capital, but his focus is on rebuilding Haiti, he said.
“There’s no college teaching people how to be a president, so you become a president while you’re on the job,” he said in the interview in a presidential suite at a Washington hotel. “Certainly you become a better president over time.”
Jacqueline Charles of The Miami Herald contributed to this report.