Haiti’s president has vowed to mount a “fight that will never end” against corruption in a new bid to counter street protests over low living standards and the probity of his government.
Michel Martelly, a flamboyant former singer known as “Sweet Micky” who won power in 2011 elections, said corruption had become part of the “Haitian mentality” and was blighting the country’s institutions. He said arrests and reforms had already begun, as part of attempts to shed his country’s lawless image and make it more attractive to investors.
His comments came during an interview in the capital Port au Prince with European media, including the Evening Standard, in which he also set out plans to transform his country through tourism, trade and agriculture.
The pledge follows recent demonstrations against Mr Martelly, involving rock throwing, tyre burning and reported gun shots, with thousands of opponents taking to the streets over issues including high living costs, unemployment and alleged corruption within the government.
Speaking in his presidential offices, Mr Martelly insisted that his critics lacked support and that the Haitian people wanted unity and jobs, not conflict and further instability. But he conceded that action against corruption was essential if investment and growth were to be secured.
He promised an ongoing purge that he said had already hit some of his close associates.
“We tell the world that we are not corrupt, we don’t want corruption around us,” Mr Martelly said.
“We have people close to me, next to me, arrested; we have people who never thought they would be arrested in this country, arrested.”
He warned, however, that success would take many years and require teaching an anti-corruption message in schools as well.
He added: “The thing is that corruption has established itself here, not just in the institutions but in the Haitian mentality. We are fighting corruption and we are doing better. But it’s a fight that will never end. Fighting corruption doesn’t mean only going after the people who are corrupted, but changing the mentality through education, starting with the new generation, teaching them other ways.”
Mr Martelly said anther key policy was raising educational standards through measures including the provision of free schooling and free transport to lessons.
A major expansion of tourism, including marketing the country’s Caribbean beaches and historical sites, was also planned, along with efforts to bolster production of crops such as maize, mangoes and coffee to increase self-sufficiency and export earnings.
On top of alleged corruption, including complaints about extravagant spending on cars and international trips, Haiti is also troubled by delayed parliamentary elections. If these are not held before January, the country’s parliament could be left without enough members to remain lawful.
Opponents claim that Mr Martelly is planning to exploit the situation to rule by decree and are calling for his resignation and new presidential elections.
But the president hit back, describing his critics as people who “want to destroy, want to break things” — adding that the fact their protests had been allowed, not repressed, was a sign of Haiti’s progress.
He said: “It’s part of democracy. But they are not getting anywhere because the people of Haiti want unity, the people of Haiti want stability, they want jobs.”
Some progress has been achieved since the earthquake of 2010, despite setbacks caused by subsequent hurricane damage and a continuing cholera epidemic. Improvements include the introduction of solar-powered lighting on some previously dimly-lit roads and the construction of new highways.
The numbers living in camps — officially put at 170,000 — has fallen sharply and some new homes have been built to replace those destroyed in the earthquake.
Unemployment continues to be high, however, and Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, with some 80 per cent of the population living below the poverty line.
Mr Martelly acknowledged that much more needed to be done to raise living standards, but insisted that his country was heading in the right direction.
“We are focusing on development, on economic growth, a better situation for Haiti throughout the world and a better life,” he added.
“From day one I say that if you want to enjoy the shadow of a tree you have to wait for that tree to grow. So we are changing. It will take time, but we are laying the foundations.”