United Nations diplomats had just left a critical meeting at the presidential palace. Topping the agenda: mass deportations of Haitians in the Dominican Republic, a $30 million elections shortfall and the daunting doubts about whether the country could pull off the long-overdue vote.
Then that night, a surprise.
President Michel Martelly, hosting the delegation for dinner, walked over to the stage and began shaking his hips and a pair of maracas while joining the band in a rendition of Guantanamera and La Bamba.
The boorish konpa star always lurked behind the genial and charismatic president. said Robert Fatton, author of Haiti: Trapped in the Outer Periphery
For the locals enjoying an evening out at Quartier Latin last May, the impromptu performance by Haiti’s pop star president was routine. For the visiting ambassadors, it was proof that while appearing stately on official foreign visits, Martelly back home and before Haitian audiences, was unable to bury ‘Sweet Micky’ — his unbridled carnival alter ego whom he always gave into when music played or political challenges confronted him.
“The boorish konpa star always lurked behind the genial and charismatic president,” said Robert Fatton, whose latest book, Haiti: Trapped in the Outer Periphery, looks at Martelly’s 2011 presidential rise. “He has had difficulty to restrain his penchant for the vulgar and burlesque, and mask his authoritarian tendencies.”
As Martelly’s presidential term comes to an end this weekend, the man, whom critics say was more showman than statesman, leaves behind a nation roiling in a political and constitutional crisis. Allegations over elections fraud sparked a political upheaval, violent street protests and forced the indefinite postponement of last month’s presidential and legislative runoffs. With no elected successor for Martelly, Haiti falls into the hands of a caretaker government for the second time in 12 years.
We asked for democracy but we haven’t done anything with it. Political analyst Fritz Dorvilier on Haiti 30 years after the fall of Duvalier
The institutional vacuum comes 30 years after Haitians ushered in democracy with the fall of the father-son Duvalier family dictatorship on Feb. 7, 1986.
“When the person in power can’t legally or constitutionally give power to another elected person, when there are too many candidates in an election that the people don’t know what to do or come out to vote, it’s a failure of democracy,” said Fritz Dorvilier, a political analyst and sociologist at the State University of Haiti.
“We asked for democracy but we haven’t done anything with it,” he added. “We didn’t use it as a vector or motor to change the country.”
Martelly’s elevation to the pinnacle of Haitian politics after the involvement of the Organization of American States and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, signaled the return of the right through elections for the first time since 1987, when the Haitian military ruled the country after the fall of Duvalier.
As a candidate, he decried Haiti’s chronic instability, deep poverty and government ineptness. And as a right-wing populist, he promised sweeping change.
“If you really want to change Haiti, you have to think about changing the people first because it’s a problem of corruption; it’s a problem of Haitians fighting, of Haitians not taking into account values,” Martelly said last year.
Martelly was not available to be interviewed for this story.
Drawing his base of support from the traditional business elite, he pushed for foreign investments. And as Haiti struggled to recover from the devastating Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, he traveled the globe promoting a positive image, luring tourists and celebrities back to the impoverished nation.
I think I am doing a great thing, except that unfortunately, I would probably be dead before I see the results of what I’m doing. Outgoing Haitian President Michel Martelly on his education legacy
He launched a post-quake housing project known as 16/6 to do away with the tent cities, built roads and promoted free education by taxing money transfers and international calls. In a Miami Herald interview as he flew aboard an inaugural American Airlines flight to Cap-Haïtien, Haiti’s second-largest city, he acknowledged the program wasn’t perfect but that strides were being made.
“The first year, we were able to put more than 700,000 kids in school for free and today there are about 1.7 million going to school freely,” he would later say, noting that he will leave as a legacy, his efforts in education.
“I think I am doing a great thing, except that unfortunately, I would probably be dead before I see the results of what I’m doing,” he added. “The results are not for today; the results are for 20 years.”
But all of Martelly’s good intentions were often overshadowed by what critics described as his combative, autocratic posture and network of influential cronies, including accused criminals and nostalgic Duvalierists. His presidency was steeped in scandal from infighting to outrageous excess of foreign travel, bloated embassies and unfinished infrastructure projects, to the arrest of a lawmaker to corruption allegations.
Under his leadership, inflation doubled from 6 percent to 12 percent and the domestic currency lost 30 percent of its value, a huge blow to the poor in an economy dependent on imports for basic food commodities. Of 20 government development projects promised, only a couple have been constructed, including an unfinished airport at Ile-a-Vache. Meanwhile, the administration has racked up more than $1.7 billion in debt under Venezuela’s Petrocaribe discounted-oil loan program.
