Thirty years after beginning its frail democracy with the fall of President-for-Life Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Haiti entered another period of uncertainty Sunday.
With no elected successor because of a disputed presidential vote, former President Michel Martelly gave his final farewell to the nation before passing the blue and red presidential sash to Senate President Jocelerme Privert during a special National Assembly ceremony. The sash is now headed to the national museum.
“I was here, I am here and I will always be here for you,” a somber Martelly said in the almost 19-minute address in which he said the twice-postponed presidential vote to elect a successor was “my biggest regret.”
As he gave an account of his five-year presidency, 23 senators, 86 deputies, the media and foreign diplomats looked on. It was a presidency, he said, in which he proudly waged a war on extreme poverty, ignorance, misery and disease. The challenges remain, but the investments were not in vain, Martelly said.
“Haiti is recovering; yes, Haiti is standing,” he said. “I was faced with all the challenges; facing the impossible, facing the most utter despair. ... I can say today that I am ready to answer before the tribunal of history.”
But an hour after Martelly’s speech and departure from the parliament, another part of his legacy erupted: violent street protests that had marked his final months in office reignited. Protesters damaged several vehicles and set a Carnival stand on fire at the Champ de Mars. Haiti’s National Police eventually controlled the situation but the demonstrations continued.
Not far away, in front of St. Jean Bosco Church, a small group of protesters who had called for Martelly’s departure, were demanding justice for now-released political prisoners jailed during his term, and for the victims of a controversial, specialized police unit he created known as BOID.
Martelly’s final address took place inside the temporary post-quake chambers where the 119-member Lower Chamber of Deputies normally meet. It was the first step in an agreement reached by him and the leaders of both chambers of parliament to fill the constitutional and institutional crisis created by the postponement of last month’s presidential runoff.
The last-minute deal was reached just hours before Martelly’s five-year presidency ended and outlines the steps for installing a 120-day provisional government headed by an interim president chosen by parliament and consensus prime minister.
But while the agreement has been welcomed by the United Nations and the Organization of American States, it has come under heavy criticism from opposition groups, calling it a “coup d’etat” by parliament.
Samuel Madistin, spokesman for an opposition alliance of eight presidential candidates known as the Group of Eight, or G-8, said parliament shouldn’t be allowed to decide who temporarily replaces Martelly as interim president because the body is implicated in the political crisis. The Aug. 9 legislative elections were marred by fraud and violence, and parliamentarians in both chambers have been accused of winning their seats through fraud or vote-buying.
The focus of the crisis, however, has been the Oct. 25 presidential elections. Observers and the opposition say it was marred by “massive” fraud in favor of Martelly’s presidential pick, Jovenel Moïse. The vote was eventually postponed after Jude Célestin, who qualified for the runoff against Moïse, said he wouldn’t participate and violence and protests erupted in the days before the scheduled Jan. 24 balloting.
Noting the discord, Martelly called on a united nation to work together to complete the process initiated by the agreement in order to avoid retraumatizing Haiti. He didn’t address the crisis directly or criticism that he is responsible for it because he had failed to hold elections for four years.
For now, Prime Minister Evans Paul remains head of the government, but his powers are limited. The new interim president will oversee the selection of a consensus prime minister whose primary task will be to hold elections on April 24, with a new president sworn in on May 14. On Sunday, Paul canceled the first day of Carnival. The political uncertainty also forced the cancellation by two major Haitian konpa bands, T-Vice and Djakout#1.
On Sunday night, Paul addressed the nation, calling for an end to the violence and the protest in an appeal for unity "to give the people direction" and “clean the image of the country.”
Dialogue, he added, should be "the only mobilization today."
“We need tranquility,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Paul’s office announced the cancellation of the first day of Carnival.
After Martelly’s address, he removed the sash, folded it with the help of his wife, Sophia, and handed it to Privert. He noted that the date “marked a milestone in the history of Haitian democracy.”
“I declare,” he said, “from this moment, there is a presidential vacuum.”