During late November, the clouds hung low over Port-au-Prince, pregnant with the threat of rain. When it did issue forth, life in Haiti's overpopulated capital, partially destroyed in a January 2010 earthquake, but still vibrant between the Caribbean Sea and looming mountains, continued irrepressibly on. Moto-taxi drivers plied the streets in their jaunty raincoats, and people continued hawking anything there was to sell under any surface providing shelter from the deluge.
In the middle of one Saturday afternoon, with clouds rumbling down from the mountainside, a group of about 200 young men commandeered the central Place St. Pierre square in the tony suburb of Petionville, halting traffic and periodically hurling bottles in various directions (one of which shattered at my feet). The lads thumped their chests for about three hours before moving on. Their message was that life was too expensive for people in Haiti and that Haiti's President Michel Martelly, whom they said they had previously supported, wasn't doing enough to ameliorate the situation.
Martelly, in his previous life perhaps the most well-known (and most frequently cross-dressing) purveyor of the sinuous Haitian music known as konpa and popularly known as Sweet Micky or Tèt Kale (Bald Head), was not even in the country at the time, a fact not lost on the protesters.
In office since May 2011, Martelly was winding up a long trip to Europe during which he addressed the European Parliament, attended the Ibero-American Summit in Spain and met with the Pope at the Vatican. He was even absent from Haiti during the must-attend November 18 anniversary of the Battle of Vertières, the 1803 clash during which the rebel Haitian army defeated the French near the northern city of Cap-Haïtien and thus paved the way for Haiti's declaration of independence soon thereafter.
"He wants to work well for the people," said a middle-aged taxi driver named Jackson plying the road near the airport, summing up popular sentiment. "But the problem is his entourage."
Elected to succeed René Préval, the only democratically-elected president in Haiti's 208 year history to finish his term in office (a feat the wily, white-bearded Préval managed twice), the political novice Martelly inherited a to-do list that would have daunted even the most skilled politico.
Much of the country's capital was leveled and some 200,000 people believed killed in the January 2010 earthquake, which at one point had left at least 1.5 million people homeless. Tent encampments dotted the capital and its environs and a cholera epidemic, almost certainly brought to the country by the rather-unloved UN peacekeeping mission in place since the 2004 ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has thus far killed more than 7,500 people.
The most basic services and healthcare remain out of reach of much of the nation's 10 million inhabitants, scattered in far-off provincial districts reached by badly decayed roads. A gradual diminution of Haiti's security situation since the tumultuous ballot that led to Martelly's election culminated last month with the spectacular arrest of Clifford Brandt, scion of one of Haiti's wealthiest families, as the alleged mastermind behind a long-running kidnapping ring.
Also arrested as part of the gang was the commander of a security unit from Martelly's National Palace (there has been no suggestion the president himself was involved), who entered prison as Calixte Valentin, a Martelly advisor accused of murder, exited it. Former members of the country's army, demobilized but not constitutionally disbanded by Aristide in 1995, continue to agitate for the force's reinstatement despite the existence of a police force -- the Police Nationale d'Haïti or PNH -- currently numbering some 10,000 recruits. A battle over the composition of the country's electoral council has raged for months.
"A stabilization process is taking place albeit a fragile one," says Mariano Fernández, the Chilean diplomat who heads the UN's peacekeeping mission, known by its acronym MINUSTAH, which is envisioned to be scaled back to around 6,300 military personnel in coming months. "We continue planning to reduce and reconfigure MINUSTAH in the coming years depending on the stability of the conditions."
The last caveat is an important one. Haiti's security forces have enjoyed a steadily-improving reputation since the 2006 inauguration of Martelly's predecessor Préval. It has been a marked change from Aristide's 2001-2004 tenure, when politically-connected partisans were inserted into the PNH regardless of their competency or culpability in various crimes, or that of a 2004-2006 interim government when police often made little distinction between armed pro-Aristide gangs and ordinary residents of the capital's poorer neighborhoods.
Until recently, the PNH were headed by Mario Andrésol, widely regarded as one of the most honest and competent officials in the country and who was replaced by Gotson Aurélus in August. Since then, something of a delicate realignment has been taking place. It is widely believed that Secretary of State for Public Security Reginald Delva exercises more operational control over the PNH than Minister of Justice Jean Renel Sanon, his nominal boss. A former senator, Joseph Lambert, now a Martelly advisor, is also spoken of as wielding influence beyond what one would expect.
Though the Brandt arrest was greeted with a gasp in much of the international community (this is, after all, the strata of society most international actors interact with) in Haiti the view was more circumspect.
