WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama met Thursday with Haitian President Michel Martelly and said he was encouraged by progress on scheduling long-overdue elections in the country.
The Oval Office meeting was the first between the two and it came as Martelly faces increasing domestic and international pressure to hold the delayed Senate and municipal elections in the country, still recovering from the devastating January 2010 earthquake.
Obama noted improvements since the earthquake – including in Haiti’s economy, security and schools – but said it had been “a very slow and difficult process.”
He said the U.S. remained committed to helping Haiti.
“I think we are all recognizing that we have a lot more work to do,” Obama said. “We want to make sure that all the children of Haiti are able to lead lives of opportunity, prosperity and security.”
Obama said he was pleased with Martelly’s efforts on a new election law that he said would “help resolve some of the political roadblocks that stalled some progress.”
Fifty-three political parties reached an agreement with the Martelly government this week to hold an election this year after the Haitian president agreed to compromise and backed away from a plan that would have forced some senators to end their terms early.
Obama said he looked forward to working with Martelly on human rights, judiciary reform and tackling corruption – three issues that remain sticking points for the U.S., which is Haiti’s biggest benefactor.
Martelly thanked the United States “for always standing by the Haitian people” and said he looked forward to discussing security, his country’s fight against narcotics trafficking and his “engagement in building a strong democratic state.”
On Wednesday, Martelly met with Secretary of State John Kerry and members of Congress, assuring lawmakers that Haiti would hold elections this year, said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Martelly “took careful notes on everything we discussed and addressed every question,” Ros-Lehtinen said. The Haitian president told lawmakers that his government is beefing up security and tackling corruption.
Ros-Lehtinen said there was a great deal of support for Haiti in Congress but also concern that aid be wisely spent.
“Maybe he is blowing smoke, but he is taking our questions and our concerns seriously,” she said. “He’s addressing them. For every point that we had, he said, ‘We’re aware of it. We have this program, this plan.’ ”
Still, she said, lawmakers want “proof with action.” Ros-Lehtinen said she expected to lead a South Florida delegation to Haiti next month.
Martelly has been criticized in Haiti for a reluctance to compromise, forcing the U.S. and others in the international community to spend much of last year trying to avert a deeper crisis in the country.
Pierre Esperance, a leading human rights advocate in Haiti, said anti-government protests, demands for Martelly’s resignation and discontent among the international community had isolated the country’s president and might have influenced him.
“The president has become wiser. He is less arrogant now,” Esperance said. “But is there change? We have yet to see big change. We’ve seen little timid steps.”
Yet Martelly’s appearance in Washington suggests “the U.S. is fully on board,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia. He noted that Martelly’s efforts at building a consensus with the opposition and his commitment to an election this year were well received in Washington. Kerry told Martelly he had “great respect for the road” he’s put Haiti on.
“Secretary Kerry’s comments and the official visit with President Obama signal a new honeymoon with President Martelly,” Fatton said. “The question is whether it will be long-lasting.”
Haiti has been plagued recently by protests that have turned violent almost daily. And the opposition says it’s ready to enter a second phase of negotiations to set a date for the elections and determine the conditions under which they take place.
Opposition leader Sauveur Pierre Etienne said he wasn’t ready to say that Martelly had changed but that the president was perhaps “conscious of what’s at stake.”
He said Martelly was aware that if he didn’t adhere to democratic principles, “what could happen is he will lose the support of even countries like the United States of America.”
The U.S. is the biggest donor to Haiti, and Etienne, the leader of the Organization of People in Struggle, which has lawmakers in both chambers of Parliament, noted that its support is key to Martelly.
He said the coming weeks would show whether Martelly was sincere.
“Did he go and say one thing, and when he returns he will do something else?” Etienne said. “Washington will quickly expose him as a bluff, because we’re in a process of dialogue where today we’ve found a compromise.”
The Miami Herald’s Charles reported from Miami. Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @lesleyclark, @jacquiecharles