Modest gains mark Haitian leader’s first year

May 12, 2012, 8:41 PM

Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) – In a country where the news is typically bad, if not catastrophic, many people in Haiti look at the past year under a musician-turned-president with guarded surprise.

Yes, parliament and President Michel Martelly were in a standoff that hobbled government much of the past 12 months. Yes, less than a quarter of the population has a formal job. And yes, cholera and many other problems still haunt the country.

Yet six of the most visible displaced-persons camps that sprang up after the 2010 earthquake have been cleared and several are back to being public plazas; renovations are far along at the international airport; a sprinkling of new hotels and shops have begun to emerge across the capital’s otherwise ruined landscape; and in a country where free education is rare, the government, for the first time, has covered school tuition for 1 million children .

It’s hardly a Golden Age. But it’s not bad either for a leader who had never held political office and was best known for often-raunchy musical performances before he took office a year ago Monday. The achievements have come with a parliament so dominated by the party of the man Martelly defeated in his run for president that lawmakers stonewalled his attempts to appoint a prime minister and Cabinet for three-quarters of the year.

“Things with Martelly are working for the most part,” said Yrinen Jean-Baptiste, a 34-year-old mother of two children who voted for the musician and says that, so far, she would be willing do so again. “I hope he can do more.”

Asked to grade himself on a 1-10 scale, the president, who isn’t known for modesty, grades himself high.

“I would give myself an eight, eight-and-half, a nine, because everything I did I did without a government,” Martelly said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Everything I did, I did at a time when I had so many problems, when so many people tried to stop me. Everything I did, I did whether the money was there or not.”

Asked to name his accomplishments, the president pointed out the school-tuition program, to be paid for with a tax on incoming international phone calls, as well as the clearing of major camps, largely achieved through rental subsidies, the repair of damaged homes and, most controversially, outright evictions from the flimsy shelters of the overcrowded temporary settlements.

In the interview on Friday, he also noted the construction of a public hospital in Mirebalais, north of the capital, and start of construction of an industrial park near Cap Haitien that will host textile factories and other enterprises, bringing badly needed jobs to the northern part of the country.

“I’m not saying that I’m doing miracles, but I’m surely sending signals that things are being done in another manner now,” Martelly said from his office on the grounds of the ruined National Palace. “The state wants to serve. We want to be close to the people.”

Still known to many by his stage name “Sweet Micky,” Martelly said governing was easier than he had thought and he has no regrets from the first year.

But it’s clear there were some major blunders.

Police ignored a law granting legislative immunity by arresting a lawmaker who had escaped from jail. The justice minister took the blame and resigned, but the episode infuriated parliament and lawmakers became bent on thwarting him at every turn, opening an investigation into Martelly’s eligibility for office. Instead of dispelling rumors that he was a citizen of another country, which would have barred him from office, he let the allegations fester. It took him several months to put the matter to rest. When he did, he held aloft eight old passports in a performer-like flourish.

“He could have done a lot better if he wanted people to rally around him, gotten consensus and not go his own way as an artist,” Sen. Francois Anick Joseph said by telephone. “He caused (a lot of problems) by his way of doing things and his way of doing things is not a democratic way.”

Added Joseph: “He wasn’t able to look for consensus because he’s an artist. The lights must be on him.”

Martelly also has struggled to disband a group of military veterans who have tried to hold him to his campaign pledge of restoring the army. They had been training before he took office, but his victory emboldened them and they have paraded throughout the capital and countryside, toting side arms and sporting military uniforms, despite government orders for them to stop. Their paramilitary-like presence has embarrassed not just the government but also the United Nations peacekeeping mission.

Martelly also suffered for the lack of a strong political party. Only three members of his party hold seats in the 99-member Chamber of Deputies and none in the 30-member Senate, though he’s found allies in both chambers.

His political base remains tiny and he counts a tight-knit circle of longtime friends as his advisers, many of them fellow alumni of an elite Catholic high school and many of them foreign to politics. Even then, infighting has been a hallmark of the administration.

“They are too close and they don’t open up,” said Claude Beauboeuf, an economist and radio talk show host. “Even those on the inside are crushed sometimes.”

Despite the clashes with parliament, anger seldom spilled into the street as it has in past administrations. There have been no major signs of disgust with Martelly aside from a few demonstrations.

Disappointment might seem justified for someone like Jean-Baptiste, the mother of two. She voted for Martelly to get her out of a park-turned-encampment. But her forced removal at the hands of city officials was not what she had in mind.

Martelly condemned evictions, but they happened anyway. Yet Jean-Baptiste still holds out hope for the candidate who promised change. She offered this unsolicited message to the president: “I hope he can bring down the price of tap-taps,” the brightly colored pickups that transport people for about 40 cents.

The signature project of the Martelly administration has been the school program that aims to double the number of children in school. His plan to fund it through a tax on incoming international phone calls and wire transfers upset Haitians abroad who use such services. The $22 million collected is on hold with the Central Bank until Parliament approves its release. The government paid for this year’s tuition by taking money from other parts of the budget, said Miloody Vincent, director of the education ministry’s press bureau

Vincent acknowledges that the quality of the education may not have improved yet. “The most important thing is to put the kids in school,” he said. “We’re working later to improve the quality of the education.”

There are no independent studies of the program so far, but education specialist Mohamed Fall of UNICEF said he believed at least 70 percent of the targeted children had received their aid.

While ever-inefficient Haitian government has still not completely funded the schools, the aid is a significant sum for many in Haiti, where about half the children didn’t go to school before the quake

Take Dania Nerius, the 38-year-old mother of four children, ages 6 to 17. Her husband lost his right leg in the earthquake, and his job as a mechanic. They nearly had to pull their children from the school. But the tuition program helped her save $360 a year _ a lot in a country where most get by on $2 a day _ so she can pay rent and invest money in her business as a roadside peddler of minutes for a cellphone company.

“That helped me,” Nerius said one afternoon, “because the money would’ve otherwise come out of my pocket.”

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Modest gains mark Haitian leader’s first year