"The bourgeois control the police with their money, and a lot of police officers also provide security for businesses and the private sector because there is no control, and they can receive more money for their work," says Pierre Espérance, the Executive Director of the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains, Haiti's most prominent human rights organization. "Each kidnapping gang has its connection with the police."
Despite such realities, one of Martelly's chief plans of attack appears to be an attempt to re-band Haiti and change its relentlessly negative image from a place solely of natural disaster, coups, misery and death to one of a place open to investment and boasting a vibrant and tourist-friendly culture.
Though this approach has been rather too smugly sneered at by the international chattering class that comments on Haiti, most people I spoke with in the country actually saw its value and supported it in principle, even if they didn't quite understand why the president was spending so much time abroad.
There is some evidence that Martelly's approach may be succeeding. The president, ever the extrovert natural showman, would seem a perfect fit for such a campaign. In July, the president even declared a three day out-of-season Carnaval des fleurs (Carnival of Flowers) designed to highlight the country's flair for music and pageantry. The camps from the central part of the capital have mostly been cleared, but with some to their inhabitants relocated to a windswept moonscape situated on denuded land on a road leading north out of the city
A new industrial park in the country's north -- which itself has hardly been free from controversy -- was opened in October, with, among others, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British billionaire Richard Branson in attendance. The lure of potential gold reserves in northern Haiti has brought a number of international mining companies, some with questionable records, to stake claims on huge swathes of land, creating economic potential but only of the most fraught kind.
Though the vast overpopulation of the capital -- a consequence in part of international economic policies inflicted upon Haiti -- helped lead to the vast death toll from the earthquake, the decentralization of economic and political power from Port-au-Prince still remains an agonizingly slow and complex process. Privately, many in Haiti's business community, intensely nationalistic at heart despite their comfortable economic status, complain the country has been "invaded" by foreign companies and non-governmental organizations.
In some economically struggling communities, the feeling is one of hopes delayed, if not dashed entirely.
"We liked Martelly and we thought he would help a lot of people," says Pè Nico, a diminutive young man whose moniker ("Father Nico") belies his youthful appearance. "But this neighborhood has always been forgotten."
Pushing 30-years-old but looking barely into his 20s and resplendent in a Miami Heat baseball cap, Pè Nico leads an armed faction in the capital's quartier populaire of St. Martin, an area of deeply-rutted roads and at times precarious-looking structures from which the PNH and MINUSTAH appear completely absent.
Pè Nico's baz say they voted -- "99 percent" in their words -- for Martelly. In their neighborhood, once a war zone and still subject to occasional bouts of violence, residents have been tending to the Partnership for Peace and Prosperity in Saint Martin, under whose aegis members of the private sector operating in the zone and local community leaders have sought dialogue and improvement in living conditions there. The two sides began talking in 2007 and, even through the earthquake and after, they are still talking. It is perhaps a hopeful sign.
I had known Martelly very slightly in his previous life as Sweet Micky. We spent a memorable evening more than a decade ago cruising through Port-au-Prince in his SUV with a loaded pistol between us as he bemoaned the state of Haiti and the irresponsibility of its leaders both political and economic, a scene depicted in a book I later wrote about the country.
When I visited Haiti in August 2011, just after Martelly's election, I found popular support for the colorful, eccentric president among the pep la, as Haiti's struggling class (which is to say almost everybody) is known, still high.
Despite the eroding of that hope when confronted with the immense challenge of governing Haiti and his own missteps, Haitians still seem to be giving Martelly the benefit of the doubt.
So many factors -- rising food prices, civil unrest underwritten by various malefactors, another natural calamity -- could change that. But in a country whose leaders have often promoted themselves through terror and abuse, Martelly -- whose signature colour is pink -- has offered something of a change of tone, however unorthodox.
On my last day in Haiti, purely by chance, my path overlapped with that of Michel Martelly.
Waiting at the airport to board my flight home, I saw Martelly's American Airlines plane fly in from Miami. As if on cue and so apt for a showman, the cloudy gloom that had plagued the capital for days broke and rays of brilliant golden sunshine spilled out of a blue sky. Diplomats, Haitian police officers in their crisp khaki uniforms and every airport worker that could sneak away from their job were standing there to greet him. He was going to be inaugurating a new arrival hall, they told me, then this week he would be leaving again, this time for Cuba.
Martelly disembarked from the plane, his bald head and smiling visage visible among the mostly smaller Haitians.