The relative jubilee over Michel Martelly’s victory in the Haitian presidential elections after the statistical rearrangements by the Organization of American States soon after the primaries in March 2011 that had placed Martelly in second place was seen as a political intervention. Such intervention allowed him to square off against Mirlande Manigat, a conservative constitutional law professor and a former first lady who appeared distant from the social suffering of Haitians and even remotely out of date when compared to the flamboyant Martelly who was well coached and extremely ambitious to attain the pinnacle of Haitian power.
The promise-filled presidential campaigns slogans and inauguration speech of May 14, 2011 that somersaulted Martelly in the post-earthquake corridors of power where he pretty much guaranteed access to the Haitian market for investments and the renewal of private property for potential international investors and donors, Martelly pledged, repeating the Clintons’ mantra “to build back better”. Of course, the house of cards that Martelly delivered in his inaugural speech is facing a whirlwind of protests due to the exacerbation of poverty and a vicious culture of political protest given the absence of political institution, and a fundamental disrespect for the rule of law.
Given the bruising to the pride of the nation after the January 2010 earthquake, and the structural urgency that the country is facing, no serious national reflections took place on what the post-earthquake elections meant, and most importantly, what Martelly’s nomination and a possible presidency could mean for Haiti and the Caribbean region. There is little question that Pop-star Martelly’s campaign was thrilling when compared to Manigat’s and particularly more vociferous than the Preval’s administration that seemed cynical and detached.
The popular appeal of Martelly’s candidacy, although relative and selective to less than one million of the 3.5 million of eligible voters, besides the tinkering by the international community, can be attributed to compounded sociopolitical ills in Haiti’s domestic affairs following the devastating earthquake that ascended him to power. His clamber to the axis of national authority could simply be placed at a national juncture of exhaustion and shame. Martelly, given the deficits of qualified and caring candidates, appeared as a political outsider, but as a cultural force, who had spoken boldly about a Haitian future that people wanted to hope for given the collapse of dignity that poverty has wrought upon the nation. Interestingly, the lack of dignity that Martelly exemplified through his performances and even political affiliations with hardcore Duvalierists and coup leaders, became completely irrelevant as alliances were formed to push him forward in order to harvest the billion of dollars that donors promised by certain countries that claimed they wanted for “Haiti to build back better.”
The elevation of Martelly as the standard bearer of the Haitian democratic experiment became very revelatory to the lacuna of leadership that exists in Haiti, and his presidency alongside the dominating presence of Bill Clinton as the political juggernaut should be a further reminder that Haiti is a broken society that is functioning in dysfunctional filth. At a time of despair and manipulation, Martelly become the manufactured symbol of widely divergent expectations across the Haitian political spectrum. For those of us who are astute students of Haitian political history, we knew that his presidential legitimacy would be challenged when his vacuous promises could not efface the cancerous legacies of the recent past dictators and inept leaders. Even before the first electoral round, his campaign was unable to present a vision and policies that could not be used as proper sounding board for the challenges of governance. As a popular musician, he missed the opportunity to draw upon the broad scale of talents that were and could have been available to him if he had truly wanted to move the democratic process and to coalesce to a broad range of “constituencies” (Haitian national and international) to systematically tackle various ills facing Haiti.
The tattered and battered Haitian economy brought Haitians to their knees in order to accept the lethal recipes of neo-liberal capitalist hubris, which is further cementing the nation’s sovereignty into mound of NGO’s concrete while Martelly is still shouting “we are open for business.” Meanwhile, generations continue to count the hours and days hoping for a transfer from the dyaspora and all the while, unproductive bureaucrats and politicians are ringing in dollar bills to their coffers. Those who are keeping the economy from complete collapse are the real losers because they are the hard workers, and the dreamers.
