Haiti’s pop-star president knows politics
Published 6:09 pm Tuesday, April 5, 2011
The presidential campaign of musician Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly at first seemed like an afterthought, overshadowed by the short-lived run of the better-known star Wyclef Jean and dismissed as little more than a sideshow to an election that featured major Haitian political figures.
But Martelly, who has never held political office, turned out to be a serious, skilled and successful candidate. He captured nearly 68 percent of the vote, defeating opposition leader and former first lady Mirlande Manigat, according to preliminary election results released Monday night.
When initial results of the flawed first round in November put him out of the race, Martelly mobilized supporters to protest as if he were a veteran of Haiti’s rough politics, and a new count got him a spot in the March 20 runoff. He ran a disciplined campaign, deftly depicting himself as an outsider and neophyte even though he has long been active in politics.
Thousands of supporters danced and cheered in the streets after his victory was announced. They ran through the streets, climbed atop cars, and even fired automatic rifles in the sky. Carrying posters of his smiling face and bald crown, supporters showed up outside his gated compound in Petionville, a city in the hills above Port-au-Prince.
“Micky is a political animal, and the political establishment failed to realize how much of a phenomenon he is,” said Garry Pierre-Pierre, editor and publisher of The Haitian Times, a New York-based newspaper. “This is a man who literally can get a million people to move to his groove.”
Although Martelly supporters crowded outside his house, the pop-star-turned-candidate made no public statements except on Twitter, where he thanked his supporters and added: “We’re going to work for all Haitians. Together we can.”
He scheduled a news conference for Tuesday. Manigat made no public statements.
To many Haitians, particularly the legions of young and jobless, Martelly is an outsider who can bring change to Haiti. “He knows the problems of the country,” said Gardy Success, 24, a marketer for a cellphone company in Port-au-Prince. “He’s aware of what’s going on.”
Those who backed Manigat or other candidates doubt the pop star will be a break from the past. “He’s another politician,” Thomas Mercius, a 39-year-old who sells books on the street in the capital, said dismissively of the musician-turned-president.
Martelly inherits a country in crisis, with hundreds of thousands of people still homeless from the January 2010 earthquake, the internationally financed reconstruction stalled and a cholera outbreak that may surge again with the rainy season.
And he will confront a Senate and Chamber of Deputies controlled by the party of outgoing President Rene Preval, whose chosen successor was ultimately excluded from the runoff, making way for Sweet Micky.
The son of an oil company executive, Martelly grew up in Carrefour, part of the dense urban mass that makes up the capital. He attended a prestigious Roman Catholic school in Port-au-Prince and junior colleges in the United States, though he never graduated. He worked as construction worker in Miami in the 1980s, a time when he says he occasionally smoked marijuana and crack cocaine.
A few years later, Martelly found his calling — playing compas, Haiti’s high-energy, slowed-down version of merengue. He became a household name in Haiti.
Music and protest run in the family. His grandfather, Auguste “Kandjo” de Pradines, was a French protest singer who aimed his vitriol at the U.S. military occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934. His cousin, Richard Morse, manager of the storied Hotel Oloffson in downtown Port-au-Prince, uses his rock band RAM as an outlet for pro-democracy politics.
Over time, Martelly’s shows became legendary, for he was a bona fide provocateur. As the self-proclaimed “bad boy of compas,” Martelly mooned the audience, cursed his rivals, and donned diapers and dresses. Many credit him for reviving compas and proving Haitian musicians could earn a decent living.
At the time President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed and exiled during his first term, in 1991, Martelly’s fans included former army officers and paramilitary leaders. One of them, Lt. Col. Michel Francois, got Martelly to lead an anti-Aristide protest when a U.N. diplomat arrived in Haiti to negotiate the ousted leader’s return.
Rivals tried to take advantage of Martelly’s onstage antics during the campaign. Manigat, a former senator, avoided direct criticism during the runoff campaign but repeatedly stressed her “morality.”
Martelly took the rare step in Haiti of hiring an international campaign consulting firm to transform his “Sweet Micky” alter ego into conservatively dressed presidential material. The Madrid-based Ostos & Sola company earlier had worked on presidential campaigns by U.S. Sen. John McCain and Mexico’s Felipe Calderon.
“Without his handlers, he would have been dead in water,” said Jocelyn McCalla, a senior adviser to Haiti’s special envoy to the United Nations.
Martelly also won the endorsement of Wyclef Jean after that popular entertainer’s own bid for the presidency was turned down because he didn’t meet Haiti’s residency requirements.
In December, minutes after election officials announced that Martelly wouldn’t be in the runoff, his supporters poured into the streets. For nearly three days, they paralyzed Port-au-Prince with menacing protests. Eventually, the Organization of American States said its own count showed Martelly finished second, and he was given a runoff spot against Manigat.
Preval, the outgoing president, endured criticism for his remote and bland personality. Martelly, in contrast, is effusive and charismatic, an entertainer eager for an audience. Well before he became a candidate, he ventured into slums, playing soccer with children and hugging admirers. As a candidate, he held rallies in the earthquake settlement camps.
“The old politicians, they never did anything for us,” Jean Marc, 37, said as he raced down the street celebrating Monday. “So I decided to give this guy a chance.”
Critics say Martelly has street smarts but lacks the book smarts needed for Haiti’s top job, though he says he will enlist a team of experts to guide him.
“He’s the driver of the car,” said Hypollite Pierre, a Maryland-based political analyst. “But what if he doesn’t know how to drive and the passengers tell him to go the wrong way?”
His fans say they realize Martelly won’t rid Haiti of its ills.
“I can’t say he’ll solve all our problems in five years, because Haiti’s problems can’t be solved in five years,” said Ernst Nelson, 28, who lives in a camp across the street from the ruined National Palace. “But he can lay the groundwork.”