|Many of Haiti's poorest citizens were not dissuaded by former singer Michel 'Sweet Micky' Martelly's near-total lack of political experience [GALLO/GETTY]|
winner in Haiti's deeply flawed presidential election than he jumped on
a plane and headed to Washington, where he met with his country's real
power brokers: officials from the World Bank, the International
Monetary Fund, the US Chamber of Commerce and the State Department.
There, he committed his desperately poor country - where some
700,000 people are still homeless as a result of last year's
earthquake - to fiscal discipline, promising to "give new life to the
business sector". In exchange, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave
him a strong endorsement. "We are behind him; we have a great deal of
enthusiasm," she said. "The people of Haiti may have a long road ahead
of them, but as they walk it, the United States will be with you all
the way," she added.
Martelly, a well-known kompa singer, is an unusual choice to lead
Haiti. With no political experience, he represents a clear break with
the country's other democratically elected presidents since the island
nation ousted the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and ushered in an
unprecedented era of democracy.
The US press billed his victory as "overwhelming". But with Haiti's
most popular political party, Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas,
banned from participating in the election, a vast majority of Haitians
didn't vote. Martelly took the presidency with just 16.7 per cent of
Compare this dismal turnout with the election of Haiti's last two
presidents. Aristide, a popular liberation theologian priest, won the
presidency twice in landslides where a majority of the electorate
voted, first in 1990 and again in 2000. Aristide's first prime
minister, Rene Preval likewise was elected twice by large margins with
high turnouts, in 1995 and 2006. In this election, Martelly got
two-thirds of the vote - but three-quarters of registered voters didn't
It bodes ominously for Haiti, but Martelly may have more in common
with Gerard Latortue, the head of state imposed on Haiti following the
2004 US-backed coup d'etat against Aristide. A South Florida talk-show
host, Latortue, like Martelly, had no background in politics. But, like
Martelly, he did have friends in Washington. During Latortue's brief
stint in office, 2004 - 2006, Haiti experienced some 4,000 political
murders, according to The Lancet - while hundreds of Fanmi Lavalas
members, Aristide supporters, and social movement leaders were locked
up - usually on bogus charges. Latortue's friends in Washington looked
the other way.
Martelly's Washington friends include Damian Merlo, his presidential
campaign manager. Merlo's CV should alarm anyone concerned with
democracy in Haiti. Merlo has worked for Otto Reich, the Iran-Contra
veteran and supporter of coups in Honduras and Venezuela. Merlo has
also worked with the International Republican Institute, which - under
the banner of "democracy promotion" - funds "civil society"
organisations to destabilise governments it deems to be a problem.
During his stint at IRI, Merlo took steps to weaken Brazil's
governing Workers' Party. Prior to taking on Sweet Micky's campaign,
Merlo beefed up his experience with John McCain's failed 2008
presidential bid. McCain, interestingly, chairs IRI's board, and
brought Reich on as a foreign policy adviser during the 2008 campaign.
Many Haiti observers may be familiar with the IRI for the key role
it played in overthrowing Aristide's government during his second term.
IRI trained and funded various anti-Aristide groups, promoted
anti-Aristide propaganda, and, as described in a New York Times feature
article in 2006, even worked to undermine political solutions being
negotiated with Aristide by the US embassy and the Organisation of
American States. Two years earlier, the IRI was also deeply involved in
the failed coup against Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
Support and campaign
While in Washington, Martelly promised his supporters that he would
promote transparency when it came to foreign aid. That openness,
however, apparently doesn't apply to his campaign donations, raising
the possibility that he is funded by the same groups which drove
Aristide from power in 2004. Martelly admits that he received financial
support from foreign sources but, in response to questioning by the
Miami Herald, he refused to identify them other than saying they are
"people who believe in us". When pressed, he deflected, telling the
interviewer, "you talk to them".
All told, Martelly reportedly spent some six million dollars on his
campaign - the equivalent of $15billion in the US. To put this in
perspective, Obama is hoping to spend US$1billion on his upcoming
reelection campaign. These deep pockets were probably the deciding
factor in his victory.
It was Merlo, along with right wing Spanish PR group Ostos & Sola
with close ties to Spain's neo-fascist Popular Party, that successfully
made-over Martelly's public persona, putting him in a suit and
encouraging him to tone down his rhetoric. These spin doctors
counselled him to go from "Sweet Micky" - popular and bawdy
entertainer, to the more respectable Michel Martelly - presidential
Still, some disturbing "Sweet Micky" outbursts bubbled up towards
the end of the campaign - troublesome YouTube moments that might have
doomed a presidential contender in the United States. In one,
apparently recent, video, Martelly was filmed surrounded by a small
group of friends at a club. "All those shits were Aristide's faggots,"
he shouts in kreyol in the candid video, while pulling his T-shirt up
and rubbing his belly. "I would kill Aristide and stick a dick up his
ass." This was followed by an audio recording - also posted on
YouTube, accompanied by a photo of Martelly in a suit - in which the
candidate denounced Fanmi Lavalas: "The Lavalas are so ugly. They smell
like s**t. F**k you, Lavalas. F**k you, Jean-Bertrand Aristide."
