The Martelly presidency: A dictatorship in the making

Michel Martelly.jpg

By Franklyn B. Geffrard, published in Haiti Liberte weekly, Feb. 20, 2013,

President Martelly's decision to remove, for political reasons, some bands from the Carnival parade which was held this year in Cap-Haitien (as part of the policy begun two years ago of holding Carnival in a different Haitian city each year) is indicative of several things that democratically-minded people should worry about. This decision, in fact, is symptomatic of the increasingly evident desire of the Head of State to control everything, to impose his cult of personality, to concentrate all power in his hands, to reduce everyone to silence, to divide the musical world, and to intimidate those who dare to criticize his regime. All these are omens that clearly announce the slow but certain birth of a dictatorship. The term is not too strong nor exaggerated.

First, it has become increasingly clear that the Head of State, who advocated a modern state during his campaign, wants at all costs to get his hands on all of the nation’s institutions. Martelly is starting to show his true face, having always expressed his identification with and admiration for the Duvaliers, who imposed a harsh dictatorship on Haiti for more than 29 years. Elected president with the support of a section of the international community in elections whose first round was marred by irregularities and massive fraud, Michel Martelly wants to control everything: the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, local authorities, and even the organizing of Carnival. While he has so far proved incapable of managing political power to give the slightest result and his initiatives are, as Carnival revelers said, "Aloral" (just talk), he was able to organize Carnival relatively well. Maybe that's what he does best. He would make a good president of the Carnival committee.

However, his talents as a Carnival organizer do not allow him to exclude certain bands that, during the last Carnival, composed meringues critical of his poor record at the head of the country. In doing so, the Head of State has demonstrated unacceptable intolerance vis-à-vis the bands Brother's Posse, Kanpech, Vwa Dezil and RAM. Their only fault is that they mistook the historical period and the regime by thinking to sing, denounce, and criticize freely – a right guaranteed by the Haitian constitution.

The former irreverent singer who did not hesitate to pull down his pants on stage to denounce society’s evils and insult state dignitaries in the Carnival parade feels entitled to give moral lessons to his brethren musicians. He penalized them severely. He deprived them of a Carnival float and the right to please their many fans who wanted to see the parade. As the power in place suffers from first-time syndrome, in truth, this is the first time a head of state has stooped to such a level. A president drawing up the list of groups to take part in Carnival: this is unheard of. This is a policy of the gutter, certainly, but it's downright amazing! This uncivilized and clumsy behavior, denounced by many sectors and individuals, has only ruined the image of the president and the presidency. This matter only makes worse the already poor image projected by the Head of State on the office of President. The office of President, which elsewhere is very prestigious and obeys protocol standards, is undergoing a severe setback with the behavior of President of the Republic. The presidential office is being severely eroded and is becoming meaningless.

At the Carnival in Cap Haitien, most of the groups selected by Michel Martelly for this year’s rather special and personal Carnival parade were close friends who sang his glory and his praise. While there was no clearly defined selection criteria, the president decided to exclude from the Carnival, funded by the tax-paying public, all those who do not bow to his "Tet Kale" (Skinhead) regime. Michel Martelly therefore monopolized the Carnival to better distribute favors to his musician friends and some families in the private sector.

The scandal is so great that even regime supporters denounce President Martelly’s attitude. For example, lawyer Reynold Georges, well known for his support of Martelly, said that excluding certain bands from the 2013 Carnival was a breach of the Constitution. The former member of the Constituent Assembly stresses that the Constitution guarantees freedom of association in the country. He refers to Article 31 of the Constitution of 1987, which reads as follows: "Freedom of unarmed assembly and association for political, economic, social, cultural or any other peaceful purposes is guaranteed." Reynold Georges was speaking on Radio Vision 2000, Fri., Feb. 8, 2013 on the program "Vision 2000 is Listening." But Article 28 of the Constitution is even clearer. It states that: "Every Haitian has the right to express his opinions freely on any matter by any means he chooses." When musicians criticize the running of the country through music, this is the path they have chosen, and the Constitution recognizes their right.

An over-the-top cult of personality

One of the main characteristics of a dictatorship is the personification of power. It is the power of one man, a man who places himself above the law and republican institutions. A cult of personality in the extreme. A practice that is contrary to the Haitian Constitution stipulates that: “The cult of the personality is categorically forbidden. Effigies and names of living personages may not appear on the currency, stamps, seals, public buildings, streets, or works of art." (The 1987 Constitution, Article 7). 

