Sweet Micky's song for Haiti

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The President, and singer, Michel Martelly tells Peter Popham in Port-au-Prince how he is rebuilding an impoverished nation in ruins

Port-au-Prince

The auguries for our meeting with Haiti's President Michel Martelly are not good. As our UN van negotiates the steep, pot-holed lanes of Port-au-Prince, word comes through on the driver's intercom of "manifestations" – demonstrations.

Already, smoke from burning tyres is circling up into the sky. The protesters, when they arrive, are not menacing. But they have plenty to be furious about. A few days ago, a policeman who also happened to be a student – this is Haiti – went to a party with his gun, and shot another student dead.

That was the immediate issue, but there are plenty of others. Nearly three years after the earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands, more than 300,000 Haitians – 3 per cent of the population – are still living under tarpaulins. Hurricane Sandy brought more woes last month – 54 people were killed and many homes destroyed.

Only 10 per cent of people here are formally employed – the country floats on the $2bn annual remittances from the diaspora. Three years ago, Nepalese troops with the UN Stabilisation Mission inadvertently imported cholera, a disease unknown here for centuries, which has killed more than 4,000. The list of grievances goes on.

By the time we get close to the presidential palace – a ruin, since the quake, the rubble now being hauled away by engineers sponsored by Sean Penn's Haitian NGO, J/P HRO – the riot police are retreating down the street outside the palace under a rain of stones. From inside the enclave with its temporary buildings we watch the stones and the tear gas fly. President Martelly must have more on his mind today than talking to foreign journalists.

Yet when he arrives, a couple of hours late, he is a model of presidential calm and composure. Dig around a bit on YouTube and you can find many videos of Sweet Micky, the Haitian carnival singing star, wearing a pink baseball cap back to front, a yellow T-shirt or nothing but a pair of boxers, crooning, swaying, grimacing, acting the goat. Today, however, the makeover is complete and only, towards the end of our session, the infectious grin on the face of this bald-headed, austere, dark suited-and-tied man reminds one that his former line of work was making people happy.

Michel Martelly came to power in April 2011 in a run-off second-round election against Mirlande Manigat, a college professor and former Haitian First Lady, campaigning as a sort of mother figure to the wounded nation. But Mr Martelly was only on the ticket against her after the ruling party's candidate was removed from the race after claims of fraud and under pressure from the US and elsewhere. The pattern of outside interference, which had seen President Jean-Bertrand Aristide ousted in 2004, continues. Today both Mr Aristide and his notorious predecessor, the former dictator "Baby Doc" Duvalier, are again living quietly in Haiti. All eyes, therefore, are on Sweet Micky – who, despite headlines about winning by a "landslide", won the votes of only around 10 per cent of the electorate, in a poll in which only some 24 per cent bothered to turn out.

But if he feels the pressure, he doesn't allow it to show.

"There are four things I want to talk about," he begins. "Education and employment, because 70 per cent of the population is unemployed; poverty – there is extreme misery in the country; and environmental issues. My campaign slogan was that I would keep my promises, and that's what I'm trying to do. I got into politics because, after a very good career, I wanted to bring change to my country."

He reels off a list of what he has achieved in his first 18 months in office: putting one million children into primary school, providing them with hot meals while they are there, rebuilding the capital's university with money from the neighbouring Dominican Republic, building new schools and thousands of homes. There is the plan to vaccinate all the nation's children against cholera, plans to eliminate hunger and malnutrition. A "massive reconstruction project" is under way, he claims: in the earthquake not only the neo-classical presidential palace was destroyed but also much of the infrastructure of government as well as the headquarters of the UN's Stabilisation Mission and the airport.

So far, so uncontroversial – but also confusing: he sounds as if he is describing a completely different country from the chaotic mess on the streets where the demonstrations continue, a country which has hardly known good governance in living memory. He also makes it sound as if he is fully in control: while in fact the international community, in the form of bodies such as the United Nations Development Programme and Unicef, have been in dominant positions for many decades, and half the national revenue comes from foreign agencies and NGOs.

When the question of the NGOs comes up, it is with an understandable note of resentment. The foreign presence, he implies, ties his hands. "Some NGOs have become more important in Haiti than the state itself. Many people in Haiti would rather work for an NGO which has a budget coming from abroad than to work as a government minister. Often in conferences in Haiti there are many foreigners taking part, because we just don't have enough specialists in certain fields."

Two issues in particular restrict his freedom of action, as he sees it. An endless wrangle about the national "conseil electorale", the electoral commission which regulates Haitian democracy, has seen the repeated postponement of parliamentary elections, with the result that Mr Martelly is governing in a kind of limbo.

At the same time there is row with the UN over the nation's defence. Haiti's army was dissolved by President Aristide in 1995; since 2004 the UN Stabilisation Mission, known by its French acronym, Minustah, has been in charge of all security duties, while training an indigenous police force. Under their watch, the nation's murder rate has fallen to 9 per 100,000 of population per year – far lower than the Latin American average. Yet the blue helmets are a standing offence to Haitians' sense of their independence, and seen by many as another army of occupation. Mr Martelly's most controversial aim is to create a new national army.

"The ambition of Haiti right now is to become self-sufficient, which is why I talk about defence of the coastline and the border. You can call this body whatever you like – I'm not calling it an armed force. But it will be composed of police and military men. We need to be able to protect our own borders."

It sounds reasonable – but the lack of an army is just the most glaring way in which Haiti bears only a passing resemblance to an independent nation. Towards the end of our encounter, President Martelly turns reflective. "I've been asking myself what my life would be like today if I was still a musician – singing, enjoying a good beer… But can life really be beautiful when people are living in these conditions? I feel now I'm doing something useful for my country."

Outside the presidential enclave, as we take our leave, the smoke and tear gas have cleared. Today the poorest country in the western hemisphere has a new figurehead. But for all Mr Martelly's good intentions, Haiti's future today is as murky as ever.

New stage: From music to politics

Nicknamed "Sweet Micky", Mr Martelly was known by most Haitians before his quest for power as a cross-dressing kompa jazz singer.

But the married father-of-four emerged during campaigning as a populist candidate, styling himself as a champion of the poor rallying against Haiti's elite. These sentiments served him well among the country's youth, who turned to him after US-based hip-hop star Wyclef Jean was disqualified from running. Older voters, however, found it hard to forget his risqué, trouser-dropping acts.

Despite this, he won a presidential run-off against former First Lady, Mirlande Manigat, in March 2011.

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