Haiti's New President To Take Office

Saturday marks a historic day for Haiti. For the first time in the country's history, presidential power is being handed over peacefully. President Rene Preval will be succeeded by Michel Martelly, a retired-musician-turned-politician. Martelly will also be Haiti's first head of state elected since last year's catastrophic earthquake. Robert Siegel talks with Jacqueline Charles, the Miami Herald's Caribbean correspondent.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Haiti won its independence more than two centuries ago. But in all that time, no democratically elected president has ever handed over power willingly to another democratically elected president from the opposition. Tomorrow, that changes. President Rene Preval turns over Haiti's presidential sash to retired musician-turned-politician Michel Martelly.

And joining me now from Haiti's capital is Jacqueline Charles of The Miami Herald. She'll be on hand for Saturday's presidential inauguration.

Jacqueline, welcome back to the program.

Ms. JACQUELINE CHARLES (Caribbean Correspondent, The Miami Herald): Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And first, is there a sense in Port-au-Prince that history is in the making? Or given the level of devastation that remains from last year's earthquake, are feelings still muted?

Ms. CHARLES: I think the feelings are more muted than that. This is a historic moment for Haiti, but I don't think that the average person on the street really realizes this. They've just suffered so much following this earthquake that to them tomorrow represents change, and it represents the chance to hope again.

SIEGEL: You've reported that Haiti's eight living presidents have been invited to tomorrow's celebration. And that has proven to be an invitation for controversy when it comes to former president like Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. How are they handling that?

Ms. CHARLES: Yes, it is. It is controversial. What we've had is human rights activists and victims have basically called the invitation scandalous. There are different rumors that are going on today as to whether or not that invitation will be rescind. We don't know whether that will be the case or whether or not Jean-Claude Duvalier will show up.

And I can tell you that the judge says that he's under house arrest, but he is very much a social butterfly in this country while his fate hangs in the balance.

SIEGEL: But is he ostensibly under house arrest in Haiti?

Ms. CHARLES: When I spoke to the investigative judge, he told me under no uncertain terms that Jean-Claude was under house arrest, and there were restrictions on when he could travel. I can tell you that two nights ago, I was eating in a restaurant. It was way after 10 p.m., after this imposed curfew, and Jean-Claude was two places away from me.

SIEGEL: I see.

Ms. CHARLES: So Jean-Claude is out, and he is ignoring the house arrest, even while he is being surveyed by Haitian National Police.

SIEGEL: Well, let's talk about the outgoing president, Rene Preval. What legacy is he likely to leave behind when he hands the sash over tomorrow?

Ms. CHARLES: I think there are two things about Rene Preval. First and foremost, he did it his way. The first time that he was president, that he was handed power from his mentor Jean-Bertrand Aristide - and I remember five years ago when he was coming back into the political scene to run for president, someone said to me, Jacqueline, he just wants that (unintelligible) in the history books to say he did it his way this time around. And he can definitely say that without the shadow of Aristide.

Furthermore, maybe only president in Haiti's 207 years of history to twice complete your mandate, turn over power. And now a third feat, which is to hand power to a member of the opposition. That is huge in a country that's had almost three dozen coup d'etats, foreign interventions. So, yes, Rene Preval, for a lot of people, the country did not advance as much as they had hoped. But the guy has been unlucky.

He's had four major storms back to back in 30 days. He's had the hemisphere's worst natural disaster. And before this disaster, the country was basically on an upswing. But he came in and he found the nation that was on the brink with armed gangs. And then somebody said to me, Jacqueline, no one asked him to save the country, just to slow it down, because Haiti at that point was in a downward spiral.

SIEGEL: Well, let me ask you about the man who will be president tomorrow. And that is Michel Martelly, a former singer. Some of us encountered him first when he blasted our cell phones with the kind of hip-hop message in Creole, urging us to vote for Number Eight.

What does he do as president? What's his first order of business?

Ms. CHARLES: Well, it's interesting. Michel Martelly, on the eve of his inauguration, is starting to find out just what it means to be president in this country. I just passed his headquarters, and there are about 200 individuals, volunteers who have been sweeping the streets since April, and they're now demanding some sort of return, reward for them.

I think what he is finding is that he is coming into this office where there's a lot of hope. But there's also a lot of challenges. He'd made so many promises on the campaign trail: free education, jobs, you know, agrarian reform, 2,000 houses a week. And so for those people who voted for him, they're going to be looking to him to deliver, and the next 100 days are going to be very critical to his presidency.

SIEGEL: That's Jacqueline Charles, Caribbean correspondent for The Miami Herald. She joined us from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where she'll be covering tomorrow's presidential inauguration.

Jackie, thanks.

Ms. CHARLES: Thank you.

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