Fresh from a state  visit to Cuba, President Michel Martelly hosted a “Invest in Haiti” conference in Port-au-Prince that attracted some 500 foreign visitors and investors earlier this month. Flanked by former US President Bill Clinton and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) President Luis Alberto Moreno, Martelly broke ground on a free-trade zone in the northeast of Haiti backed by US, IDB and South Korean funds that at its peak would employ some 20,000 assembly factory workers.
And the good news kept being rolled out at the conference: a Marriott-managed, Digicel-owned 150-room hotel in Port-au-Prince by 2013; a 250-room hotel near the country’s international airport by 2014; a 60-bed travelers hotel by 2012 — this one built with Haitian capital — also near the airport.
With these announcements, the 6-month old Martelly presidency seemed to be reaching cruising altitude. Much of the President’s ability to stay the course will lay, however, in the ability of his government to deliver on the many promises of universal primary education, good governance and rule of law, as well as the ability to create a climate conducive to capital flows, albeit highly risky investments. That is not entirely assured.
The government, led by newly-minted Prime Minister Garry Conille, incurred the wrath of parliament barely a week after its members signed off on the president’s third nominee, because the president and his closest advisors overreached by making good on a threat to jail a duly-elected member of parliament deemed in their mind a disrespectful criminal fugitive.
Conille, a former UN official seasoned in the art of compromise, took steps to quickly diffuse the political crisis which the president’s action provoked. After visiting MP Arnold Belizaire the evening of his jailing and loudly advising his jailers to treat him with all the attention due his office, he had them hand Belizaire over to his colleagues. Conille averted a recall by quickly setting up a commission to review the matter, and engaging in an intense dialogue with the Senators and Deputies who were outraged at the slight done to Parliament. The government’s fall was averted when Justice Minister Josué Pierre-Louis and Port-au-Prince’s Chief Prosecutor resigned. The president’s allies in the Senate managed to prevent it from calling for a similar fate for Interior Minister Thierry Mayard-Paul, a close Martelly confidant.
Conille’s troubles managing what appears to be an undisciplined and eclectic cabinet are far from over. Last-minute cabinet reshuffling saw the anticipated Minister of Foreign Affairs, Daniel Supplice, being downgraded to handling the Diaspora portfolio. Instead, Laurent Lamothe, a Florida businessman who appears to have bankrolled Martelly’ s successful presidential race, became Haiti’s chief diplomat. Conille himself found out that he would not lead the Ministry of Planning just before the President walked into the official ceremony and appointed a staffer to the key position. Conille has taken charge of the Justice Ministry after Pierre-Louis stepped down, yet with MPs still upset with the President, another cabinet reshuffle is likely when the lower house reconvenes in January 2012.
Whether Conille manages to stop the president and his men from shooting from the hip also hinges on his ability to impose discipline within the civil service, bring in fresh and new perspectives, secure better performance and keep corruption in check. Concerns that many of the new office-holders and advisers hail from the Duvalier era, with nary an improvement over behavioral adaptation to modern democratic norms, have given many in Haiti and within the international community pause. The Duvaliers and their allies helped themselves aplenty by regularly dipping into State funds and plundering the economy when they ruled Haiti with an iron hand.
And then there’s Haiti, saddled with some of the worst economic indicators of the Western Hemisphere, still reeling from the 2010 earthquake, yet nowhere near ready to face the next one, nor a fierce tropical storm next year. Just to keep up with all the challenges on his plate, Conille may have to clone himself a thousand times over and truly take charge of the ship of state. Meanwhile Haiti trumpets itself as being open for business. To the weary observer it’s business that is not for the faint of heart.
Jocelyn McCalla is the CEO of JMC Strageties LLC.