In a country where the news is typically bad, if not catastrophic, many people in Haiti look at the past year under a musician-turned-president with guarded surprise.
Yes, parliament and Haitian President Michel Martelly were in a standoff that hobbled government much of the past 12 months. Yes, less than a quarter of the population has a formal job. And yes, cholera and many other problems still haunt the country.
Yet six of the most visible camps for displaced-persons that sprang up after the 2010 earthquake have been cleared and several are back to being public plazas; renovations are far along at the international airport; a sprinkling of new hotels and shops have begun to emerge across the capital’s otherwise ruined landscape; and in a country where free education is rare, the government, for the first time, has covered school tuition for 1 million children.
It is hardly a Golden Age, but it is not bad either for a leader who had never held political office and was best known for raunchy musical performances before he took office a year ago today. The achievements have come with a parliament so dominated by the party of the man Martelly defeated in his run for president that lawmakers stonewalled his attempts to appoint a prime minister and Cabinet for three-quarters of the year.
“Things with Martelly are working for the most part,” said Yrinen Jean-Baptiste, a 34-year-old mother of two children who voted for the musician and says that, so far, she would be willing do so again. “I hope he can do more.”
Asked to grade himself on a one-to-10 scale, the president, who is not known for modesty, grades himself high.
“I would give myself an eight, eight-and-half, a nine, because everything I did, I did without a government,” Martelly said. “Everything I did, I did at a time when I had so many problems, when so many people tried to stop me. Everything I did, I did whether the money was there or not.”
Asked to name his accomplishments, the president pointed out the school-tuition program, to be paid for with a tax on incoming international phone calls, as well as the clearing of major camps, largely achieved through rental subsidies, the repair of damaged homes and, most controversially, outright evictions from the flimsy shelters of the overcrowded temporary settlements.
In the interview on Friday, he also noted the construction of a public hospital in Mirebalais, north of the capital, and start of construction of an industrial park near Cap Haitien that will host textile factories and other enterprises, bringing badly needed jobs to the northern part of the country.
“I’m not saying that I’m doing miracles, but I’m surely sending signals that things are being done in another manner now,” Martelly said from his office on the grounds of the ruined National Palace. “The state wants to serve. We want to be close to the people.”
Still known to many by his stage name “Sweet Micky,” Martelly said governing was easier than he had thought and he has no regrets from the first year.
However, it is clear there were some major blunders.
Police ignored a law granting legislative immunity by arresting a lawmaker who had escaped from jail. The justice minister took the blame and resigned, but the episode infuriated parliament and lawmakers became bent on thwarting him at every turn, opening an investigation into Martelly’s eligibility for office. Instead of dispelling rumors that he was a citizen of another country, which would have barred him from office, he let the allegations fester. It took him several months to put the matter to rest. When he did, he held aloft eight old passports in a performer-like flourish.