“He vilified the office of the presidency, ripped the economy, and overall exercised massive political leadership malpractice, which in a country ruled by law, would subject him to legal pursuit and potential punishment,” said Michel Eric Gaillard, a Port-au-Prince political analyst.
But Martelly also changed the political paradigm.
“He demonstrated that it was possible to quickly and swiftly grab the power from the ‘establishment’ and drastically reduce the incidence of widespread insecurity and kidnappings that terrorized families. He contributed to mitigate the devastating impact of the earthquake through quick fixes and cosmetics,” Gaillard said.
Days before the postponed Jan. 24 runoffs, a combative Martelly appearing in a live interview on Radio Metropole, noted that his administration had trained professionals, invested in small merchants and promoted tourism.
“Sometimes you want to take a decision as the head of state,” he said, “but when you do the comparison between what you want to do and stability, sometimes you’re forced to not take the decision.”
Lashing out at the opposition and the press, he said, “people talk all the time about waste in government, but where is the proof?
“I have a son who has done four years in college ... and they are talking about him, saying whatever they want — that he’s a thief, my wife is a thief,” he said, addressing the family’s unexplained wealth. “Show me the proof.”
Two Haiti opposition lawyers even filed a complaint with the public prosecutor accusing Sophia Martelly and the couple’s son, Olivier, of embezzling state funds. The family is so sensitive about the accusations that mother and son flew to South Florida in November to talk to a Herald reporter about them at their Fort Lauderdale lawyer’s office.
Olivier, who graduated from Florida International University and oversaw the construction of several soccer fields, was accused in social media of getting rich off kickbacks and consorting with drug traffickers. He said the attacks began after he successfully built the fields and gained a name for himself.
“I got more respect than my father,” Olivier said with no hint of modesty, insisting that the allegations are all false. “I’ve been a victim of my dad’s presidency.”
Sophia Martelly, who took on several health initiatives, was accused of embezzling more than $30 million in state funds for new clinics. The government only allocated $1 million for a single clinic project, she said, adding that critics distorted her role.
“This is the only thing that I cherished besides my kids and my husband. And they tarnished it to the max,” she said about her work on behalf of the public-health sector. “I’m stuck with the label of being a thief.”
Although the accusations leveled against him and his family persists, Martelly this week said he leaves with no regrets, proud of “the efforts of my administration to rebuild the country.” Supporters say as president, he achieved some measurable accomplishments amid dire economic conditions and systemic political turmoil.
“Martelly’s five years showed great potential under very difficult circumstances,” said Laurent Lamothe, the president’s long-time friend and former prime minister. “The country’s tourism, economic, security and reconstruction efforts were starting to bear fruits, signaling that Haiti was making a comeback against all expectations from year one to four.”
But Lamothe, who was ousted in December 2014 amid tense anti-government protests and building pressure for Martelly to resign, also noted that the last 12 months have been “plagued by traditional politicking and questionable political decisions that kept Haiti in a state of permanent political turmoil.”
As Sunday approached — Martelly’s term officially ended at 11:59 p.m. Saturday — Haitians once more found themselves taking bets on whether he would make it to the end. Behind the walls of the palace, he was trying to negotiate his exit and ensure that the apparatus he left behind would be favorable for his presidential pick, Jovenel Moïse. Some in the president’s entourage even suggested during an OAS visit that he could remain in office until May 14, the day he was sworn in.
Even with the deepening political turmoil and uncertainty, Martelly found time to return to his carnival roots. He recorded a sexually charged rant that he has promised to perform on a float this Carnival Sunday. The song attacks two of his media critics, including well-known Haitian journalist Liliane Pierre-Paul. Pierre-Paul is among several journalists who were jailed by the Duvalier regime on “Black Friday,” Nov. 28, 1980.
While the song has played well among some sectors of the masses — showing that an unapologetic Martelly knows his audiences —it diminished his carefully-crafted global image.
“Pained to see courageous Haitians human rights activist #LiliannePierrePaul denigrated in any way. Respect our heroes,” the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, Patrick Gaspard, tweeted.
On Twitter, others substituted their photo with that of Pierre-Paul.
“Martelly’s regime has finished the decline of the Republic of Haiti. It’s the lowest level ever reached by a Haitian government,” Pierre-Paul told the Herald. “Martelly is the ‘Legal Bandit’ transported from entertainment to governance that resulted in nepotism, mafia and overall vulgar rule.”
Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.