Haiti: President Martelly steps down, interim government formed

Finally responding to angry protests, Haitian President Michel Martelly, the son of a Shell Oil executive, stepped down on Sunday. This opens the way to the creation of an interim government to organize a new presidential election.

Martelly came to power in May of 2011 in the wake of the disastrous January, 2010 earthquake that killed as many as 200,000 Haitians and destroyed a huge amount of infrastructure.  Martelly was seen by many as a figure of the right, compromised by his past ties to the old dictatorship of the Duvaliers:  Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and Jean Claude “Baby Doc,” his son.

Martelly was involved in disturbances and a coup in 2004 which swept into exile the legally elected president of Haiti, the radical priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide.  That coup was abetted by the George W. Bush administration in the United States, with the support of the French and Canadian governments.

The U.S., French and Canadian governments, along with the Haitian elite, disapproved of Aristide’s radical politics, in particular his call for reparations from France for the years during which the Haitian people were enslaved on French-owned sugar plantations, and the damage done to the Haitian economy by French government actions after the country won independence from France in 1803.

Since then, the main direction of the Haiti policy of the powerful capitalist industrialized countries has been, in the first place, to prevent Aristide, or anybody like him, from returning to power, and in the second place, to make sure that Haiti follows a development strategy based on attracting direct foreign investment by maintaining low wages and limited labor and environmental regulation

Martelly had gained popularity as an entertainer, being known for earthy musical performances.                    He also appealed to former soldiers of the pre-Aristide period: Aristide had disbanded the Haitian army for the good reason that it had become an element of instability in the body politic, regularly committing human rights abuses and fomenting coups d’etat. 

But he came to power not only because of his own limited popularity, but also through heavy-handed intervention by the United States and other major foreign powers.  In the first round of the 2010-2011 presidential elections, he did not initially make the runoff.  This was changed at the insistence of then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration, who pressured Haitian election authorities to remove the original second place candidate, former official Jude Celestin, and replace him with Martelly. 

During Martelly’s regime there were more disasters.  A cholera epidemic sickened nearly 800,000 and killed nearly 9,000 to date (and it is still raging); it was traced to unsanitary disposal of human waste by Nepalese troops who were part of a seemingly eternal U.N. “peacekeeping” mission, inserted after the 2004 coup, that has come to be widely resented by the Haitian poor.

Then a major conflict arose with the Dominican Republic, whose government decided to strip the citizenship of many thousands of people born there but of allegedly Haitian descent.  They and more recent, Haitian-born migrants have been threatened with mass deportation to Haiti, a country which is much poorer than the Dominican Republic and is far from having recovered from the 2010 earthquake and the cholera epidemic.

Thousands of migrants and Dominican-Haitians, not wanting to wait to be deported, have migrated over the border into Haiti, and are piling up in refugee camps with minimal facilities.

The election picture has been chaotic. During Martelly’s five years in power there were no regular legislative elections because of disputes between the Martelly administration and the legislative opposition as to how these should be run to assure fairness.

So Martelly, who cannot be re-elected, was essentially ruling by decree for several years.  When legislative elections were eventually held, with a first round on Aug. 9 of last year, there were accusations of outrageous fraud, which were repeated during the legislative runoffs and the first round presidential elections on Oct. 25.

The worst of these was that with a little more than a million people voting (a turnout of only 17.8 percent of eligible voters), 900,000 candidates’ poll watchers had been given special credentials which effectively allowed them to vote multiple times in different polling places.  This became such a scandal that these credentials were being sold in the street to the highest bidder.    The first round of the presidential elections, also on Oct. 25, featured no fewer than 54 candidates.

The two candidates who made it to the runoff included, once again, Jude Celestin who had been pushed out of the runoff the last time, and Martelly ally Jovenal Moise, known as “the banana man” because his only known accomplishment has been as a banana exporter who is accused of growing his crops land from which he had pushed peasant cultivators.  

All Hell broke loose when the opposition candidates, including Celestin, denounced the presidential

election results as fraudulent, and several members of the Election Commission resigned for the same reason.  Nevertheless Martelly insisted on going on with the runoff election scheduled for Dec. 27.

Large scale protests forced postponement until Jan. 17, but Martelly, backed by the

United States and the Organization of American States, still insisted on doing the runoff even though Celestin refused to participate  and many sectors were calling for an interim government until a cleaner election could be organized at a later date.    Opposition protesters began to clash with pro-Martelly ex soldiers who supported the incumbent because of his promises to restore the army.

At the last possible moment, on February 7, the last day of his term in office, Martelly finally backed down and signed an agreement with parliamentary leaders (Senator Jocelerme Privert and Lower House leader Cholzer Chancy).

According to this agreement, Prime Minister Evans Paul will run the country until, supposedly five days from Sunday, an interim president can be picked by the legislature. The interim president will serve for 120 days while new elections are organized to be held no later than April 24, with a new president inaugurated on May 14.

Whether this arrangement will calm tensions has yet to be seen.  But Haiti’s troubles will not cease to intensify until the basic problem, namely the poverty perpetuated by powerful countries’ treatment of Haiti as a source of profits for monopoly capital and not as a nation, is tackled.     

Photo: Haitian president Martelly.  |  AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.