Haiti’s Own “Birthers”: Martelly Refutes Citizenship Rumors

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Does Haitian President-elect Michel Martelly, who is set to be inaugurated on Saturday, May 14, have his own “birthers” to contend with? In recent weeks the former Carnival singer, who won Haiti’s runoff election on March 20 by a landslide, has felt compelled to answer rumors that he has U.S. citizenship – which would effectively make him ineligible to be Haiti’s President. In recent days a bogus U.S. passport has even surfaced on the Internet that purports to be Martelly’s.

The Haitian-born Martelly, 50, has flatly denied the claims and says the speculation is part of a plot reminiscent of U.S. “birthers,” who oppose President Obama and stubbornly question whether he was actually born on American soil. “It’s a conspiracy organized by people who can’t believe Michel Martelly is [going to be] the country’s President,” Martelly, aka “Sweet Micky,” told a Port-au-Prince radio station. “I’m Haitian, I never renounced my citizenship, my passport is Haitian.” Under the Haitian Constitution, which prohibits dual citizenship, any Haitian who has a foreign passport automatically renounces Haitian citizenship and is therefore barred from the presidency.

In spite of his 2-to-1 victory margin, there are a lot of Haitians, most of them from the country’s political and business elite, who are having a hard time swallowing a Martelly presidency. Before he put on a suit and cleaned up his act for his presidential run, Martelly was better known as a popular but vulgar clown prince of the Haitian music scene, a performer who often dropped his pants onstage and sang lyrics demeaning to women. He was a political outsider when he entered the presidential race last year – and was considered a long shot until another candidate, Haitian-American hip-hop superstar Wyclef Jean, was ruled ineligible to run. That moved Haiti’s large and disaffected cohort of young voters to Martelly’s camp.

They helped Martelly surge in the election’s fraud-tainted first round last November — bringing him to an electoral dispute with Jude Célestin, the candidate of Haiti’s ruling party, INITE, over which of the men was the runner-up who would face the first-place finisher, former First Lady Mirlande Manigat, in the March runoff. Only early this year did the U.S. and the international community (as well as violent street protests by Martelly’s more thuggish backers) convince INITE and President René Préval to drop Célestin from the March ballot in favor of Martelly. Some among INITE’s supporters, who are also widely suspected of engineering vote fraud in the March legislative elections, are believed to be a big force behind the claims that Martelly holds U.S. citizenship, which they hope might derail his inauguration.

Whoever is behind it, they’ve so far failed. Most Haitians, many of whom have volunteered to help spruce up earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince for the inauguration, seem behind him for now. But what makes the rumor campaign more reprehensible to many Haitians is its hypocrisy. The same Haitian elite that’s allegedly trying to discredit Martelly with links to the U.S. are the same people who themselves keep homes in the U.S., send their kids to U.S. schools – and, in many cases, secretly hold U.S. citizenship so they can bolt Haiti more quickly when political or natural disaster strikes.

Then again, they probably thought it would be easier to plant serious doubts about Martelly’s nationality since, as a son of Haiti’s upper middle class, he too is part of that elite, despite his black sheep image. Martelly studied in the U.S. as a young man and has oft resided there. Until he returned to Haiti in 2007, he and his wife and four children had lived for many years in South Florida, where he recently foreclosed on at least three properties. And his checkered political past – aside from his Carnival antics, he was once a vocal supporter of Haiti’s brutal, coup-happy military in the 1980s and 90s – doesn’t help.

Either way, the Martelly citizenship rumors point up a larger psychosis in Haiti – one that the country’s lawmakers, fortunately, finally remedied this week. The dual citizenship ban has long been another hypocrisy of Haiti’s elite, an exclusionary rule that is mostly designed to keep the massive Haitian diaspora, who number more than a million in the U.S. alone, from meaningfully participating in the politics and businesses of the western hemisphere’s poorest country. But last year’s epic earthquake, which destroyed much of Haiti and killed some 250,000 people, made plain how much the nation needs the human and financial capital of its legion of expatriates. As a result, the Haitian Senate on Monday voted to change the Constitution to permit dual citizenship. The amendment should take effect soon.

That’s a positive step toward Haiti’s post-quake recovery and reconstruction – which will of course be President-elect Martelly’s main task once he takes office this weekend. And until Haiti’s own “birthers” come up with more convincing proof for their claim, it’s also a reminder that Martelly and his basket-case nation, to quote Obama, do not have time for this kind of silliness.