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Why Haiti's prodigal son, Michel Martelly, may be its savior

President Michel Martelly’s landslide election marked a profound change in Haitian political history: the first alliance of the general populace with the elite. The big question now is whether he can sustain this unlikely marriage.

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The election of popular singer Michel Martelly follows the Haitian electorate’s pattern of selecting leaders who come from outside the political system. Their overwhelming mistrust of such politicians has produced winners like Francois Duvalier (1957), Jean-Bertrand Aristide (1990, 2000), and today, Mr. Martelly.

But Martelly’s landslide election in April also marks one of the most profound changes in Haitian political history: the first alliance of the general populace with the elite. A son of the Haitian elite, Martelly was embraced by both the masses and the upper class. The big question: Will he sustain this unlikely marriage?

Martelly is now uniquely poised to use his political capital to engage the political elite, unite the entire population, and move all Haitians toward democratic progress and prosperity.

A history of class struggle and abuse

Throughout Haiti's 200-year history, the politics of Haiti has always been dominated by a battle between its classes and colors. From the days of Haitian leaders Dessalines, Christophe, and Pétion in the early 19th century to today’s Martelly, Haitian politics has revolved around the struggle between, on the one hand, an elite “light skinned” minority and the small middle class, and, on the other, the vastly more numerous "dark-skinned" lower classes.

In 1957, Duvalier, also known as “the people’s doctor,” rose to power because of his popularity among Haiti’s underprivileged. At the time of his election, he was known for working with the poorest of the poor, treating tropical skin infections for the neediest. Once he was elected president, his stance underwent a dramatic change. He and later, his son, Jean Claude “Baby Doc,” maintained power for 29 years. Haitians need no reminder of the story of their dictatorship and the brutality of their regime.

Similarly, Aristide’s rise to power was characterized by his identity as the priest of the poor. Symbolizing the anti-Duvalier movement in the 1980s, Aristide was cherished by the masses as Haiti’s messiah. The end of Aristide’s destructive presidency seems to have made a mark in the minds of the majority of Haitians. After first being deposed by the Haitian Army and then again by the intervention of the United States and France, most Haitians agree that his legacy is one of aggravated social division, corruption, and institutional ruin.

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Breaking with tradition

Martelly’s election represents a major shift away from this pattern in Haitian politics. True, Martelly was elected through broad popular support from the masses. But the upper classes have also embraced this musician, despite his politcal inexperience and his reputation as a “bad boy.” With the backing of 67 percent of voters, Martelly has won the support of both sets of Haitians. Now he must set out to solidify this union between the light-skinned minority and the darker-skinned majority.

Thanks to his 23 years of popular music fame, Martelly has become close to the Haitian masses. And to date, he has embraced popular aspirations for progress and development. For most of his music career, he has stood against the Haitian elite and its ruling conventions. Through his music he has succeeded in dismissing Haitian taboos and celebrating popular culture.

Ironically, this achievement has been made possible by his membership in the elite. Remarkably, he has been widely accepted as Haiti’s prodigal son.

Martelly's unique opportunity to unify

Will he respond to the aspirations of the masses? Will he be able to guide Haiti and its people toward development, peace, security and progress? Martelly gives the elite the opportunity to work with one of their own as president. Martelly has the ability to push them in the direction of equality, progress, and development.

The Haitian elites have gained wealth chiefly through commerce, but have failed to invest meaningfully in production enterprise. Martelly should be able to encourage this transition from commerce to production, including foreign investment.

But Martelly has already started the most important dialogue with the elite by embracing the masses. Haiti must not stay divided by color and place of residence. The Haitian elite must move away from their barracks mentality to mingle with all Haitians, with respect and dignity. This is, after all, the 21st century, not the 18th.

Having embraced the Haitian masses from the time of his youth, and without any political aspirations, Martelly has earned their trust. First and foremost, he must improve the deplorable education system, which has left one-half of Haiti’s population illiterate. He then must engage this population of Haitians in an intense dialogue about democratic governance and behavior, including rights and obligations, the rule of law, and respect for property.

As a politician, he began some of these difficult conversations during his campaign. Now, he must continue through example and by enacting policies that demonstrate that the voters’ trust in him was well placed. He has to gain the wisdom to move beyond the political paralysis that Haiti has witnessed over the years in Haitian politics. The catastrophic abuses of power and the depletion of state resources to enrich political and economic elites have left the masses in misery. Martelly now has an opportunity to bridge Haiti’s profound gap between rich and poor, one of the widest in the world.

And finally, because Martelly has lived in the United States for several years, he has an understanding of the Haitian diaspora. He is aware of its love for Haiti and its unique ability to contribute to Haiti’s progress. I am confident that Martelly will make the important and, up to this point, missing, connection between Haitians living abroad and Haitians living in Haiti.

The monumental tasks of rebuilding Haiti, reconciling 200 years of major socio-economic division, and creating a platform for development and progress are daunting for any president. Martelly stands as the product of Haiti’s unique social complexity. He can act as a bridge between, and a healer of, our society’s many fractures.

Nesly Metayer is a senior fellow at the Center for Public Management at Suffolk University. He is a project manager at the John Hancock Research Center, Tufts University. He has completed his doctoral studies at the University of Paris Sorbonne and is currently working toward a doctoral degree in Management at Case Western Reserve University.

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