Unpaid debts catch up with Haiti's political crooner

 

The course of Haiti's troubled presidential election has taken a fresh twist after it emerged that Michel Martelly, one of the final two candidates left in the keenly fought race, has faced severe financial problems in the United States, where he lived for most of the past 30 years.

Martelly, a carnival singer known as "Sweet Mickey" who is up against former first lady Mirlande Manigat in a run-off election scheduled for 20 March, defaulted on more than $1m ($600,000) worth of loans and has owned at least three properties that entered foreclosure during his time as a resident of Florida, legal documents show.

He returned to his native Haiti in 2007, leaving behind a string of unpaid creditors and ongoing court proceedings, according to public records disclosed by The Miami Herald yesterday. Among the properties Mr Martelly was evicted from was a vast family home in Royal Palm Beach which he shared with his wife and four children.

The disclosure will add to the growing volume of questions about whether Mr Martelly, who with no background in politics has nonetheless managed to leverage his fame into widespread support among younger Haitians, is a suitable candidate to take possession of the entire nation's purse strings.

Politically right-of-centre, much like Ms Manigat, he has made much of his status as an "outsider" during the campaign. But foreign governments bankrolling the country's efforts to rebuild after last year's earthquake may be reluctant to entrust their billions to an individual who is unable to keep track of his own household finances.

Research by the Herald revealed how Mr Martelly, who moved to the US in 1980 to work in construction, and later became a star in the "kompa" music scene, invested in a string of houses and condominiums during the heady property boom of the early 2000s.

At first, he made hefty profits. But when the property market began to crash in 2007, he stopped paying large mortgages, which had been taken out against the properties. At least three of his homes were foreclosed upon during a period of litigation that also saw Mr Martelly sued for unpaid homeowner association fees and hospital bills.

Around the same period, Mr Martelly and his family returned to live in Haiti, where he has other business interests. His decision to seek the presidency was later endorsed by Wyclef Jean, another ex-pat musician who has recently taken an interest in the nation's politics.

In many countries, yesterday's disclosures would severely hamper a candidate's chances. But normal rules don't always apply to Haiti, where corruption is rife and large portion of the electorate, particularly Mr Martelly's natural supporters, have only a vague grasp of day-to-day economics.

A spokesman for his campaign sought to play down the Herald's disclosures, saying the candidate fell victim to poor advice from a real estate adviser, and was hardly alone in losing large amounts of money during a property crash that affected the entire world.

"I don't think it's related to his capability to manage investments or his capability as a successful businessman," he said. "Every successful businessman has transactions that are not as successful all the time."

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