Haitian Leader’s Power Grows as Scandals Swirl

Frances Robles, New York Times, March 17, 2015

With a brisk clap of his hands, Michel Martelly summed up the first steps he would take if he ever left the music business and became the president of Haiti.

“First thing, after I establish my power, which would be very strong and necessary, I would close that congress thing,” Mr. Martelly was quoted as saying in 1997, when he was still a hugely popular singer. “Out of my way.”

His words have proved prophetic. A political crisis almost four years into Mr. Martelly’s presidency gave life to the fantasy he once described: He is now running the country without the checks and balances of a parliament.

After Mr. Martelly and his opponents in Parliament could not agree on elections, most legislative terms expired, and the seats remain empty. Only 11 elected officials remain in the entire country, and the president is one of them.

For two months, Mr. Martelly has governed Haiti by executive order, concentrating power in the hands of a man who, his critics say, is a prisoner of his past, surrounded by a network of friends and aides who have been arrested on charges including rape, murder, drug trafficking and kidnapping.

As Mr. Martelly strengthens his hold on power, scandals involving those close to him have continued to mount, raising questions about the president’s ability to lead.

One of Mr. Martelly’s senior advisers was jailed for six months during the president’s tenure after being accused of killing a man in a gunfight at the Dominican border. Another friend of the president vanished last year, shortly after being released from jail in a marijuana trafficking case.

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Yet another of the president’s associates is in jail, accused of running a kidnapping ring. The authorities are trying to determine whether the man, Woodley Ethéart, who said he worked at the Ministry of Interior, laundered ransom money through a lucrative catering contract at the presidential palace, an investigator familiar with the case said.

One longtime law enforcement official said he stopped going to events at the palace because he kept running into people who had been arrested on charges as serious as murder but were now working at the presidential offices as security guards.

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The Martelly administration’s influence has been criticized most for its effect on the judiciary, where the criminal cases of some people close to the president have stalled or disappeared.

Prosecutors who objected to the administration’s interference were fired or fled, and one judge who complained that the president had meddled in a civil corruption case against Sophia Martelly, the first lady, died two days later.

“I would be very concerned of this interconnected web of nefarious characters,” said Robert Maguire, a Haiti scholar at George Washington University. “Martelly has empowered them to do what they do. He has established an environment of corruption, abuse of power and impunity.”

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Mr. Martelly was elected in 2011 after being placed in a runoff despite coming in third in a disputed election. International organizations, with an assist from Washington, helped Mr. Martelly by documenting his opponents’ widespread voter fraud.

Washington’s role in the election and the American ambassador’s warm relationship with him since has hurt Mr. Martelly’s credibility at home, where the president is considered a member of the conservative elite, disconnected from the poor majority.

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Now that Mr. Martelly can organize elections without consulting opponents in Parliament, it will soon be voting time again. A movement to oust the president appears to be losing steam. A general strike organized by opposition parties in recent days mostly flopped.

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