"A dictator communicates and is maintained , it is said, through a propaganda machine. For him, this propaganda is educating his people and shows the affection that the people manifest towards him." Doesn’t this formula apply to a head of state who wants to be present everywhere and in everything? This hyper-narcissistic president moves from the National Palace in Port-au-Prince to the Artibonite for the opening of two centers of community mills in Verettes and Desdunes just to be in front of the cameras to criticize what he calls “traditional politicians.” During this tour of the Artibonite on Sep. 11, 2012, Mr. Martelly lashed out at his predecessors and the political class. "It is because they are worthless and did nothing that a little singer like Sweet Micky who lowered his pants could come to power and begin to focus on your problems, improve your living conditions and form a Permanent Electoral Council (CEP)."(Radio Kiskeya)

Another major feature of dictatorship is the useless quest for recognition. In the case of Mr. Martelly, he boasts of his small achievements, both real and imaginary, with a lot of propaganda. For example, Michel Martelly says his achievements include free schooling, the installation of piped water and electricity, and the distribution to mothers in difficulty of cellphones with 1,000 gourdes (about $23.50) per month convertible into cash. He tries to create a dogma and try to rally people to his regime. Are the achievements he claims visible and tangible? When he speaks of his achievements, free schooling always comes at the top of his list. Initially, he wanted to educate 500,000 young Haitians. Then, this figure rose to 1.5 million over five years. However, he recently claimed to have already sent more than 1.2 million children to school for free across the country in less than two years. By what magic did he accomplish this feat? And instead of running the country as a head of state, he prefers to campaign, constantly renewing his exaggerated promises. He believes, undoubtedly, that he can seduce people who have already been abusively and outrageously deceived.

Concentration of power

We cannot speak of the characteristics of a dictatorship without mentioning its desire to control everything. In fact, "to concentrate all power in the hands of an individual or group that renews itself by co-optation is also a fundamental characteristic of a dictatorship." This is exactly what President Martelly seeks to do through his grip on the organization of Carnival. His decision to completely exclude all musical groups not faithful to his cause testifies to this desire. He does not even leave it up to the Carnival organizing committee to define the criteria and select the groups to be part of the parade. In this regard, the political scientist Sauveur Pierre Etienne, also coordinator of the Organization of Struggling People (OPL), believes that, "Mr. Martelly has gone from mere inclination to real willingness to establish a dictatorship in the country." (Emission Ranmase, Radio Caraibes, Sat., Feb. 9, 2013).

There are other worrying signs that the president wants to concentrate all power in his hands. For example, the executive clearly controls the judiciary through the Supreme Council of the Judiciary (CSPJ), and the legislature through a presidential majority in the Chamber of Deputies completely supporting his cause. Also, he controls the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), an independent body under the Constitution, responsible for organizing elections in the country. The most disturbing aspect of all this is that he controls state apparatuses, not to implement a political vision based on change, progress, democracy and the establishment of a modern state, but to make them inoperable or dysfunctional.

Another example. The President, whose mission is to ensure the smooth running of institutions, seems to have opted for liquidating these institutions. Instead of organizing elections to replace a third of the Senate’s members whose terms expired two years ago, Michel Martelly plans to shorten the terms of two-thirds of the Senators whose constitutional mandate expires on the second Monday of January 2015. Even his supporters in the Senate reacted to this. "President Martelly does not rule out the option of reducing by one year the mandate of those elected in 2009," said a furious Sen. Wenceslas Lambert, brandishing Article 85 of the Electoral Law. "Not one day will be removed from my six-year term expiring on the second Monday of January 2015." The Senator from the Southeast Department also believes that "the country will be plunged into chaos if such a measure would be adopted." (Le Nouvelliste, Jan. 24, 2013).

Suffice it to say that, contrary to Montesquieu who comes with "the theory of the three powers (legislative, executive, judicial) where the ideal state is the separation of powers, a dictatorship comes with the confusion of powers. The executive controls the legislature, but keeps it as a fossil." In this sense, the president's choices are clear enough to enlighten those who continue to delude themselves about his intentions.

Threat to the freedom of expression

Beyond all other consideration about the president's decision to exclude certain musical groups from the Carnival held from Feb. 10 to 12 in Cap Haitien, it must be put in the context of the threat to freedom of expression and democracy. It is no secret that the Head of State takes badly any criticisms of his administration. For example, on Dec. 10, 2012, during an interview on Radio Mega in Miami, he called those who criticize his many trips abroad moun ki pa konn li" (people who cannot read). For some, the president went too far because the majority of the population, whom he claims to represent and defend, can neither read nor write. Apart from some political analysts who cried foul, there was no strong reaction, particularly from the population.

And with his typical intolerance, on May 3, 2012, during a meeting with media owners, on the occasion of the day celebrating the press, Michel Martelly told anyone who wanted to listen: "I do not listen to the radio. I'm with people 24/24. I inquire from the people." (Radio Kiskeya, May 3, 2012). Is this not worrying in a country where totalitarian regimes have always targeted the press? Michel Martelly went so far as to declare that he was “completely unaware of what is said in the Haitian media because the information disseminated does not reflect the people’s reality which he knows from the inside and touches every day, without the need for an intermediary." (Radio Kiskeya). Meanwhile, he has already had several tangles with members of the press.

