PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti’s pop star-turned-president, Michel Martelly, asked his people on Saturday to join him in rebuilding their poor, earthquake-ravaged nation and said he would work to provide jobs, health and education.
“Haiti was sleeping and today Haiti is waking up ... that’s the mandate you gave me and, trust me, things will change,” the charismatic shaven-headed former entertainer said in his first speech after taking the presidential oath of office.
A big crowd roared approval of his words in Creole as they pressed against the railings of the crumbled white-domed presidential palace that was badly damaged in last year’s devastating earthquake that killed over 300,000 people.
Speaking under a pavilion erected on the palace lawn, Martelly, 50, who is known as “Sweet Micky” and had no previous government experience, stressed the populist promise of change that swept him to victory in a March 20 presidential runoff.
“Hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, we’re going to change Haiti, rebuild this country to make it stronger,” he said. His speech was heralded by a ceremonial blowing of conch shells, the crude trumpets used by the black slaves who rose up in a revolt that led to Haiti’s independence from France in 1804.
In the small but volatile Caribbean nation with a history of revolts and dictatorships, the inauguration marked the first time a democratically elected Haitian president handed over power to a freely elected leader from the opposition.
Martelly also sought to reassure foreign donors who have pledged more than $10 billion — most of it still undelivered — for Haiti’s reconstruction. He promised security and guarantees for investments and private property owners.
Shouldering the daunting task of reconstruction in one of the world’s poorest and most disaster-prone countries, Martelly earlier donned the red and blue presidential sash in a prefabricated U.N.-supplied structure erected on the site of the old parliament building destroyed in the 2010 earthquake.
Reflecting the rebuilding challenges facing the nation, a power outage left the swearing-in ceremony in semi-darkness.
Among supporters at the inauguration was fellow musician and Haitian-American hip-hop star Wyclef Jean, who said Haitians were enthused by Martelly’s dynamic promise of change.
“It means a new start ... the people want education not handouts. Now they have a leader who will mobilize then,” Jean told Reuters, comparing Martelly’s election victory with that of U.S. President Barack Obama in November 2008.
In his inaugural speech, Martelly repeated his promises to transform Haiti from a development basket case into a new Caribbean destination for investment and tourism that will provide jobs and better lives for its 10 million people.
“We need to build a Haiti where health is not a luxury, a Haiti that is not made of slums,” he said, adding he would also work to provide free education to every Haitian child.
Managing high expectations, especially from the hundreds of thousands of destitute quake survivors who need jobs and homes, will be one of his biggest challenges.
Martelly, who proposes restoring Haiti’s disbanded army to eventually replace the more than 12,000 U.N. peacekeepers in his country, said he would not tolerate unrest or violence.
“No more kidnapping, no more violence against women, no more injustice,” he said, ordering the police and judicial system to take a tough line against offenders.
Joining outgoing President Rene Preval at the inauguration ceremony were the presidents of Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, Honduras and Suriname, as well as other Caribbean leaders and representatives of major donor nations.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, led the U.S. delegation. Foreign Minister Alain Juppe represented France.
Martelly won a popular mandate in a sometimes turbulent election protected by U.N. peacekeepers. The vote was steered through by the international community led by the United States, which persuaded local electoral officials to rectify several suspected fraud cases.
Among other challenges facing Martelly is a seven-month-old cholera epidemic that has taken nearly 5,000 lives since October and is still killing sick Haitians. There is a threat the approaching rainy season could revive it.
Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Peter Cooney