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Singer Michel Martelly is sworn in as Haiti's president

Martelly speaks in front of the crumpled National Palace, a symbol of a broken country ravaged by an earthquake last year and perpetually suffering from high rates of illiteracy and unemployment.

May 15, 2011|By Allyn Gaestel, Los Angeles Times
  • Haiti's new president, Michel Martelly, stands with his wife, Sophia, and their children as the Haitian national anthem is played in Port-au-Prince.
Haiti's new president, Michel Martelly, stands with his wife, Sophia,… (Brennan Linsley, Associated…)

Reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti — Former singer Michel Martelly was sworn in Saturday as Haiti's new president, promising change in a country whose towering needs will soon test his ability to shift from political outsider to national leader.

Martelly, elected in March by a commanding margin, spoke in front of a powerful symbol of the work ahead: the National Palace, crumpled like many other buildings in last year's devastating earthquake.

In his first remarks as president, Martelly summoned some of the same passion that fueled his campaign, his first foray into electoral politics.

"Haiti has been sleeping," Martelly said. "Today she will wake up, stand up."

Martelly, 50, reaffirmed a campaign vow to provide free education to the widely illiterate population. And while noting the need for security, his voice rose almost to a shout as he swore to bring to justice anyone who brought disorder to the country.

Martelly emphasized the need for a secure environment to lure investors and create jobs, a central issue in a country where unemployment is endemic.

The ceremony and setting were an attempt to set a new tone for a nation struggling to recover from the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake and, months later, a cholera epidemic.

A massive stage was constructed in front of the snow-white palace. Photographs of Haitian landmarks dotted a backdrop that had in its center a pre-quake image of the once-gleaming presidential residence.

But jutting above the backdrop was the real building, collapsed, with its white domes dipping precariously forward. Nearby, a plaza remained crammed with tents sheltering thousands of people left homeless after the quake.

Groups had taken to the streets with brooms all week, sweeping up garbage. Nonetheless, onlookers had to sidestep big potholes and piles of rubble.

Outgoing President Rene Preval handed over the presidential sash in the morning. The swearing-in took place in the makeshift parliament building, but a power outage forced Martelly to take the oath of office in darkness.

Numerous national and foreign officials turned up for the occasion, including former President Clinton and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.

Seeking a measure of conciliation in a country with a long history of polarization and turmoil, Martelly invited two former presidents who returned to Haiti this year: former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier and Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Neither attended.

Haitians climbed flagpoles outside the parliament building and pressed against the palace gates to get a glimpse of their new president.

"He comes from God. All Haitians are walking with him," said Charles Lufret, 39 and unemployed, who watched the ceremony from the tent-crammed plaza outside the palace.

"The name of president follows him, from music to the palace," Lufret explained. He was referring to Martelly's former career as a popular kompa singer.

Bernice Robertson, a Haiti-based analyst for International Crisis Group, said Martelly assumed office "on a wave of optimism," but she warned of the many challenges ahead.

"He will need to speed up the decision-making process, build national consensus and support, and work with donors and other partners to ensure the resources needed to implement the decisions taken are available."

He won two-thirds of the vote in the March 20 runoff election, but turnout was low. Some Haitians have reservations about Martelly's capacity to lead.

"It is total blindness.… We know him as a music star, we don't know him in terms of governance or taking charge," said one businessman who requested anonymity.

Gaestel is a special correspondent.

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