PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - President-elect Michel Martelly wants to transform Haiti from development basket case to Caribbean success story, a makeover as ambitious as the provocative pop star’s own reincarnation as head of state.
“With my talents as a communicator, I wish to be able to inspire this population to guide it on the right path,” the shaven-headed Martelly told Reuters in an interview, dedicating himself to changing Haiti’s image as a failed country.
Even as Internet videos still circulate showing the entertainer clowning on stage in skimpy costumes, “Sweet Micky,” now repackaged in a sober suit and tie, outlined his ambitious plans.
The 50-year-old political outsider won a landslide victory over former first lady Mirlande Manigat in a March 20 run-off, according to preliminary results out on Monday. He tapped into Haitians’ yearnings for a better future for their impoverished, earthquake-battered nation.
Martelly said that from day one of his presidency, expected to begin in May, he would work to bury Haiti’s “bad image” as a disaster-prone, aid-dependent nation, struggling to recover from a devastating earthquake last year.
“They have always sold our misery, our misfortunes, our cholera, the images of the earthquake, while Haiti in my eyes is a rich country, which has not been exploited yet,” he said, speaking at his campaign offices late on Wednesday.
“We plan from the first days of our term to sell a new image of Haiti,” Martelly added. After a disputes process, his election win should be declared definitive later this month.
During an energetic campaign, Martelly, a popular star of Haiti’s catchy Konpa carnival music whose on-stage antics have included baring his backside, skillfully used his “bad boy” outsider image to project a forceful message of change. He promised to break with decades of corruption and misrule.
He committed himself to restore the confidence of Haitians in their own country and international confidence in Haiti.
This is no mean task in one of the world’s poorest countries, which has the humiliating sobriquet of “Republic of NGOs” for its chronic dependency on aid from non-governmental agencies. Most Haitians, mired in poverty, have learned to scorn their politicians as posturing puppets bent on self-enrichment.
“In the past the State has exploited the population. Civil servants have grown rich. They have lost the sense of what is public function. Public function means service to the population,” Martelly said.
He saw an urgent priority to provide housing for 680,000 homeless survivors of the earthquake still living in tent camps, a quarter of whom face eviction by landowners, according to the International Organization for Migration. “We understand the need to act without any further delay,” he said.
Martelly added he and his team were already meeting members of the private sector and major landowners to discuss a partnership with the state to create social housing projects.
Guaranteeing free education was another priority.
Land ownership issues and a lack of solid legal protection have also been identified as major hindrances to the injection of private and foreign investment experts say Haiti urgently needs to escape its poverty trap.
Here too, Martelly, who became a rich man from a humble start as a casino singer and entertainer, says he will intervene actively to favor investments that create jobs.
“The simplest solution is that if there is a major investment project that will create a lot of jobs, and if it happens there is a conflict on that land, the State will declare the land of public domain. The government will facilitate the establishment of the enterprise,” he said.
He also promised government support for impoverished farmers struggling to make a living in Haiti’s denuded, eroded hilly landscape, saying a boost for agriculture would stem the exodus to cities that has caused overcrowding and squalor.
He would seek to revive farm exports, stifled in the past by cheap subsidized imports.
Martelly outlined tourism development plans that foresee investments on Haiti’s beach-lined offshore islands, such as Ile-a-Vache, La Gonave and la Tortue.
He pledged “harmonious, efficient and fruitful” cooperation with Haiti’s parliament, where opposition parties will dominate, and said he would seek good relations with the international community and the U.N. mission in Haiti.
When U.N. troops withdraw in a few years time, Haiti will need to replace them with a military force of its own, he said, a potentially sensitive issue in a country whose army, a past source of coups and abuses, was abolished in the mid-1990s.
Above all, he said he would do things differently. “Since Martelly is not a politician, he won’t think like a politician. I’m an entrepreneur,” he said.
Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by David Storey