Haiti Presidential Election: Michel Martelly meets the Fugees

Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly seems like he talks in sound bytes. He throws around the words “change,” “inspiration” and “vision” almost as much as a Barack Obama speechwriter, his voice rising and falling at just the right moments — even when he’s talking to WEEKEND from a car on the way to the airport.

But something about him makes you think he really means it. Perhaps it’s his accent: his voice his deep and thick, syrupy even, a consequence of Caribbean roots and French influence. There’s a rhythm to the way he speaks. He charms you with the way he pauses to remember a word in English, once even asking someone in the car the correct way to say “well-intentioned” (which, by the way, Martelly is, or so he says).

Perhaps it’s because he hasn’t always been a politician, even though he now hopes to be president of Haiti, the small Caribbean country long plagued by political corruption and natural disasters. Running on the ticket of his political party “Repons Peyizan,” or “Countrymen’s Reponse,” Martelly said he advocates a fundamental change in the mentality of the Haitian people, which he describes as “self-destructive.” He plans to act as a uniting force for his country, increasing education, bolstering the economy by creating jobs outside of Haiti’s capital and establishing an infrastructure to react in times of crisis.

While Martelly’s critics cite a lack of political experience as one of his shortcomings, he says it is a distinction in which he takes pride. The last 25 years of Haitian politics have been controlled by experienced politicians, and it hasn’t got them far. Real change can only come when a different kind of leader takes power, he says.

“It’s about having good faith,” he said. “A real leader is one who can move his people and take them not to where they want to go, but to where they ought to go. Then you have real power. You can move mountains.”

Since singer Wyclef Jean was barred from the race, Martelly, who founded the humanitarian organization Fondation Rose et Blanc in 2008, has become the resident celebrity in the election. A recording artist since the late ’80s, Martelly is one of Haiti’s most popular “compas” musicians. “Compas?” A type of music that blends African, European and Caribbean styles and rhythms. At the height of his career, he was known as the “Bad Boy” of Haitian music, but, according to Haitisurf.com — a Haitian online forum / news source / tourism site / online creole dictionary — “this description is much more appropriate in its American slang definition where ‘bad’ means really, really good.”

He thinks of himself as a Ronald Reagan of sorts, jumping from the entertainment industry into politics. Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger. And like those great American leaders, Martelly plans to surround himself with experts, because, as he says, no one man has all the tools to change Haiti alone.

Celebrity has defined America’s perception of Haitian politics, especially in recent years when the 2008 hurricane and 2010 earthquake brought additional attention to the small country. Sean Penn’s work with the Jenkins-Penn Haitian Relief Organization, and Wyclef Jean’s ultimately unsuccessful presidential ambitions added star power to the cause. But often, celebrity breeds scandal as well.

One of Martelly’s main supporters is Pras Michel, a one-time Yalie (he didn’t graduate, he went on to make music instead), a former member of the Fugees — the band that made Wyclef famous — and what’s worse, Wyclef’s cousin. Michel is Haitian-American although he has never lived in Haiti himself. After the 2010 earthquake, he felt he had to use his influence to help his mother country.

Michel has known Martelly for about 15 years, since the Fugees first started taking off. But after the earthquake and the devastation that followed, Michel decided to give Martelly a call. The two began speaking regularly and eventually, Michel suggested Martelly run for president.

Michel said he was unaware of Wyclef’s presidential ambitions when he first contacted Martelly. The two no longer speak except through directed comments in the media.

“I guess any chance of contact is now kind of dormant because I’m supporting Martelly,” he said, adding that Wyclef has recently criticized both himself and Sean Penn in the media.

Michel said he doesn’t support Wyclef for a few simple reasons: first, Wyclef doesn’t speak French and only has a basic command of Creole (“like Jackie Chan speaking English”), he says. He hasn’t lived in Haiti for many years, so he cannot fully understand the situation there, he adds. And the truth of the matter is, according to Michel, Wyclef just isn’t qualified to run a country in so dire a situation as Haiti.

But Michel makes you wait. Not only did he miss his original ’phone interview with WEEKEND, but he talks slowly, thinking over what he’s going to say until he is absolutely sure. Then he bombards you with information, using examples from American history to drive home his point. Why doesn’t he support Wyclef? Well, he’s no Franklin Roosevelt, he says.

“It’s going to take a lot of work for Haiti. You have to figure out the economy, job creation, health care, infrastructure. Go in, clean up the country, and fix the corruption that’s embedded in the culture. He just wasn’t quite there yet to come in that position. I’m not trying to criticize his character as a person. It’s just a fact,” Michel said.

Though he attempts to maintain an air of political correctness, Michel tweeted on August 7 that he had heard someone call Wyclef the “Haitian Sarah Palin.”

The election will take place on November 28. Until then, Martelly, the singer-turned-candidate, hopes he will continue to inspire confidence in his countrymen with Michel at his side.

“It’s time for someone to come to the people’s rescue,” Martelly said.

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