For those who still have doubts, the situation is serious. There is cause to seriously worry about the future of democracy in Haiti. Freedom of expression is at risk. If freedom of expression is threatened, democracy in its essence is threatened. If the Head of State decides to severely punish musical groups because he did not like their Carnival meringues, what about intellectuals, politicians and civil society, religious leaders and journalists, who analyze, comment on, and criticize the action or inaction of the government? Shouldn’t one expect to see reprisals much more severe than those inflicted on his brethren musicians? This is probably where today the greatest danger lies. In general, this is how dictatorships are born. And if journalists, that is media owners, want to better understand the system’s functioning, they have only to try to exercise the right to information given to them by the Haitian Constitution. "The State has the obligation to publicize in the oral, written, and televised press in the Creole and French languages all laws, orders, decrees, international agreements, treaties, and conventions on everything affecting the national life, except for information concerning national security." (1987 Constitution 1987, Article 40). Is this principle being fully applied?

In fact, the president's decision to exclude some bands from the 2013 Carnival must be seen as an act of economic and political retaliation. He wanted to starve these musicians and groups. Unlike compas bands, which tend to perform nearly every weekend, rasin and raga groups usually perform on big occasions. The Carnival parade is one of the most important opportunities for these groups to perform for their fans. Also, it should be stressed that pressure was exerted on the sponsors of these groups. No civilized and democratic government reacts this way in the face of criticism.

Divide the musical world

Beyond the political and economic retaliation that these groups were subjected to, the president also wants to sow division among his brethren musicians. On the one hand, he gives preferential treatment to some, while others he treats like poor cousins. Sowing division to rule has always been preferred by dictatorships as way to reinforce their power. Mr. Martelly must remember that he must behave as president of all Haitians without special consideration and not as the head of a clan or tribe. He must strive to apply the first article of the Constitution which says that "Haiti is an indivisible, sovereign, independent, cooperatist, free, democratic and social republic." The country needs peace, stability, and serenity to rebuild. This is not an option but a constitutional and democratic obligation.

Intimidation against those who criticize him

A power that promises the moon and the stars to its people never manages to deliver the goods. As a result, he is afraid – afraid of the people’s reaction. He has already faced social protest. And it promises to continue. Since he is scared, the best way to contain this fear is to intimidate democrats who say no to violations of the Constitution and laws of the country. To do this, he wants to silence all those critics.

The government reached a new level in its push to establish a totalitarian regime with the publication of scandalous communique, dated Feb. 10, in which the Justice Ministry threatened to get tough through the application of the Criminal Code against the media and any other entity that would jeopardize the "attainments of the rule of law." What rule of law is he referring to? The statement is signed by Justice Minister Jean Renel Sanon, who also said that "Haitian law severely punishes defamation, threats, and incitement to violence." To whom is he speaking? No doubt journalists and all those who think and act rationally. No wonder! Jean Renel Sanon’s communique also stresses that "intolerance and violence are totally incompatible with democratic values." This is true, but where is the violence coming from?

Let’s see. A team of Radio Tele Caraibes was driven from the so-called “Ball of Kings” held Sat., Feb. 9 at the Sans Souci Palace in Milot. Two journalists from RFM, Watson Phanord and Etzer Cesar, were severely beaten while performing their duties by the police in charge of security at the National Palace. So the threat to freedom of expression is more than real!

We should not be surprised to see the government restore the laws repealed by Article 297 of the 1987 Constitution, but then canceled by the amended constitution. However, the "Tet Kale" regime must remember that, by overthrowing the Duvalier dynasty on Feb. 7, 1986, the Haitian people opted for democracy and the construction of a modern and civilized nation, a state based on respect for democratic norms. They wanted to live in a state of law. Despite the threats against our fledgling democracy, the people will no longer accept to live under the barbarian kingdoms of a retrograde feudal order.

To close, I reproduce Article 297 of the 1987 Constitution: “All laws, all decree laws, all decrees arbitrarily limiting the basic rights and liberties of citizens, in particular: a. The decree law of September 5, 1935 on superstitious beliefs; b. The law of August 2, 1977 establishing the Court of State Security (Tribunal de la Surete de l'Etat); c. The law of July 28, 1975 placing the lands of the Artibonite Valley in a special status; d. The law of April 29, 1969 condemning all imported doctrines; Are and shall remain repealed.”

This article is was removed from the amended version of the constitution pushed through by President Martelly.

Translated from the French original by Kim Ives, editor at Haiti Liberté.

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