Michel Martelly Is Haiti's New President. But the Former Palm Beach County Resident Has a Dark Side
The Caribbean sun blazes relentlessly on the tall turquoise gates of Bernard Mevs Hospital in Port-au-Prince. Women with heaping baskets of mangoes and laundry balanced on their heads plod by on the unpaved road. As men repair rusty jalopies, a merengue beat drifts languidly over the noise of nearby Toussaint Louverture Boulevard.
The lazy Friday morning doesn't last. A pack of police on four-wheelers tears down the narrow street, sending merchants frantically scrambling out of the way. Then a half-dozen motorcycles roar through the cloud of dust, their riders dismounting in a blur of camouflage and assault rifles. Finally, two jet-black SUVs pull up in front of the hospital gate.
A perfectly hairless orb emerges from one of the vehicles like a caramel-colored lollipop. "Tet kale!" the rapidly swelling crowd shouts. "Bald head!" Cameras flash.
It's an entrance fit for a pop star or a president. Or both.
Dressed in a dapper gray suit, Michel Martelly squints his heavy-lidded eyes, beams a brilliantly white smile, and waves. Only six days into his unlikely presidency, he's unfazed by the attention. It's no surprise. For more than two decades, "Sweet Micky" was Haiti's most popular musician: a raucous performer who combined lascivious dances with romantic, often bawdy lyrics. He drank, smoked, cursed, cross-dressed, and stripped onstage. Then he ran for president. After a round of voting that was marred by fraud and deadly riots, Martelly won a March runoff by a landslide.
Now he is in charge of one of the poorest countries in the world, still reeling from the January 12, 2010, earthquake that killed as many as 300,000 Haitians and left more than a million homeless. In a nation looted by the father-and-son dictatorship of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier, Martelly is also entrusted with spending more than $11 billion of international aid.
Yet Martelly is a mystery. He has never held office, touting his outsider status in the leadup to the election.
"My music was never political," Martelly tells New Times. "I have always tried to make sure that people laughed and had fun."
But a close look at his life and tunes proves otherwise. As a musician, he provided the soundtrack for dictators and coups d'état. He hosted private parties for right-wing thugs accused of extrajudicial killings. He borrowed his nickname from a notorious police chief later convicted of human rights abuses.
Despite a slick political makeover, Haiti's self-proclaimed "bad boy" hasn't really changed. He plans to reestablish the army that former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide abolished in 1994 and has shown other early signs of a strongman mentality. Most worrying, however, a recent video shows Martelly calling opponents "faggots" and threatening to kill Aristide — a leftist who recently returned from exile — by "stick[ing] a dick up his ass."
The stage may have changed, but Sweet Micky is still performing. And Haiti might end up getting played.
"He has two lives," says François Pierre-Louis, a Haitian political scientist at the City University of New York. "He's really a right-wing populist... Once he doesn't get his way, he will force his way and do things that aren't constitutional." So far, he says, Martelly has excluded opposition ministers from crucial meetings and proposed an unqualified candidate for prime minister.
Born on February 12, 1961, four years into the 14-year reign of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, Martelly lived a sheltered upbringing during the reign of the brutal dictator, who ordered the killings of 30,000 of his countrymen. Martelly's father was a Shell Oil executive, and young Micky was expelled from a series of private schools for his rebelliousness. After finishing high school, he was kicked out of the Haitian Military Academy after impregnating a general's goddaughter, he says.
In 1984, Martelly moved to Colorado and then to Miami, where he briefly attended Miami-Dade Community College, dropped out, and worked in construction. In 1986, just as Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier was forced into exile, Martelly returned to Port-au-Prince and joined a friend's band, teaching himself to play the keyboard while singing every night at the El Rancho Hotel. Eventually, Martelly landed his own gig at Le Florville, a popular nightclub in the relatively upscale suburb of Petionville.
It was an uncertain time in Haiti. Baby Doc's departure had unleashed his Tonton Macoute thugs on the capital, while a series of military generals gave lip service to democratic change. Most musicians were busy penning politically charged protest lyrics, but Martelly sang playful, romantic numbers over a slowed-down merengue beat called compas, the only music allowed under the Duvaliers.
"There was a patriotic fervor attached to the overthrowing of the dictatorship, but Micky was the contrarian," says Gage Averill, an expert on Haitian music. "Haiti was coming through cathartic times, and here he was making such a strong play for this playboy image: partying with nice cars and beautiful women in Petionville clubs. His music was really a nostalgia for those Jean-Claude years."
"Ou La La" lyrics
Life is good for me, and everything I have is for you,
When I'm by your waist, I never feel like leaving.
