Haiti |Dancing in the Dark

Haiti How Sweet Micky lost—and then won—Haiti’s chaotic presidential elections

With 23 percent of Haitians voting, the 2010-2011 presidential election ushered into office the man known to many as the "President" of Kompa music, Michel Martelly. HECTOR RETAMAL / AFP PHOTO
01 July, 2011

THE FIRST TIME I SAW MICHEL MARTELLY, he was flirting. A flight attendant had buttonholed him as we filed off the plane. She had caramel-coloured skin and a honey-toned wig. Martelly laughed at something she said and then looked down, diffident smile still visible. Then he looked up and said something that made her face shine with delight.

The second time I saw Michel Martelly, he was playing at the Trotyl Bar and Lounge in Pétionville. Whatever relief the night gave from summer's blazing heat, the density of our bodies at the club took away. We were eager, then impatient. Sound check started at midnight, and he fiddled with a whining amplifier for 45 minutes. When Martelly finally started singing, we were too sweaty or footsore to wait: couples lunged for each other and swayed to the slow, syncopated beat.

As musician, Martelly went by the name Sweet Micky. He also called himself the President of Kompa, the music that provides an excuse for the close-danced méringue, heavy on the hips and susceptible to a grinding manoeuvre that Haitians call plogè. The music itself is mostly treacle, mostly love songs, and during the 29-year-long Duvalier family dictatorship, the genre flourished. It posed no threat: rather, it soothed, anesthetised. Good-times music in a bad-times place. Micky started singing after Jean-Claude Duvalier was overthrown in 1986, as the junta that replaced him was revealing itself to be as brutal and corrupt as the dictator. Micky played for them, and for the wealthy elite.

To sharpen his persona, Micky crafted antics to shock his carefully turned out audience. He mooned them, wore tube dresses and high heels, shouted obscenities. He smoked crack, snorted cocaine, drank to excess. But this wasn't so much subversion as canny marketing.

Two decades later at the Trotyl, we still expected Micky to shock us. During a break, he launched into his rivals in grand Kompa tradition, calling members of one band the derogatory term for homosexuals. Somehow—I couldn't hear over the audience hooting—he segued into an apocalyptic soliloquy: "Look, in 20 years, 10 years, five years, none of this is going to be here. We're going to be dead. La Trotyl—finished! The city—destroyed! The country—bye bye!"

We quietened, gaping at the stage and at each other. Having seen the streets littered with earthquake dead six months before, we sometimes worried that the apocalypse was around the bend. But Micky had a half-satirical sybaritic takeaway: "So take your pleasure while you can," he shouted. "Drink! Dance! Ladies, go out and have sex with guys! Have sex with me!"

The music started again and a friend grabbed me, held me tight. I focused on the beat and tried to move my hips like a Haitian until at last the beats disappeared. Around and around we went, fuelled by the sharp three-star rum we'd been drinking from plastic cups, the compression of bodies, and most of all, Micky's dulcet voice.

The third time I saw Michel Martelly was three weeks later. He was registering to run for president. Ridiculous, maybe, but eclipsed in absurdity by the spectacle we reporters had really come to witness: Wyclef Jean, the Haitian hip-hop star who was barely fluent in any language, was filing his candidacy papers, too. Wearing a bespoke suit, Martelly showed up well before Wyclef and signed the papers. We paid him little heed, and whatever coverage he got was incidental.

Wyclef finally appeared with his 30-person entourage. Outside the office a thousand more people gathered, mostly teenagers, mostly bused in from somewhere on the promise of a t-shirt and some peasant booze. Trucks mounted with giant speakers pounded Haitian hip-hop. After signing his papers, Wyclef's entourage hustled him outside. His young daughter was crying and scared. Wyclef climbed up on a truck, said some words in his choppy Creole and started dancing, kind of. Like his daughter, he seemed overwhelmed, not least by his own baggy suit.

"Wyclef really needs to get the name of Sweet Micky's tailor," a friend whispered to me.

