Sweet Micky and the Sad Déjà Vu of Haiti’s Presidential Elections
BY EDWIDGE DANTICAT, DECEMBER 3, 2015
All the lively and graphic opening montage of the new documentary “Sweet Micky for President,” a behind-the-scenes look at Haiti’s 2010-2011 Presidential election and the rise of the entertainer turned President Michel Martelly, a newsman in stock film footage declares that “Haitians are a very abused people.” Granted, he says, Haitians are also proud—proud that our country was born out of a slave uprising; proud that we were the first black republic in the western hemisphere; proud, too, of having survived in the face of extreme adversity, what many called “resilience” after the devastating January 12, 2010, earthquake that killed more than two hundred thousand people and left a million and a half homeless.
Produced and narrated by Martelly’s friend Pras Michel, a Haitian-American former member of the musical group the Fugees, “Sweet Micky for President” follows Martelly’s campaign from its halting start to the day of his inauguration, on May 15, 2011. Throughout the film, which was directed by Ben Patterson, Martelly’s supporters, including several Hollywood celebrities, make the case that Martelly is an inspirational figure, one who has written protest music and has taken part in anti-government demonstrations, and is well-loved by Haitians. Apart from one scene showing him lashing out at a radio reporter for asking how his ribald stage persona might affect his Presidential run, Martelly is portrayed as jovial and as his country’s last hope. Overlooked are his friendships with and endorsement of brutal military and paramilitary coup leaders, among them Michel François, the former Haitian national police chief who was responsible for the murders of several pro-democracy advocates in the nineteen-nineties, and who often takes credit for having given Martelly his stage name, Sweet Micky.
Martelly, who had also been calling himself the president of Haitian konpa music for years, ran in the 2010 election against eighteen men and women, many of whom were part of Haiti’s established political class. (Michel’s former band mate, Wyclef Jean, declared his candidacy but did not make the cut because he failed to meet the five-year consecutive-residency requirement mandated by Haiti’s constitution.) Martelly made it into the top three, but not into the decisive second round. Along with the majority of the other candidates, Martelly’s camp accused the ruling party, INITE (UNITY), headed by René Préval, who was then President, of fraud. They claimed that names were left off voter rolls and that ballot boxes were stuffed in favor of INITE’s candidate, Jude Célestin, the former head of the government’s construction office. In the film, a sombre and desperate Martelly declares, after finding himself out of the race, “Everyone has been bought.”
Martelly’s supporters took to the streets in protest. After analyzing eight per cent of the votes, the Organization of American States reversed the results of Haiti’s electoral council and declared that Martelly, and not Célestin, would go into a second round, to face the educator and former First Lady Mirlande Manigat. Hillary Clinton, who was U.S. Secretary of State at the time, flew to Haiti to pressure President Préval to accept the O.A.S.’s results and “get out of the way,” as Pras Michel puts it. Préval would later reveal, in “Fatal Assistance,” a more penetrating insider documentary by the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, that he was threatened with a coup d’état by a top United Nations official if he didn’t fall in line with the U.S. and the O.A.S. In a rather telling moment in “Sweet Micky for President,” Pras Michel, who didn’t see the O.A.S. reversal coming, goes to the actor Sean Penn, who heads a nongovernmental organization in Haiti, to seek his advice on how to keep Martelly in the race. Penn then takes Michel to consult with former President Bill Clinton, who was serving as United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti. Watching the scene, one is once again reminded that Haiti’s version of democracy is often decided in small rooms where few or no Haitians are present.
Fast forward nearly five years, to the contested legislative and Presidential elections of 2015, and it is Martelly and his political party, Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale, or P.H.T.K., that is being accused of massive fraud, voter suppression, ballot stuffing, manipulation of the results at tabulation centers, as well as post-election intimidation and violence. According to a report conducted by the National Lawyers Guild and the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, during the first round of the legislative elections, on August 9th, nearly twenty-five per cent of the voter tally sheets from polling stations around the country were either lost, destroyed, or otherwise excluded from the count. Thirteen per cent of the voting centers nationwide suspended the vote due to the ransacking or destruction of polling places or other incidents of violence that, even Haiti’s own Provisional Electoral Council (C.E.P.) concedes were primarily committed by members of P.H.T.K. and other political parties allied with President Martelly. (Haiti’s constitution bars Presidents from serving two consecutive terms, so Martelly himself is not a candidate.) Although the electoral council has condemned those infractions and removed certain individual candidates, it failed to ban the guilty parties from the elections, setting the stage for a replay during the first round of the Presidential elections, which took place on October 25th.
That election has been referred to in Haiti as the election of “mandataires,” or “representatives,” because, while around 1.5 million people voted, the electoral council distributed more than nine hundred thousand accreditations allowing individuals to serve as political-party operatives or as observers monitoring the vote and ballot count. That extra bit of clout made it easier for thousands of party loyalists to crowd voting stations; intimidate other voters; vote freely and often, and in as many polling stations as they wished; and to also tamper with the ballots. Despite frustrations with Martelly over increased poverty, unemployment, and inflation, which led to massive demonstrations throughout last year and earlier this year, Martelly and the parties associated with his government could elect the majority of parliamentarians, mayors, and, should they have their way, the President.
Though he had been previously unknown to most Haitians, Martelly’s handpicked candidate, Jovenel Moïse, a businessman and banana exporter who goes by the nickname Nèg Bannan or Banana Man, came in first place, earning 32.8 per cent of the vote in a field of fifty-four candidates. Moïse could possibly face the second-place finisher, Jude Célestin, in a December 27th Presidential runoff, should Célestin choose to go to the polls and not withdraw from the election.
Tense and occasionally violent protests have occurred regularly throughout the country since the preliminary results were announced on November 5th. Members of Haitian civil society, among them Protestant and Catholic clergy, have decried the election as fraudulent and are demanding more transparency from the electoral council as well as an independent recount of the vote, which the C.E.P. has rejected.
The Organization of American States, the United Nations, and a core group of foreign stakeholders—including the European Union, Canada, Brazil, and the United States, which has contributed thirty million dollars to the election—have endorsed the initial results. On October 6th, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Haiti and expressed his full support as well as his desire to see the vote continue as planned, a gesture that has considerably strengthened President Martelly’s hand.
In the meantime, Célestin has joined a coalition of eight candidates (the G-
who are demanding changes in the electoral council and the Haitian police force, which has been accused of using arrests and intimidation to suppress protests. The G-8 would also support the possibility of new elections under a transitional government. Others, including candidates who are not part of the G-8 coalition, still consider the election a power grab and an electoral coup d’état by President Martelly and his government.
All of this brings to mind a scene in “Sweet Micky for President” in which Martelly, in Washington, D.C., speaks to a room full of Haitian-Americans whose support he is seeking for his Presidential run. Some members of his audience look star struck. Others appear as though they are waiting to be convinced.
“Any five-year-old kid can see the problems in Haiti,” Martelly tells them. “Corruption in Haiti is legal,” he adds. In response, the room erupts in laughter, hoping, perhaps, that Martelly is joking.
Sadly, Martelly’s rise, and his efforts to stack both Haiti’s Parliament and Presidency so that he might stay in power even when out of office, show that his words that day remain as true now as ever.