Haiti: New leader, new hope

Haiti: New leader, new hope

May 21st, 2011 in Opinion Times

Michel Martelly, inaugurated last week as president of Haiti, is a political rookie, but he's already accomplished something that no other man or woman in Haiti's history has been able to do. By force of personality and rhetoric, Martelly has presided over the first peaceful transition from one elected president to another from an opposing party in his nation's history. Difficult as that might have been, he now faces an even more formidable task. He's got to prove that he can help his nation overcome decades of bad governance and economic woes and recover from a natural disaster that stunned the world.

Martelly, known to most of his countrymen as "Sweet Mickey," his stage name, won a wide following during presidential elections. He spoke forthrightly of the need to end the paralysis that has made it impossible for the country to start rebuilding 16 months after the quake that claimed more than 300,000 lives and left close to that number homeless. His eloquence earned him about two-thirds of all votes cast in the presidential election.

Now comes the hard part. Martelly said that he wants to remove the rubble still littering many areas of the capital, that he wants housing for the hundreds of thousands of people still living in squalor in tent cities, and that he wants to rebuild an economy that was moribund even before the tremor struck. That's easier said than done in Haiti, a country better known for long-standing government corruption than political truth and efficiency.

Much rests on Martelly's ability to start cleaning up the mess left by the earthquake, to restore basic infrastructure and to create a stable government. The international community pledged billions in aid to the country in the aftermath of the quake but so far has sent little. Many nations understandably are reluctant to send the money until there is proof that it will be used wisely. Too often in the past, funds sent to Haiti ended up in the pockets of corrupt officials rather in the public treasury where it could be used for beneficial purposes. Demonstrable progress in meeting Martelly's goals could unleash the funds his nation desperately needs to undertake a massive, long-term recovery effort.

No one, of course, can predict with accuracy how Martelly will fare in coming months. For the moment, though, the opportunity to make progress in the beleaguered nation seems to be genuine. He has widespread domestic support and the forces of the old regimes seem to be quiescent, despite the presence in the country of former strongman Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier and shamed former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

If Martelly can build on the momentum that swept him into office and if he hews to his promises to begin a sustainable rebuilding effort, it is possible that Haiti, at last, has a president that can begin the process of bringing stability to a government and a nation that have long lacked it.