Martelly's ties with coup-supporting Republicans in the US and
neo-fascists in Spain are perhaps the least worrisome of the
president-elect's relationships. His relationship to Haiti's violent
far-right goes way back. It is well known, for instance, that he ran a
nightclub frequented by Duvalierists in the late 1980's and early
1990's. He has also admitted to having joined the Tonton Macoutes - the
world-infamous, murderous militia of the Duvalier dictatorships - in
his younger days. Martelly has also spoken freely about his
friendships with convicted murderer Michel François and others involved
in the coups against Aristide - which Martelly also admits he
supported. His famous song, "I Don't Care" is a rebuff to controversy
about such associations.
Despite all these documented troublesome statements and
associations, the Obama administration went to great lengths to ensure
that Martelly wound up running in the election's second round.
Official results in the disputed first round initially had the
government-supported candidate, Jude Celestin, placed second, with
Martelly close behind in third. Martelly's campaign alleged widespread
fraud and other irregularities. True enough, but it was not clear that
the net fraud went against him. When an Organisation of American States
"expert" mission was sent in to determine the actual runner-up, they
selected Martelly by recounting only a sample of the ballots, without
using any statistical inference. The 234 tally sheets that they
disqualified turned out to be from areas where Celestin had strong
support. Six of the seven members of the OAS mission were from the US,
Canada, and France - that is, the countries that supported the 2004
coup against Aristide. When questioned by independent experts from the
Centre for Economic and Policy Research (who actually counted all the
voter tally sheets in their independent election report), the mission
could not explain its methodology.
In fact, the mission's chief statistical expert - US statistician
Fritz Scheuren - admitted that the OAS mission had no statistical basis
for its recommendation: to replace Celestin with Martelly. Observers
noted that it was also highly unusual - perhaps unprecedented - for an
election to be overturned without a full recount.
But that is exactly what happened. The Obama administration insisted
that Haiti's electoral authorities accept the OAS mission's conclusions
and put Martelly on the ballot. Hillary Clinton made a surprise trip to
Haiti - in the midst of the Egypt uprising - just for this purpose.
Preval was threatened with a cut off of US aid and even with being
flown out of the country before his term was up - ala Aristide in
2004 - to pressure him to weigh in with the electoral council - even
though the council, by law, is supposed to be independent.
Ultimately, the council never achieved a majority of members to
support putting Martelly on the ballot. But the council's spokesperson
publicly stated that it had, and the election proceeded - with Martelly
running instead of Celestin - with legal experts unsure whether the
election would have any legal validity.
In short, the US government got its way. Following the deeply flawed
first round of elections, Martelly supporters launched violent
protests, sometimes attacking other candidates' partisans. By the time
they were over, five people had been killed in the riots. Other
disturbing incidents persisted even after Martelly was selected for the
runoff ballot. On March 8, for example, three campaign workers for
Martelly's opponent, Mirlande Manigat, were found murdered, their
bodies mutilated in apparent signs of torture. The killers remain
unknown, as does the motive.
Martelly and the army
To many observers, the violence seemed well-orchestrated, and
Martelly conspicuously did or said little to attempt to reign in his
raging supporters. Journalist Kim Ives has noted that, during the
campaign, Martelly began organising something that looked familiar to
the old system of Tonton Macoute "volunteers".
"For $30, before the election, potential voters could join the Base
Michel Joseph Martelly," writes Ives, "and invest in a pink plastic
membership card, with photo, which promises many advantages (such as a
job, say) when the Martelly administration comes to power."
As Ives notes, during the Duvalier period, "every Macoute received a
card that afforded him many privileges, like free merchandise from any
store he entered, entitlement to coerced sex, and fear and respect from
people in general". The Macoutes became one of the most notorious death
squads to wage terror in the region during the Cold War - no small
Considering this history, one proposal Martelly made on the campaign
trail is especially alarming. He has promised to reconstitute the
Haitian army, which Aristide disbanded over fifteen years ago.
The modern Haitian army was notoriously bloodthirsty. Established by
the US military during its 1915-1934 occupation of Haiti, the army has
long been denounced as a prolific human rights abuser. Since its 1995
disbanding - following overwhelming support for the measure in a
popular poll - its "veterans" (including suspected narco-trafficker,
Guy Philippe, and Louis Jodel Chamblain - head of security for Duvalier
since his surprise return in January) have played a prominent role in
the country's violent right wing. They were involved in overthrowing
Aristide in 2004 and, in the past, have also engaged in occasional
attacks on police stations, pro-Fanmi Lavalas communities, and even the
presidential palace - sometimes wearing their old uniforms. When the
death squad named the Front for the Advancement of the Haitian People terrorised
the Lavalas support base following Aristide's 1991 ousting, it too was
headed up by former soldiers - who were also funded by the CIA.
The Associated Press visited one would-be "army" camp just weeks
before the second round of elections, encountering men there who
proudly acknowledged their role in the 2004 coup. Some had served in
the military during Aristide's first exile, when the army ruled Haiti,
killing and raping thousands. The AP called it "a tableaux of the
pro-military fringe right, a looming presence in Haiti".
Some of these "soldiers" and "officers"-in-waiting told freelance
journalists just a few weeks later that Martelly had visited their camp
during his campaign - certainly an ominous sign of things to come.
In the past, Martelly has made other worrying statements. He has
said that, "Haiti needs a Fujimori-style solution" - a reference to
Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori's power grab, when he dissolved
Congress - and called for the outlawing of "all strikes and
demonstrations" - something his backers in Washington would undoubtedly
Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York
University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and
Sciences. He is the author of a number of prize-winning books,
including most recently, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s
Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan 2009), which was a finalist for the
Pulitzer Prize in History, as well as for the National Book Award and
the National Book Critics Circle Award.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.