Haiti Inaugurates 56th President

May 17, 2011
Ambassador Merten Shakes Hands With President Martelly in Haiti

The murmur of the more than five hundred guests subsided as the President of the Haitian National Assembly, Jean-Rodolphe Joazile, called the Special Joint Session to order on May 14, 2011. The guests, who included Haitian Deputies dressed in white and Senators in black; dozens of foreign dignitaries from all over the world, including presidents, prime ministers, and other high-ranking officials; and the leading political and business figures of the country, waited as President-elect Michel Martelly prepared to approach the podium to take the oath of office. Just then, the power went out, cutting off the lights and turning off the air conditioning, which had been struggling to keep the temperatures in the temporary wooden structure bearable. Inaugurations typically take place in the parliament itself, but since the building was destroyed during the January 12, 2010, earthquake, the National Assembly built this temporary structure just for this event.

After everyone adjusted to the half-light, Martelly took his oath, and with that, he became Haiti's 56th president, beginning a five-year term that is replete with challenges, including addressing not only the earthquake's aftermath, but also longer-term challenges such as improving governance and attracting investment to create the jobs that Haitians so desperately need.

I attended the inauguration as part of the Presidential Delegation sent to represent President Obama and the U.S. government and show our strong support to the Haitian people and the new government. Our delegation head was former President Bill Clinton, who is a passionate advocate for the Haitian people, serving not only as a Special Representative to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, but also as co-chairman of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the joint Haitian and international body set up to coordinate post-earthquake reconstruction. Our delegation also included Thomas Adams, who serves in Washington as the U.S. Special Coordinator for Haiti, where he ensures that all U.S. relief and reconstruction activities are aligned to support our overarching goal of a more stable, more prosperous, and more democratic Haiti.

Originally scheduled for February 7, the inauguration capped an almost six-month elections process that saw irregularities and fraud during the first round of balloting, held on November 28, 2010. It was only thanks to the efforts of Haitian and international observers that the fraud was made public, and the Haitian government invited the Organization of American States (OAS) to conduct a special verification mission to review voting tally sheets. The mission confirmed that there was indeed widespread fraud and said that Michel Martelly, who had officially finished third, had actually finished second and should advance to the second round. The Haitian electoral council accepted the OAS recommendations, setting the stage for the March 20 second-round elections, which saw Martelly win with more than 67 percent of the votes cast, in an election described by all observers as better-run than the first.

And while it was very significant that outgoing President Rene Preval handed over power to a democratically elected president from another party, a first in Haiti's turbulent political history, in a move out of Haiti's past, the black-out was caused by someone who cut the cable leading from the generator, in a bid to disrupt the ceremony. Fortunately, the transfer of power was not slowed down by this.

Another lingering political problem that may indicate that not every Haitian politician is ready to move forward in a democratic spirit is the status of at least three legislative races, which are still in dispute after electoral officials overturned results without offering any credible explanation. For Haiti to overcome its past, all Haitians will need to work within the law, transparently, and with a strong desire to guarantee that the voters' choices will be respected.

After the oath of office, we moved to the lawn in front of the ruined presidential palace for a mass and the inaugural address. In addition to the hundreds of invited guests, who sat under tents, thousands of Haitians watched in the blistering sun from the Champs de Mars. In the background, I could hear the drums and horns of their rara bands play music in honor of the new president. During his address, President Martelly sounded a note of inclusion and optimism when he called all sectors of Haitian society to come together to build a better future.

I am optimistic that a critical mass of Haitians are ready to take the lead in rebuilding a more prosperous Haiti, but President Martelly and the rest of the Haitian government have many things to do over the coming weeks. The president and parliament must choose a prime minister and form a cabinet. They must also get down to the business of running the country, raising revenue, ensuring order and security, strengthening education, attracting foreign investment, and looking to establish a stronger, better functioning Haitian state. The U.S. government for its part intends to support the Haitian people, President Martelly, and the legitimately elected members of the Parliament confront these challenges, and I look to see the fruit of this in the months and years ahead.

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