The fourth time I saw Michel Martelly, he had convoked a press conference the day after the disaster of first-round voting for president. Wyclef had long since been booted out of the race for technical reasons, and Martelly's campaign had gathered surprising force and credibility. His slick consultants didn't know a lick of Creole, but in their hands—made nimble during presidential campaigns for Felipe Calderón in Mexico and John McCain in America—Martelly's lack of experience became an asset. Twenty-five years of government failure? Not Micky's fault. Right-wing tendencies? There is no ideology in Haiti anymore, said one of his advisors, an old Duvalier minister.

On Election Day, 28 November 2010, disenfranchisement prevailed. Hundreds of thousands of electoral cards hadn't been distributed. Ballots never arrived.Haitians visited three, four, five polling stations, searching in vain for their names on the voter rolls. They discovered, instead, the names of friends and relatives crushed in the January earthquake. "It's a zombie election," muttered one would-be voter. Haitians deduced that the government didn't want them to vote, because its candidate wouldn't win in a fair election.

A plausible theory. When I asked about outgoing President René Préval or his so-called "dauphin," the candidate Jude Célestin, people tended to sneer, spit or glare at me in disgust for even bringing up their names. Having found not a single Haitian who planned to vote for Célestin, I had a hard time believing that he could win absent widespread fraud.

In the middle of Election Day, Martelly and 11 other candidates demanded the first-round be cancelled, and then led a parade-cum-protest through Port-au-Prince. The parade was bizarre, but the stance had integrity. Most Haitians already considered the elections a sham put on for the international community, and the conduct of the voting day only confirmed their suspicion.

But now, at a press conference just 16 hours later, I listened, perplexed, as Martelly first sidestepped the annulment issue and then sheepishly admitted to a reporter that, actually, he thought the first round was salvageable. Let's wait for results from the Electoral Council, he said.

We in the press corps figured that someone had told him he might win, and Martelly had changed his tune.

International donors, who'd footed the bill for the $29-million election, had ruled out a do-over anyway: too expensive, too time-consuming, too close to the possibility of a transitional government. Diplomats got to work—the head of the UN threatened Préval with exile—but the Electoral Council remained recalcitrant. When it was reported that Célestin had edged Martelly out of a place in the second round, Haitians protested: barricades, flaming tyres, scattered gunshots.

I wasn't sure how to interpret this collective fury. Only 23 percent of Haitians had turned out for the election, so jaded were they about their elected officials. It struck me as more anti-Préval than pro-Martelly.

During the two-month standoff that ensued, I saw Michel Martelly often. Press conferences, sure—Martelly's consultants called them every week, practically—but also on pink campaign posters and banners strung up around Port-au-Prince, on leaflets and wallet cards. The wallet cards were helpful if you were trying to pass through a barricade. The boys who begged to watch or wipe your car coveted the leaflets, the way American kids covet baseball cards. I kept a stack of them in my glove compartment, along with the cookie packets I typically handed out on such occasions.

The Organization of American States, which had originally praised the election as kosher ("typical OAS uselessness," said one of my editors), had backtracked. They wanted to review the tally sheets. Someone leaked their report. It said that, had the most egregious fraud been removed, Martelly would have edged out Célestin—by less than a percentage point.

This analysis lacked any semblance of statistical validity, but it had the markers of officialdom and the international community. That was enough for the Martelly team to stake its claim on the presidency. Meanwhile, the US revoked visas for Préval's party leaders and his family. There was talk of sanctions. Clinton herself swung by to talk with Préval, Célestin and Martelly.

In February, when the Electoral Council finally declared that Célestin was out of the race and Martelly was in, Martelly convoked another press conference. His inclusion in the second round demonstrated the support of the international community, he said. "But listen to me well," he instructed us. "It is not a gift of the international community." A difficult distinction, I thought.

The last time I saw Michel Martelly, he was being sworn in as president. At 8am, it was already almost 33 degrees Celsius. I watched the arrivals of Bill Clinton, the Papal Nuncio and myriad sweaty, nameless men in suits: the diplomatic corps. They gathered in the temporary parliament building, a donation from the United Nations.

Then, minutes before Préval transferred the presidential sash to his successor, the power failed, taking out the lights, the air conditioning, the microphones. Women fanned themselves with their inauguration programmes, waiting for the electricity to return. Eventually, everyone gave up, and Martelly took his oath in the dark.