Elections can be won, manufactured or simply stolen, but governing effectively is a skill that can either be acquired through discipline political/ideological education or through strong institutional affiliation where values, visions and executions are sculpted and exemplified. Despite the organizational prowess of the Martelly campaign, combining with old-fashioned international tinkering with the electoral process and hardball money politics that brought him a form of digital mobilization and popular campaign style that vanquished the antiquated Manigat electoral machine. In this equation, I must add Martelly’s complex pathway to fame and fortune, which taps into a contemporary Haitian political discourse that wanted to disrupt the past and take wild chances with a cultural vagabond who perhaps wanted to redeem his image by restoring hope for the broken nation. Alas, Martelly could not sever himself from himself for the “bad boy” that he culturally was, is the same egomaniacal “bad boy” who is in charge of the state and therefore deputizing him into the legal bandit he always wanted to be.
Martelly was never a progressive and his Pink and White Foundation was a calculating move that would serve as a narrative trampoline to claim a longstanding stance against oppression and marginalization. There was also the Martelly of the trans-cultural narrative that Haiti would be better serve by a successful cultural magnet instead of a traditional politician, but Haitians what fell to recognize is that politics and leadership are born out of a national culture, and Martelly is a byproduct of the divisive Haitian political culture that produced a history of polemical musicians and musical groups. As a musician, Martelly was highly polemical and divisive. Then how could he lead a country that never healed itself from the tumult of the past?
Martelly is not a radical figure by any stretch of the political imagination. He is beholden more to the possessing class than to the dispossessed workers, to the foreign investors than to the poor peasants, to neo-liberalism than social democracy, to exploitation of Haitians than to protecting the relative dignity left to the marginalized people, and to foreign dominance than to Haitian sovereignty. In fact, as far as Haitian sovereignty is concerned, it is remarkable how little he has spoken about protecting the interests of the country with all of the talk about gold mining and manufacturing. His first post-electoral speech was to vociferously announce to the world that Haiti was really open for business.
If Martelly cannot develop a more progressive policy towards the poor who have helped in catapulting him to the highest office, the executive, then the people are indeed correct in holding him accountable by keeping vigilant and offering critical criticism and taking to the streets. Of course, with a history of political manipulations, and constant political chaos, protests can be a source of destabilization to a non-democratic country; however, Martelly cannot bamboozle the population.
During the elections, Martelly had shown the capacity and the resources to build a winning coalition, but now, during the ultimate task of governing and governance, Martelly has proven very inept and totally unqualified at tackling most of the serious challenges that Haiti has faced. Those challenges will remain unresolved not from a lack of resources but from the weight of promises and expectations that were aroused by his campaign and some of his presidential speeches.
Michel Martelly’s administration had promised to both stabilize and restructure the Haitian economy, as well as combat and eventually reverse impunity/insecurity so businesses could flourish. Salient among his promises were access to free education, and the increase of good paying jobs that could foster some form of economic stability in the country.
Haiti’s endemic poverty, especially in the large urban areas where income is low and cost of living fairly high in relation to cash at hands and waged labor. With low education and unskilled labor throughout the country, there isn’t considerable room to maneuver outside of the confine of assembly industry, and with the lack of adequate infrastructure, the tourism industry that the Martelly administration hopes for will not materialize. Furthermore, the absence of a productive and non-corrupt legislative system can only hamper the economic growth needed to place Haiti on a path to relative development and growth.
The way in which Dominican Republic has benefited from its tourism industry as well as from its mining industry, Haiti would have to readjust and revamp its semi-feudal and denigrating mindset and away from the restavèk (servitude) ideology that is consuming the very foundation of equality upon which democracy must be built. The importance of this notion can hardly be exaggerated given that severe inequality can only reproduce inequality.
With the vile presence of domesticity and a steep vertical line to social mobility, Haiti will remain stuck in the morass of oppression and the consequences will continue to be catastrophic as we are regressing from progress and into an engulfing chaotic zone where poverty, disease, violence, and illiteracy are welding themselves into a fundamentally normative state. Frankly, and most unfortunately, Martelly does not have the vision, the compassion, and neither the education (formative and political) to move Haiti forward.
Patrick Sylvain is an Instructor of Haitian Language and Culture at Brown University.