Martelly's allegiances became clearer after the 1991 coup d'état against Aristide, a popular priest who was elected after promising to combat poverty. Martelly opened a Petionville club called the Garage, where he entertained many of the coup's main architects, including the much-feared chief of national police, Michel François, later convicted in absentia for massacring Aristide supporters. François liked Martelly's music so much that he allegedly lent the singer his own nickname: "Sweet Micky."
The two were close enough that Martelly played free for François during a 1992 protest against the arrival of Dante Caputo, a U.N. representative in charge of negotiating Aristide's return. The koudjay (jam session) brought several hundred people to the airport. As they danced and cheered, Martelly rallied the crowd with a slogan from the Haitian revolution. "Grenadier! To the attack!" he yelled. "If anyone dies, that's his business!"
In a 1997 interview with New Times, Martelly said he didn't regret the incident. "I didn't accept [the request to play] because I was Michel François' friend," he explained. "I went because I did not want Aristide back... You want me to be a de facto [supporter of the coup]. I'm a de facto. It's my right. It's my country. I can fight for whatever I believe in."
Sweet Micky's politics soon began creeping into his songs. After the coup, Martelly made an album whose title captured his ambivalence: I Don't Care. When U.N. soldiers reinstalled Aristide in 1994, "Go fuck your mother, Aristide!" became a common refrain at Martelly's concerts.
"By then, it became clear that Micky had really strong Duvalierist inclinations," Averill says.
"Even back in the day when I said that, I never meant it," Martelly now claims of his divisive lyrics. "That was the type of [rhetoric] we had in Haiti, and I just used it."
"I Don't Care" lyrics
If I catch them on Bicentenaire
We're going to spank them
Ruthless, Micky is ruthless
When they attack me, Micky gets ruthless
That's how we are
If you don't like it, get out!
Martelly toned down the political messages after Aristide left office in 1996. But the singer also upped his outrageous onstage antics: dressing in a diaper and leading the Port-au-Prince Carnival in a dress and pink wig. He also began talking half-jokingly about becoming president one day. By the time Aristide was reelected in 2000, Sweet Micky was "a musical figure in the halls of power in Haiti," Averill says. When a coup once again deposed Aristide in 2004, it was Gérard Latortue — a friend of Martelly's — who took over.
If one day you have to travel far
Just remember it's the problems of life that brought you here
Haiti is my country
There is nobody that is going to make me leave and not come back.
At the time, Martelly was living the high life in South Florida. He and his wife had bought a 6,000-square-foot house in Royal Palm Beach for $910,000. But in 2007, Martelly officially retired, stopped paying the mortgage, and moved back to Haiti — defaulting on more than $1 million in loans and losing three properties to foreclosure.
Then last summer, he announced his candidacy for president. He hired Spanish marketing firm Solas — which had worked on John McCain's 2008 campaign — to transform him from a reactionary into a political maverick with pop-star name recognition. It wasn't difficult.
"There wasn't much education about Martelly's background," Pierre-Louis says. "Besides, no one was really paying attention to him in the first round. He had no chance." Indeed, Sweet Micky came in third in a November 28 election, a couple of thousand votes behind Marlene Manigat, a former first lady, and Jude Célestin, President René Préval's chosen successor.
But Martelly supporters refused to accept the results, alleging massive fraud. They constructed flaming roadblocks in Petionville and Port-au-Prince and demanded Sweet Micky's inclusion in another round. Under international pressure, Haitian election officials threw out Célestin, paving the way for Martelly's commanding March 20 victory.
Paradoxically, Martelly says that despite his bad-boy act, voters elected him because they saw he was a real person, not a phony politician.
"Onstage I had that character — Sweet Micky — that was run by Michel Martelly," he says. "People enjoyed it and saw the persona for what it was. It definitely helped my [political] career because people were able to see my DNA. They were able to say, 'Who's that guy who's running for politics now? At least he is [independent].' "
Martelly says he is "the president of every Haitian," but despite winning two-thirds of the votes in the runoff, historic absenteeism meant less than 17 percent of eligible Haitians voted for him. And although he remains popular in the streets, there are signs that his reformation is just a show.
An audio recording allegedly taken only two days before the runoff features Sweet Micky insulting supporters of Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas party: "The Lavalas are so ugly. They smell like shit. Fuck you, Lavalas. Fuck you, Jean-Bertrand Aristide." Then there was a YouTube video in which Martelly insults Aristide while smiling, pulling up his shirt, and rubbing his belly.
Outside Bernard Mevs Hospital, however, there is nothing but love for Sweet Micky. By the time Martelly leaves, hundreds of supporters have swarmed the gate, waving flags and singing. When the crowds clear, Isselda Ismael stands next to her tiny cell-phone kiosk on the street. She remembers all of Sweet Micky's hits by heart.
"For a long time, very serious people have done nothing for us," she says. "So let's let a singer have a try."
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