Interview: Haitian presidential candidate Michel Martelly challenges political elite

With the cholera death toll climbing to more than 1,100 and 1.3 million people still living in displacement camps, presidential candidate Michel 'Sweet Micky' Martelly is calling for a change in leadership.

Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom
Haitian popular singer and presidential candidate Michel Martelly, known as 'Sweet Micky,' talks with supporters on Oct. 20, in Port-au-Prince during a rally.

Amid a cholera epidemic that has claimed 1,100 lives and the rubble of an earthquake that killed 300,000 people, Haiti is attempting to hold a national election in less than two weeks.

It will be a challenging vote as more than a million Haitians still live in temporary tents following January's quake and growing concerns about cholera have turned into violent protest. But presidential candidate Michel Martelly says the only way to move the country beyond these crises is to empower a new generation of political leaders.

In an interview with the Monitor, Mr. Martelly, a flamboyant carnival singer known affectionately as "Sweet Micky," says Haiti problems are exacerbated by what he sees as the decades-long inability of traditional Haitian politicians to address the desperate needs of the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.

"When I talk about it, I get upset," he says, his voice rising as he leans forward in his chair. "We're begging more and more [from foreign governments] every year. What's the point?"

When Haitians head to the polls Nov. 28, the highly accomplished 49-year-old musician will learn whether he has the chance to lead the country to a better future. He is a dark horse candidate running a campaign as a political outsider able to bring change to an earthquake-ravaged Caribbean nation of 9.9 million people.

In a field of 19 candidates, Martelly's main opponents all come from the political establishment. President René Préval's handpicked successor, Jude Célestin, is the former head of the government reconstruction agency. Mirlande H. Manigat is a former parliamentarian and the wife of a past president. Jean-Henry Ceant is a well-known lawyer with close ties to former President Jean Bertrand Aristide's political movement Fanmi Lavalas. Charles-Henry Baker is a wealthy businessman who also ran in the 2006 election.

One of those five candidates will most likely be the next president of Haiti, the respected daily Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste said yesterday. A recent poll from the Economic Forum of the Private Sector showed Ms. Manigat and Mr. Célestin in a near dead heat, with Martelly polling at a distant third. Top winners from the first round election continue on to the Jan. 16 run-off.

Complicating the elections – and adding fire to an already volatile social and political environment – is the fact that 1.3 Haitians still live in displacement tent camps 10 months after the Jan. 12 earthquake. What's more, an outbreak of cholera has killed at least 1,110 Haitians and hospitalized another 18,382 since it was detected in October, according to the Ministry of Health.

In the north where the cholera outbreak first appeared, violent street protests have erupted against the presence of United Nations peacekeepers, rumored to have introduced the South Asian strain of cholera to the country. Anger is also directed against the government and NGOs, with thousands of demonstrators converging yesterday in front of the presidential palace on the Champs de Mars.

Straining an already understaffed police force, demonstrators have blocked roads, burned tires, and thrown rocks at vehicles outside the palace. "All travel to this area should be avoided," according to a statement from the US Embassy in Port-au-Prince.

Meanwhile, "Sweet Micky" and other candidates are attempting to convince Haitians to vote in an election just days away. On a recent visit to Cite Soleil, the capital's poorest slum neighborhood, Martelly admits to his outsider political status while also embracing his musical notoriety. The rejection of candidate Wyclef Jean of Fugees musical fame further opened the door to Martelly as a candidate appealing to young voters.

"Everything is a priority," Martelly says, wearing a white campaign T-shirt emblazoned with the outline of his bald head. But his first priority as president, he tells locals, would be to "get the people out of the tents." Long term, he says, he would seek to revive the agriculture sector, noting that 40-50 percent of the country's 1 million unemployed come from farming families. He calls his plan "Repons Peyizan," or Farmers Response.

Back at his expansive home in the hills of Pétionville, overlooking Port-au-Prince, Martelly says he appreciates the work NGOs have done for his country, and he would work with them if elected president. But with the World Bank estimating that 10,000 NGOs operate here in the so-called "Republic of NGOs," Martelly says they must perform. "If they're here to help, I need to see results."

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