When Haitian President Michel Martelly visited the Dominican Republic last month, he was awarded the country’s highest honor for a foreign head of state, in large part for his efforts to lure reconstruction investment to Haiti after its catastrophic 2010 earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people. In an interview in Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, Martelly told TIME he’s “tried to change the perception [the world] has of Haiti as a place where nothing works,” and he listed his accomplishments so far, including $450 million in tourism investment. “Haiti is a land of opportunity,” the boisterous former carnival singer said. “Because Haiti is still a virgin.”
But a few days later, accusations of less than virgin behavior were swirling around both Martelly and one of the Dominican Republic’s most prominent politicos. In a March 31 national television broadcast, Dominican investigative reporter Nuria Piera alleged that Dominican Senator Félix Bautista — who owns or controls construction companies that in the past year have received Haitian government contracts worth more than $200 million — paid Martelly a total of almost $2.6 million during Martelly’s presidential campaign and after his landslide victory in Haiti’s 2011 election. The charge, based on spreadsheets of bank records Piera displayed on the air, was serious enough to prompt Dominican federal prosecutors to declare Bautista under investigation. Both the Senator and Martelly, whose office calls the allegation “a media lynching,” deny it.
The Bautista controversy, fairly or not, is a jolting reminder of Martelly’s mixed record — and the governmental dysfunction still plaguing Haiti during its recovery — as he approaches his first year in office next month. The construction contracts in question, including one to rebuild Haiti’s legislative palace, were awarded in 2010. But late last year they became the targets of an audit by Martelly’s then Prime Minister, Garry Conille — who in February resigned largely because of pressure from members of Haiti’s parliament and Martelly’s government, who resented the scrutiny. The exit of Conille, a trusted technocrat whose appointment was backed by the U.S. and the international community, set back Haiti’s recovery efforts and highlighted the acrimonious relationship between Martelly and Parliament.
Piera’s corruption investigation suggests that Bautista, a leader of the ruling party of Dominican President Leonel Fernández, made the payments to Martelly, who was a heavy favorite to win Haiti’s March 2011 presidential vote, in order to keep winning contracts under the new Haitian government. In a joint declaration on Thursday, April 12, both Fernández’s and Martelly’s administrations called the journalist’s charges part of a vague “plot” by opponents to discredit Martelly and aid the Dominican opposition in that nation’s May presidential election.
Either way, the controversy has forced Martelly off message yet again. When he met with TIME last month, he seemed to have put the Conille resignation flap behind him — his new Prime Minister choice, longtime friend and business associate Laurent Lamothe, has been approved by the Senate — and talked confidently of new investment ventures that he hoped were a signal that “Haiti is open for business.” He emphasized the positive reception he’d gotten at the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, Switzerland, in January, when Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien, head of cellphone powerhouse Digicel, as well as the chairmen of Marriott, Heineken and Nestle, all spoke “about what an opportunity Haiti is,” he said.
Digicel and Marriott, in fact, have since joined forces to build a $45 million, 173-room hotel in Port-au-Prince, and last month an arm of the World Bank Group pledged a $10 million fund to spur small- and medium-size businesses. The “Invest in Haiti” forum that Martelly hosted last November drew a thousand capitalists from industries like tourism, infrastructure, agriculture and textiles and resulted in $200 million in contracts. The Haitian government itself is poised to spend up to $700 million, meaning the western hemisphere’s poorest nation could see at least $1.25 billion invested inside its borders in the coming months. “Once we invest that,” Martelly told TIME, “you attract other investors and companies and they feel like things are moving. You’ll have more of that coming.”
Still, a lot has arguably balked at coming to Haiti because of the chronic discord nagging Martelly’s first year in office. Leading up to last year’s presidential election, for example, exiled former Presidents Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier and Jean-Bertrand Aristide made surprise returns. They have since created unwelcome distractions, especially since Martelly is known to have a soft spot for the Duvalier family’s brutal 20th-century dictatorship — for whose epic corruption a Haitian judge recently ruled Duvalier must stand trial. “I probably would not have invited them to come back to Haiti,” Martelly said. But he’s not pushing for prosecution: “That has to do with the judiciary system. I have nothing to do with this.”
Duvalier and Aristide (whose more leftist presidency had its own corruption and human rights abuses to answer for) are just among a litany of problems, however. Martelly’s rebuilding plans depend to a large extent on a strong Prime Minister, who serves as the head of government and is a key figure in doling out contracts. Parliament — whose leaders bristle at Martelly’s outsider status and often arrogant populism, and are probing whether he and some of his top officials have dual citizenship, which in Haiti disqualifies politicians from office — rejected Martelly’s first two nominees for the post last year. Conille bolted after just four months on the job. “If one chooses to be against me and hate on me, I don’t even have time to listen to these rumors or these conflicts,” Martelly says. “I don’t want to fight the parliament. If there is a problem, it’s on [their] side.”
Haiti needs both sides to focus more on the job at hand. Martelly insists his priorities are projects like the nearly complete, $98 million 16-6 Plan, designed to relocate Haitian earthquake refugees from six large tent camps into 16 neighborhoods that can absorb them, complete with benefits like rent subsidies. That effort, along with a plan to empty the massive Champs de Mars camp in front of the quake-toppled presidential palace in central Port-au-Prince, could give new homes to almost 63,000 people who have been living in squalor for more than two years.
That’s still a small portion of the almost 500,000 who remain homeless (although that total has dropped from the high of 1.5 million in 2010). A recurrence of the cholera epidemic that hit Haiti in late 2010 and has since killed thousands is another concern as the rainy season arrives, especially since aid money may be running out for maintaining outdoor latrines in the camps. But Martelly believes “we’re on the right track.”
He’s also confident he’s changing “a dark image…a perception that Haiti is just about bad news.” But the Bautista allegations, on top of his clashes with Parliament, won’t help that campaign — or persuade international donor countries, many of which are waiting to see more transparent and effective governance in Haiti, to free up the billions of dollars in outstanding reconstruction pledges. Martelly seems to dismiss the concerns: “Although you hear [negative] things, you go talk to people and you find out that they are very confident,” he told TIME. “They feel like they finally have a president working for them…I have no stress. I was ready for this.” Maybe so, but in reality most of Haiti’s 10 million people are still pretty stressed — and what they’re ready for is stable government.