Two years into his presidency, Michel Martelly says Haiti is on the move

As he begins his third year in office, President Michel Martelly is adding a dose of reality to his campaign promises, telling the Haitian people he alone cannot transform their lives.

Calmer and more mature in his rhetoric, Martelly is calling for greater social responsibility, describing his nation’s deep-seated social ills —hunger, joblessness and poverty — as problems that will not disappear overnight.

But even while trying to temper expectations, the man who once promised sweeping change remains uncompromising. He has simultaneously called for reconciliation among Haiti’s opposition while bashing political foes as he accuses parliamentarians of blocking progress.

Unable to get answers about more than $400 million in no-bid, post-Hurricane Sandy contracts, senators last week issued a summons to Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe to appear before them on Tuesday. Martelly, in turn, called an extraordinary session to address other matters.

“This is a government that is in place, that believes in our work,” Martelly said last week as he inaugurated a government administrative center on the outskirts of Cap-Haïtien.

Though work on the center began two presidential predecessors ago, he is happy to take credit for this project and others.

“The results are starting to be felt all over the country,’’ he said.

There have been changes in Haiti, which was ravaged by a magnitude-7.0 earthquake in January 2010 that left 1.5 million homeless. Of the 634,000 people living in tent cities when Martelly took office on May 14, 2011, just under half remain in squalid camps. This month a new housing development on the outskirts of the capital in Morne-à-Cabrit marked a milestone: 1,500 homes completed out of 3,000 planned.

However, much of the new dynamism is cosmetic — cleaner streets, sidewalks being built, and newly repaved roads. Even an infamous mountaintop slum overlooking two new luxury hotels in Petionville recently got a facelift. So too did a public square that once housed thousands of quake victims.

Though the improved façade, like the newly asphalted road leading visitors out of a still-under renovation Port-au-Prince international airport, paint a more welcoming Haiti, critics and even foreign observers say Haiti remains fragile and a developmental mess. The projects offer visibility for a government wanting to show results but they also raise questions about sustainability.

“This is all government work, standard work to be expected from any government,” said Michel Eric Gaillard, a Port-au-Prince political analyst. “Fundamental policy changes are needed but they are not there.”

Martelly’s actions must now match his speeches, observers say. Institutions, including the judiciary, remain weak; corruption persists and an economic takeoff hasn’t left the launch pad.

Direct foreign investment is projected to be $110 million — down from $170 million during the last budget year. And the head of the Senate Finance Committee has warned that Haiti faces a $200 million budget shortfall.

Meanwhile, Haiti’s foreign debt has ticked up to $1.1 billion in the past three years — almost as much as it was when it was forgiven on the day of the quake.

“It takes a functional government to deliver and Haiti does not have that under Micky or Lamothe,” said Jocelyn McCalla, a New York-based Haiti expert. “He had a rocky start. He’s managed to hold onto a PM; he’s got significant support in parliament until the well runs dry; he’s managed to use (Hugo) Chávez’s money, but that will come back to bite Haiti, not Martelly, in the you-know-where sometime soon.”

Some say Haiti’s realities — the delay in senatorial and local elections that could deepen the political crises, 128 public protests between August and October 2012, a drought and a wallop from two hurricanes last year — have been a wake-up call for Martelly.

Others credit his new, more moderate tone on the reemergence of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Aristide’s rare public appearance a week before Martelly’s May 14 anniversary in office attracted thousands of his Fanmi Lavalas supporters into the streets. Martelly, in turn, held his own counter-demonstration, busing in Haitians from the countryside to celebrate his two-year anniversary.

“Aristide could potentially be testing the waters and Martelly is not willing to let him occupy the main position in that chess board. He wants to control it,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti political expert and political science professor at the University of Virginia. “Martelly is fearing the reemergence of Lavalas.”

And that has put Martelly, 52, in campaign mode. Some 90 miles south of here in still recovering Port-au-Prince, the streets are blanketed with Chávez-like pink and white billboards of a bald Martelly, arms outstretched and flashing the victory sign. The posters read: “Haiti is on the move.”

Smaller banners, on newly installed solar-operated streetlights lining a main highway, ask in Creole: “Who in the last 25 years has accomplished more than me?”

“Anyone who comes to Haiti today will see a huge change; it’s a completely different country,” said presidential advisor Michel Clérié. “There is a huge difference between Michel Martelly and all of the presidents who have been there before. Every day, he takes the helicopter and goes to the provinces to see how things are progressing. He’s very active.”

Indeed, the president energetically and enthusiastically jets around the country — and around the globe — inaugurating new and existing projects and lauding his progress. Occasionally he’ll also drop unsubstantiated claims about his time in office. He recently claimed that 400,000 jobs had been created. So far the government has not provided documentation on this claim.

Martelly’s press office did not respond to requests for an interview with the president. Presidential spokesman Lucien Jura checked off the president’s five focus areas: education, environment, economy, energy and judicial reform. “A lot of efforts have been made,’’ he said.

“You have to consider where the country was at when the president of the republic came into power,” Jura said, referring to the billions of dollars in earthquake losses and those still living in tent cities while a cholera epidemic raged.

“Today, this is a country under construction when you consider the volume of the roads being built. Everyone sees it,’’ Jura said. He also noted that several government social programs are helping to transform lives.

Fatton said the ideas behind the government’s social programs, which include free food, cash transfers and free schooling for children, are not bad. But, he said, the government’s lack of transparency makes it difficult to evaluate if the programs are really working.

Donors are also concerned about corruption and the government’s reticence to share information. At a recent gathering of international donors, a group was formed by Lamothe to address such concerns.

The ministry of planning, which Lamothe heads, says it has a development plan that will serve as a bible for not only politicians but also the international community, which continues to hold back promised aid.

Meanwhile, dwindling aid dollars, lack of foreign investment and huge public expenditures paid for by Venezuelan-oil loans are putting pressure on the exchange rate, causing the local currency — the gourde — to depreciate by around 10 percent in a year.

The dip in buying power has triggered a panic in a country where imports of basic foodstuffs account for much of the poor’s consumption.

The worrisome 7.3 percent inflation rate is leading some to already begin raising prices and that, in turn, has prompted concern about potential social upheaval.

Georges Michel, a historian and supporter of the president, said “his cup is half-empty and half-full. He has good intentions, but with his missteps and by not listening to the right people, he makes mistakes.”