PORT-AU-PRINCE —Haiti’s President Michel Martelly has styled himself a man of the people, a showy former pop star who waded easily into adoring crowds. So the reception he received on his latest trip to his country's north was a surprise: Protesters pelted his entourage with soft drink bottles and rocks.
But it is becoming increasingly apparent in a country overwhelmed by poverty, natural disasters, disease and decades of unfulfilled governmental promises that Haitians have little patience for politicians who don't produce, even if it is a president who has been in office for less than three months.
“Martelly made a lot of promises – but so far nothing,” said Frantz Nelson, 34, who voted for the former singer. Nelson said he had hoped Martelly would help get him and his family out of an encampment across from the National Palace where they have lived since a massive earthquake struck the country in January 2010. “We are impatient and our children are impatient.”
One of the keys to Martelly's success in last November's election was his outsider status, which attracted voters apparently tired of the traditional, educated elite who tend toward higher office in the Caribbean country.
He was a popular performer of a style of Haitian music known as compas, and was notorious for occasionally bawdy performances and foul-mouthed stage antics. Though he had been known to espouse political views, he came from a radically different mold than the country's usual politicians. He ultimately won a race that, at one point, included a hand-picked successor to incumbent President Rene Preval and a former senator who was also a former first lady.
His dearth of experience is partly what constrains him now, however: He lacks much of a power base beyond his music fans and relies heavily on a tight-knit team of close friends who are also new to government.
That he has failed to win over lawmakers to approve his choice for prime minister explains, in part, why he so far can boast of few accomplishments. He has almost no support in parliament which flatly rejected his first and second picks for prime minister.
Consequently, he has made little progress on promises to build homes for the hundreds of thousands left homeless by the earthquake, as well as to create jobs in a country with an unemployment rate of more than 50 percent. Martelly has also done little to provide free education in a country where half of all children didn't attend school even before the quake.
Martelly, aware of the growing signs of disenchantment, insists he's still on track to achieve his lofty campaign pledges. “I promise to do this for the benefit of the masses and our citizens and create conditions for the recovery of our country,” he said at a meeting of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission in July.
The president has made some attempts at progress. His administration launched a program that aims to put kids in school with fees collected from wire transfers and international phone calls and he presented a plan to relocate 30,000 people from six major earthquake encampments into repaired houses.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who is the U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti, announced also in July that his foundation would kick in $1.25 million to help raise school funding but the new fees have angered Haitians overseas because it raised the cost of calling and sending money back home for a largely working-class community.
The administration also drew criticism for evicting people from one of the earthquake encampments before creating housing elsewhere. Even if it was to succeed, Martelly's relocation plan would help a mere five percent of the displaced population.
Mark Schneider of the U.S.-based think tank the International Crisis Group praised Martelly for the housing plan and for retaining the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, an international review panel that oversees earthquake reconstruction aid that some Haitians view with resentment. But he also said the new president needs to learn how to work across party lines.
“He needs to govern with a vision of national reconciliation and national reconstruction,” Schneider said. “That has to be his mantra.”
Martelly's biggest apparent misstep so far has been his picks for prime minister.
His initial choice was rejected overwhelmingly by the Chamber of Deputies. They accused the nominee, businessman Daniel-Gerard Rouzier, of tax evasion and questioned his citizenship. Many believed the real reason for Rouzier's rejection was that Martelly hadn't done enough to win the lawmakers' support beforehand. There are only three people from Martelly's party in the 99-seat Chamber of Deputies and none in the 30-seat Senate.
“He's learning the hard way,” said Sen. Steven Benoit. “He's realizing parliament is the number-one power.”
Martelly's second pick, Bernard Gousse, also faced strong opposition and was rejected on Aug. 3. Gousse served as justice minister under the interim government set up by the international community after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 and was accused of persecuting supporters of the former president who remains a popular figure in Haiti.
Martelly's problems with parliament are not unique. Preval, his predecessor, oversaw a revolving door of prime ministers. Six held the post between 2004 and 2009, with some sacked by lawmakers.
But the stakes are higher now as the country struggles to jump-start stalled earthquake reconstruction.
Martelly planned to take a 17-day tour through Europe to seek investment and appeal for more aid. He cut the trip short by a week because of the political drama at home and visited only Spain, a country that has not traditionally played a large business or political role in Haiti.
“There is a bit of a learning curve,” said Thomas Adams, Haiti Special Coordinator for the U.S. State Department.
So far, the main source of Martelly's opposition had been in parliament and not on the streets — until he showed up in Cap-Haitien as part of an effort to promote the country's north in a week-long focus on tourism.
Police spokesman Frantz Lerebours said he could not comment because he didn't have the full report but witnesses said people threw rocks and soft drink bottles as the president walked through a shantytown near the airport.
Hansy Mars, a correspondent for the weekly Le Nouvelliste and Radio Galaxie, who was at the event, said security guards tried to escort Martelly into one of two slow-moving SUVs but he declined and kept walking. Police fired several shots in the air and, according to U.N. spokeswoman Barbara Mertz, Chilean troops from the U.N. military responded.
Mars said he saw police arrest 29 people, while U.N. police spokesman Raymond Lamarre said police arrested two people. Nobody was injured.
The following two nights, there were more arrests on unspecified charges in the same neighborhood as the protest, according to Fritz Joseph, Cap-Haitien's deputy mayor.
The president dismissed his critics after he returned from Spain, saying opponents were simply trying to undermine him — and he said they would not succeed. “I'm not going to quit,” he said. “I'm here for five years.”