michel-martelly-mirlande-manigat_web.jpgIt's time to start selling the true image of Haiti as a rich country instead of a disaster-prone, impoverished wreck, a candidate in the Caribbean country's presidential runoff election said.

Tourism and investment, along with education, jobs and health care, will help solve the security issues that have plagued Haiti, Michel Martelly said in a recent campaign stop in South Florida.

And the woman vying to be the next president held a rally in Miami.

Mirlande Manigat visited a church in the Little Haiti neighborhood. The 70-year-old is a law professor and former first lady.

In a flawed initial election with 19 presidential candidates, Manigat outpaced the field but fell short of the 50 percent needed to win outright in November. She now faces Martelly, the 50-year-old former singer in a runoff election March 20.

Both candidates have sought financial and political support from the roughly 800,000 Haitians living in the U.S., about half of them in Florida. The U.S.-based Haitians can't vote but they send home more than a billion dollars a year.

Martelly has promised Haitian Americans dual citizenship, which is not allowed under Haiti's current constitution, and the right to vote in future elections.

“They are Haiti's children and they are a big economic support,” Martelly has said. “They have a role they can play in Haiti, so it's very important for me to come here and reassure them.” 

In his address at a Coral Gables gathering, Martelly said, “We have nice beaches, nice weather. Our lands are fertile and have not been exploited. I welcome people to start looking at what Haiti is going to be.”

The pro-military populist also would reinstate Haiti's army to replace United Nations peacekeepers who, while controlling kidnapping gangs, are resented by many Haitians as foreign occupiers.

A new Haitian military would include security forces, a forestry team, engineers and a medical corps, Martelly said. Troops would be recruited for their competence, not their political loyalties, he said.

”In case of emergencies like the last earthquake, these people could come and help the country, not a force where we have helicopters and tanks, because I don't think Haiti is about to do war with any other country.”

Speaking at a fundraiser in Plantation, Manigat said Haitian President Rene Preval's government “belongs to the past.” Manigat said many Haitians are unhappy with the way Preval has handled reconstruction and the international community since the devastating January 2010 earthquake.

Manigat also met with supporters in Miami on her way back to Haiti from campaign fundraising stops in Canada.

Speaking at a news conference at Miami International Airport, she said it would be better if ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide waited to return home until after the next round of elections.

She said the presence of both Aristide and ex-dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in Haiti could agitate people who need to be convinced to vote in the presidential runoff election March 20.

But she said there was nothing she can do to block Aristide if he wants to return before then.

The winner in the election will be responsible for a population of more than nine million people beset by widespread unemployment, masses of homeless in the capital, a chronic lack of infrastructure and a cholera epidemic. The next president also will face countless groups fighting over the billions of dollars in international aid pledged after the January 2010 earthquake.

Protests, riots and outrage followed when Manigat and state construction chief Jude Celestin, who was backed by Preval, were announced as the runoff candidates. Celestin had edged out Martelly by less than one percent of the vote.

In February, an international team of experts from the Organization of American States found problems with the vote count and declared Martelly and Manigat the top two finishers.