Why Haiti's prodigal son, Michel Martelly, may be its savior
President Michel Martelly’s landslide election marked a profound change in Haitian political history: the first alliance of the general populace with the elite. The big question now is whether he can sustain this unlikely marriage.
The election of popular singer Michel Martelly follows the Haitian electorate’s pattern of selecting leaders who come from outside the political system. Their overwhelming mistrust of such politicians has produced winners like Francois Duvalier (1957), Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1990, 2000), and today, Mr. Martelly.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But Martelly’s landslide election in April also marks one of the most profound changes in Haitian political history: the first alliance of the general populace with the elite. A son of the Haitian elite, Martelly was embraced by both the masses and the upper class. The big question: Will he sustain this unlikely marriage?
Martelly is now uniquely poised to use his political capital to engage the political elite, unite the entire population, and move all Haitians toward democratic progress and prosperity.
A history of class struggle and abuse
Throughout Haiti's 200-year history, the politics of Haiti has always been dominated by a battle between its classes and colors. From the days of Haitian leaders Dessalines, Christophe, and Pétion in the early 19th century to today’s Martelly, Haitian politics has revolved around the struggle between, on the one hand, an elite “light skinned” minority and the small middle class, and, on the other, the vastly more numerous "dark-skinned" lower classes.
In 1957, Duvalier, also known as “the people’s doctor,” rose to power because of his popularity among Haiti’s underprivileged. At the time of his election, he was known for working with the poorest of the poor, treating tropical skin infections for the neediest. Once he was elected president, his stance underwent a dramatic change. He and later, his son, Jean Claude “Baby Doc,” maintained power for 29 years. Haitians need no reminder of the story of their dictatorship and the brutality of their regime.
Similarly, Aristide’s rise to power was characterized by his identity as the priest of the poor. Symbolizing the anti-Duvalier movement in the 1980s, Aristide was cherished by the masses as Haiti’s messiah. The end of Aristide’s destructive presidency seems to have made a mark in the minds of the majority of Haitians. After first being deposed by the Haitian Army and then again by the intervention of the United States and France, most Haitians agree that his legacy is one of aggravated social division, corruption, and institutional ruin.
Breaking with tradition
Martelly’s election represents a major shift away from this pattern in Haitian politics. True, Martelly was elected through broad popular support from the masses. But the upper classes have also embraced this musician, despite his politcal inexperience and his reputation as a “bad boy.” With the backing of 67 percent of voters, Martelly has won the support of both sets of Haitians. Now he must set out to solidify this union between the light-skinned minority and the darker-skinned majority.
Thanks to his 23 years of popular music fame, Martelly has become close to the Haitian masses. And to date, he has embraced popular aspirations for progress and development. For most of his music career, he has stood against the Haitian elite and its ruling conventions. Through his music he has succeeded in dismissing Haitian taboos and celebrating popular culture.