Haiti’s president-elect, Michel Martelly, known universally to his countrymen as “Sweet Micky,” is — let’s be delicate about this — a new kind of political figure.
Wildly popular during his two-decade career as a singer, he was notorious for wearing a diaper during performances, for mooning his audiences and for gleefully leading his fans in obscene chants and taunts. Given that stage persona, Haitians barely batted an eye at revelations during this year’s presidential campaign that Martelly used to snort cocaine and that several homes he owned in Florida were foreclosed on.
But the “Sweet Micky” of yore was gone last week when he arrived in Washington for meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and international aid organizations. In his place was a spruced up president-elect, wrapped in a dark suit, sporting a sober tie and escorted by an entourage of thin-skinned advisers who bristled at questions about his past.
Martelly wants to be taken seriously. And thank goodness.
“Sometimes I feel like people don’t give me credit — I didn’t win the Lotto. There were 19 candidates, and I debated them and I beat them all,” he said during a visit to The Post.
If ever a country needed no-nonsense leadership, it’s Haiti right now. And if ever a country has suffered from an onslaught of political calamity combined with cataclysmic disasters, it’s Haiti for the last, well, pick your time period.
The earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince in January 2010, on the heels of devastating back-to-back hurricanes, crippled the hemisphere’s poorest nation. No amount of media marveling at the resilience of the Haitian people or the full-court press of international relief efforts could change the facts: hundreds of thousands of kids orphaned and out of school, a million people left homeless, a capital city carpeted in rubble and an economy on life support.
Even as Haiti skirted post-quake fears of looting and violence, it was further ravaged last fall by one of the world’s worst recent outbreaks of cholera, an epidemic that has killed 5,000 people, infected a quarter-million and is still not finished claiming victims.
Haiti’s already weak government, which lost at least a third of its senior civil servants when the ministry buildings collapsed, was rendered almost irrelevant. The listless President Rene Preval, his term coming to a close, all but disappeared.
That sets the bar low for Martelly, who promises a new start when he is inaugurated next month. He is busy fleshing out his mostly vague campaign promises, stressing the rule of law, free public education, jobs and new homes for the throngs still living in tent cities, and help for poor farmers.
“I must admit that my popularity [as an entertainer] has helped me,” he said. “But the election was not about my popularity. It was about my character traits — honesty, determination, combativeness and preparation.”
It was also about being a fresh, vital force on the political scene, bringing with him energy and a new (mostly untested) crop of advisers, unbeholden to any recent political establishment. Little wonder that in the runoff election, Martelly, who is 50, beat a professorial 70-year-old former first lady 2 to 1.
The president-elect has a troubling reputation for having pals that include some of the worst thugs and coup-plotters from Haiti’s dark recent decades. But in person, many of his instincts seem spot-on. I asked about his plans for Haiti’s gleaming white presidential palace — long a symbol of opulence and repression — which collapsed in the earthquake. “I must say, that’s the least of my worries,” he answered with a shrug. “I can stay at my house.”
Asked about Jean-Claude Duvalier and Jean-Bertrand Aristide — divisive former presidents who have recently returned to Haiti from exile and who might face prosecution — he passed, saying he preferred not to interfere with any judicial proceedings.
Martelly was quizzed about his plans to resurrect the Haitian army, an infamously cruel, corrupt and repressive institution abolished by Aristide in 1994. At that, his advisers got their backs up, especially at the suggestion that a reconstituted army would be a Praetorian Guard used, as in the past, as muscle to enforce the president’s personal will. They insisted that this time around, the army would fight smugglers and stay clear of politics — with the added benefit of providing jobs. But it is not clear that money exists for an army, and foreign donors are not likely to pay for one.
Questioned about his future as an entertainer, or his one-time pledge to perform naked on the palace roof if he were elected president, Martelly demurred, presidentially. “After three or four years, if I see everyone in school and people with jobs and progress,” he said, “I’ll be happy enough to sing a song.”
Fully dressed, one suspects.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. His e-mail address is email@example.com.