Pop star leader calls for national 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.

Mr 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.

Mr 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," Mr 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 Mr 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.

Mr Martelly told his audience not to throw rocks in protest or build homes on precarious ravines. When he told his audience to pay taxes to improve services, the message seemed aimed at the business class sitting in the shade of the stands.

Louis Gary Lissade, a lawyer and former justice minister, said the new president wanted "no more monkey business".

"He told the business class to be straight," Mr Lissade said. "He talked about this civic duty: You must pay taxes."

Mr 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 the last year's magnitude-7.0 earthquake and depends heavily on foreign aid.

"This is how Haiti is going to get out of its misery," Mr Martelly said. "Haiti was asleep - now it's going to stand up."

Mr 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, Mr Martelly won the presidency in a landslide with more than two thirds of the vote, appealing mostly to young voters in urban areas.

"For me, he's going to do a whole lot," said 24-year-old Sonson Edmon, who lives in a makeshift camp opposite the National Palace. "He's going to send our kids to school, and the high cost of living is going to go down."

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.

"His administration will have to show progress fairly quickly in order to provide confidence to the population," said Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the non-profit think-tank International Crisis Group in Washington DC.

Mr Martelly also faces a cholera epidemic that threatens to erupt again as the rainy and hurricane seasons approach, as well as a parliament controlled by legislators from Mr Preval's party.

Despite speculation that Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier and ousted former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide would accept invitations to the ceremony, neither of them attended.

Since Duvalier made a sudden return in January, the ex-despot has been charged with embezzlement and human rights abuses, and advocacy groups criticised Mr Martelly for inviting him.

Mr Martelly is the son of an oil company executive and attended a prestigious Catholic school in Port-au-Prince and junior colleges in the US, though he never graduated. He worked as a building worker in Miami in the 1980s.

A few years later he found his calling - playing compas, Haiti's high-energy, slowed-down version of merengue.

As the self-proclaimed "bad boy of compas," he mooned at the audience, cursed his rivals, and donned nappies and dresses.

But many credit him for reviving compas and proving Haitian musicians could earn a decent living.


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