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Analysis: Can musician Michel Martelly and his supporters rebrand the country’s ugly image?
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Over the years Haiti has experienced most every form of government, good and bad — mostly bad — lurching from colonial slavery to military dictatorship, with brief periods of fledgling democracy.
Now Haiti appears poised to install an unlikely new president. Earlier this week Michel Martelly, a singer of popular Haitian "compas" dance music, was declared the winner in a virtual landslide, according to preliminary results.
A Martelly presidency seems almost assured with initial results showing the musician winning 68 percent of the votes in a March run-off, although official results are not due until later this month. The news was greeted with scenes of street celebrations in the capital Port-au-Prince. "Martelly the country is with you. Do what you want with it," supporters sang outside the national election headquarters.
Known to his supporters as "Tet Kale," meaning "the bald-headed one" in Haiti's native Creole, Martelly promises to be an interesting new political leader for earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
Martelly, 50, is popular with young Haitians looking for change. Although he has a reputation for bawdy lyrics and "bad boy" on-stage antics, including dropping his pants, he ran a modern campaign that effectively used social media, and put together a capable team of advisers.
“The suits have failed us for so long, maybe we should try the bad boy.”~Haitian-American Jocelyn McCalla
“For a very long time politics in Haiti has been going from bad to worse. Martelly is a culmination of that,” said Jocelyn McCalla, a New Jersey-based Haitian-American development consultant. “The people are saying, ‘the suits have failed us for so long, so maybe we should try the bad boy. Maybe he can clean up the stables.'"
Some fear the country could be headed for more rocky times, given Martelly’s hot-headed reputation, as well as alleged past ties to corrupt military officers and police chiefs. “It’s like a roller-coaster at an amusement park,” said Robert Maguire, a Haiti expert at Trinity Washington University. “I’m very happy to be standing on the ground watching it, and not riding it.”
Some have also questioned his financial background. A Miami Herald investigation recently found that he defaulted on more than $1 million in loans and lost three South Florida properties to foreclosure in just over a year.
But singer Wycleaf Jean says a musician like Martelly is just what Haiti needs.
“There’s a revolution going on, and it’s not a violent revolution,” he told GlobalPost while campaigning in Haiti last month. “Obviously the people want something different. So for the first time the rise of a musician could happen.”
Instead of criticizing Sweet Mickey’s ribald stage persona, Jean says observers should look more closely at his lyrics, often loaded with social and political content.
“He knows the problems. He’s sung about them: the price of the rice going up, the security issues in the country,” Jean said. “He knows the policies that the country needs.”
Jean, who got to know Martelly in 1997 when the pair teamed up on Jean’s hit debut solo album, "The Carnival," says he won’t seek a position in the new government.
Instead, he would like to contribute to the rebuilding efforts by helping to organize the country's many non-governmental organizations, or NGOs.
“There’s so much to do and I feel that every NGO is acting as a state by itself and someone has to come in and govern the situation,” he said. “Good intentions still have to be governed.”
Foreign investors and even international donors are still nervous about putting their money in Haiti. That’s hardly surprising given the country’s endemic corruption and political instability.
It remains unclear exactly what Martelly’s plan of government consists of. One thing his supporters are united on is the need to rebrand the country’s ugly image. Martelly’s song-and-dance carnival spirit should certainly enliven the country, and maybe restore some pride in Haiti’s rich cultural traditions.
Jean says he’d liked to do his bit by building a hotel. “Remember like Sinatra, man, how he put Vegas on the map with his hotel. I think Wyclef Jean building a hotel in Haiti is a cool thing and it shows another side of the country,” he said. “When I brought people like Angelina Jolie to Haiti, they don’t say the country is a disaster, they say Haiti is beautiful.”
He wants to call his hotel the Pearl of the Caribbean, the name given to Haiti in the old colonial days when it was the world’s largest exporter of sugar.
“The idea would be to bring every form of culture throughout the islands, to get every form of culture, the vodou, the dancing, the instruments, the food, the celebration and put it all together,” he said.
Another U.S.-based group, the Capponi Group, is involved in a major project to restore and redevelop Haiti’s colonial city Jacmel, on the south coast. Among the group’s backers is one of Martelly’s advisers, Danielle St Lot, a former tourism minister and women’s rights activist.
Jacmel’s mansions were once hailed as the model for much of New Orleans, but the city has seen better days, and was badly shaken by the January 2010 earthquake, which destroyed many old buildings.
“We need to change the face of Haiti and its public image,” luxury developer and Miami Beach night club promoter, Michael Capponi, told a Sustainable Haiti conference this week.
“I see enormous potential,” he added, describing plans to rebuild the city center and turn it into a model community and travel destination, including a film, design and arts school to capitalize on the city’s traditional arts and crafts. The plan even includes a "Venus Williams Tennis Academy."
“We hope this will be a model for success for the whole country. We hope it goes viral,” said Capponi, whose group is backed by Hollywood actress Maria Bello and Reza Bundy, founder of IronPlanet, an online auction company.
Haiti was once a popular tourist destination. Bill and Hillary Clinton spent their honeymoon there. Next door in the Dominican Republic, the beaches and golf courses are packed with American and European tourists.
Can Haiti’s "bad boy" president help get the country’s groove back? It will obviously take a lot more than music. But a Wyclef Jean Pearl of the Caribbean, or a rebuilt Jacmel would certainly be a good start.
David Adams made his first reporting trip to Haiti in 1988. He was Latin America and Caribbean correspondent for the St Petersburg Times in Florida for 15 years from 1994 to 2009. He is currently editor of Poder magazine in Miami.