THE HOPES of millions of Haitians that their country can claw its way back from its post-earthquake abyss now rest with Michel Martelly, Haiti’s president-elect, who takes office next month. A popular former carnival singer notorious for his lewd stage act and obscene song lyrics, Mr. Martelly, known as “Sweet Micky,” was in Washington last weekmeeting with U.S. officials and international donors. His intent was to highlight his new, more dignified public persona; his trustworthiness as a partner in kick-starting Haiti’s sluggish reconstruction; and the seriousness of his agenda.
For the most part, he succeeded in signaling that his government will provide the leadership and sense of urgency that has been lacking in the outgoing administration of President Rene Preval. Still, concerns remain about Mr. Martelly’s political instincts and his commitment to national reconciliation.
In Washington, Mr. Martelly stressed many of the same themes that propelled him to victory against a crowded field of candidates. He is rightly outraged that hundreds of thousands of people remain jobless and in tent cities more than 15 months after the devastating earthquake hit in January 2010, and he wants to accelerate their resettlement to permanent dwellings. He is determined to give more children access to free public education, though he acknowledges it will take time given the number of schools destroyed by the temblor and the masses of children who remain out of school. In a country where poor farmers still account for some 60 percent of the population, he also wants to revitalize the agricultural sector.
All this makes sense, and Mr. Martelly has some good, if fuzzy, ideas of how to make a start of it. He plans to raise tens of millions of dollars in new revenue with a tax on international cellphone calls into Haiti and to tap some $260 million in debt payments forgiven by foreign lenders.
He has also reassured U.S. officials of his dedication to the rule of law, pledging to fill judicial vacancies, including a new head of the Supreme Court, and to make the electoral council a permanent council unbeholden to the government’s whims.
Mr. Martelly has been critical of the countless international nonprofit groups that form a virtual shadow government in Haiti. He regards their efforts as uncoordinated. Nonetheless, he will need their help in the massive reconstruction effort still ahead. Most important, he must establish a transparent, efficient and honest government if Haiti is to succeed not only in attracting the foreign investors badly needed to create jobs but in unlocking billions of dollars in aid pledged by Western donors, including the United States.
Mr. Martelly had close ties to military leaders who overthrew Haiti’s first democratically elected president in a 1991 coup and ushered in a violent, lawless interregnum. That history feeds current concerns about his stated goal of resurrecting Haiti’s army, which was abolished in 1994 for its role as an anti-democratic and repressive tool of power. Although he promises that the 5,000-man army would be something new — a force to combat drug trafficking, cross-border smuggling and natural disasters — there is reason for skepticism given the country’s recent past. And it’s hard to imagine how an army would promote national reconciliation, which Mr. Martelly has identified as a critical national goal.
Mr. Martelly remains a political novice; so are most of his advisers. Washington and other key donors are right to give them the benefit of the doubt and to provide any reasonable assistance for the new government to succeed. The people of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, badly governed for decades, deserve a break — both from their own new leaders and from donor nations.