New Haitian president Martelly urges unity

MICHEL “Sweet Micky” Martelly, a pop star known for his bad-boy antics on stage, became earthquake-devastated Haiti’s new president and urged his countrymen to set aside their divisions and raise the nation from rubble.

Martelly, 50, was all business as he was inaugurated on the lawn of the collapsed National Palace in Port-au-Prince before a crowd of thousands.

He told his compatriots to respect laws, pay their taxes, and pitch in to ensure that a more independent Haiti moved forward after a massive earthquake last year flattened the capital and outer areas, killing more than 300,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands more living in tents.

The new president was a star of the Haitian pop genre known as compas and many had said his history of crude on-stage antics would prevent him from winning office.

Martelly spoke as if he wanted to distinguish himself from outgoing president Rene Preval, who was seen as aloof and meek.

“Hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, we’re going to change Haiti,” Martelly told the roaring crowd in a mix of Creole and French. “We want to re-establish order and discipline in the country.”

As if to dramatise the challenges facing the desperately poor country, a power cut interrupted the inauguration ceremony.

The inauguration marked the first time in Haitian history that a president had transferred power to a member of the opposition.

An emphatic and self-confident Martelly laid out his top priorities for rebuilding the country, a plan that focused on education, tax collection, security and foreign investment. To “change the face of Haiti”, he said, everybody had to do their part.

Martelly reiterated a pledge to rebuild the crumbling capital of Port-au-Prince, revive an economically depressed countryside and bolster security. Universal education for children, he said, would not only be free but mandatory.

The country has so far struggled to recover from last year’s earthquake and depends heavily on foreign aid. “This is how Haiti is going to get out of its misery,” Martelly said. “Haiti was asleep — now it’s going to stand up.”

Martelly had been a dark horse candidate leading up to the November 28, 2010 elections, but made it to a March 20 run-off against former first lady Mirlande Manigat. Initially barred from the second-run but readmitted under international pressure, Martelly won the presidency in a landslide with more than two thirds of the vote, appealing mostly to young voters in urban areas.

Political observers have stressed that Haiti’s government needs to hasten a multi-billion reconstruction effort to help house more than 600,000 people still living in settlements.

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