Haitian President Tightens Grip as Scandal Engulfs Circle of Friends
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — With a brisk clap of his hands, Michel Martelly summed up the first steps he would take if he ever left the music business and became the president of Haiti.
“First thing, after I establish my power, which would be very strong and necessary, I would close that congress thing,” Mr. Martelly was quoted as saying in 1997, when he was still a hugely popular singer. “Out of my way.”
His words have proven prophetic. A political crisis almost four years into Mr. Martelly’s presidency gave life to the fantasy he once described: He is now running the country without the checks and balances of a parliament.
After Mr. Martelly and his opponents in Parliament could not agree on elections, most legislative terms expired, and the seats remain empty. Only 11 elected officials remain in the entire country, and the president is one of them.
For two months, Mr. Martelly has governed Haiti by executive order, concentrating power in the hands of a man who, his critics say, is a prisoner of his past, surrounded by a network of friends and aides who have been arrested on charges of rape, murder, drug trafficking and kidnapping.
As Mr. Martelly strengthens his hold on power, scandals involving those close to him have continued to mount, raising questions about the president’s ability to lead.
One of Mr. Martelly’s senior advisers was jailed for six months during the president’s tenure after being accused of killing a man in a gunfight at the Dominican border. Another friend of the president vanished last year, shortly after being released from jail in a marijuana trafficking case. The prosecutor in that case fled the country fearing retaliation.
Yet another of the president’s associates is in jail, accused of running a kidnapping ring. The authorities are trying to determine whether the man, Woodley Ethéart, who said he worked at the Ministry of Interior, laundered ransom money through a lucrative catering contract at the presidential palace, an investigator familiar with the case said.
One longtime law enforcement official said he stopped going to events at the palace because he kept running into people who had been arrested on charges as serious as murder but were now working at the presidential offices as security guards.
“There they were, in the palace, carrying automatic weapons,” the official said under the condition that his name not be published out of safety concerns.
The Martelly administration’s influence has been criticized most for its effect on the judiciary, where the criminal cases of some people close to the president have stalled or disappeared.
Prosecutors who objected to the administration’s interference were fired or fled, and one judge who complained that the president had meddled in a civil corruption case against the first lady died two days later.
“I would be very concerned of this interconnected web of nefarious characters,” said Robert Maguire, a Haiti scholar at George Washington University. “Martelly has empowered them to do what they do. He has established an environment of corruption, abuse of power and impunity.”
The president’s office did not respond to several requests for an interview since January. The presidential spokesman, Lucien Jura, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Mr. Martelly’s allies defended him, saying that the president could not be blamed for the actions of his friends. Several said that he is loyal to a fault, and that he will stand beside old friends no matter what trouble they find themselves in. The president, aides said, wants the best for Haiti but is easily influenced by relatives known for ties to drug trafficking and friends who abuse their proximity to power.
One of those relatives, the president’s brother-in-law Charles Saint-Rémy, said the president and his family had been victims of a politically motivated campaign to discredit them.
“We have had stability for four years,” said Daniel Edwin Zenny, a senator allied with the president.
“We used to have 10,000 to 20,000 people protesting on the streets every day. Now we have 1,500 to 4,000, and while they are protesting, the country is moving forward. This is not a big situation yet.”
Mr. Martelly was elected in 2011 after being placed in a runoff despite coming in third in a disputed election. International organizations, with an assist from Washington, helped Mr. Martelly by documenting his opponents’ widespread voter fraud.
Washington’s role in the election and the American ambassador’s warm relationship with him since has hurt Mr. Martelly’s credibility at home, where the president is considered a member of the conservative elite, disconnected from the poor majority.
Still, he is credited with getting the vast majority of residents who lost their homes to the devastating 2010 earthquake out of tent cities. Solar panels light once-darkened streets, and government ministries and hotels are being built. An anticorruption law was enacted, and the president found creative ways to enroll more children in primary school.
The rubble that marred the streets after the earthquake is gone, and so are most of the tents that 1.5 million Haitians lived in, packing parks, road dividers and other corners of open space.
Haiti now has one of the fastest-growing economies in the Caribbean, thanks largely to infrastructure projects financed by the money Haiti saved by buying oil at preferential terms from Venezuela. But even with that growth, and the billions in international aid, 24 percent of Haitians still live in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank.
“Construction is, like, for certain people — rich people. They built new banks, they built new hotels and government buildings,” said Jean François, 52, a father of six who has lived in a hillside tent here for five years. “The government officials drive by this hill every day, but they don’t see us.”
Now that Mr. Martelly can organize elections without consulting opponents in Parliament, it will soon be voting time again. A movement to oust the president appears to be losing steam. A general strike organized by opposition parties in recent days mostly flopped.
“A lot of the progress is a little smoke and mirror,” said Nicole Phillips, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, arguing that Mr. Martelly’s administration improved infrastructure and built hotels, but also cracked down on rights activists and manipulated the judiciary to benefit the president’s associates. “They have taken one step forward, but mostly taken two steps back.”
Mr. Martelly’s last prime minister, Laurent Lamothe, was seen by many as cracking down on kidnapping and organized crime. But Mr. Lamothe was pushed out in December as the political crisis between the administration and opposition parties reached its peak.
Among those who protested in the streets demanding Mr. Lamothe’s ouster was Mr. Saint-Rémy, the first lady’s brother, who admits that he sold drugs in his youth but now functions as an unofficial adviser to the president. Mr. Saint-Rémy was furious over the arrest of Mr. Ethéart, who operates an expensive French restaurant known to be one of the president’s favorite hangouts — but who has also been identified by the Haitian National Police as being the leader of Galil, a gang of kidnappers.
Mr. Saint-Rémy started calling senior government officials to plead for his friend’s release, three people close to the administration said. Simon Desras, who was president of Haiti’s Senate during the political crisis, said that one of the recipients told him he considered the call more a threat than request.
“In Martelly’s environment, you don’t find all saints,” Mr. Desras said. “You find demons.”
Mr. Saint-Rémy admitted “having discussions” with senior officials about the case, because he remains firmly convinced that his friend is innocent and was set up by the politically ambitious former prime minister, Mr. Lamothe, in an effort to discredit the president.
“Laurent has been playing heavy politics, because he has always wanted to be the only player standing,” Mr. Saint-Rémy said.
Mr. Lamothe did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Mr. Ethéart was arrested last year in connection with the kidnapping of a businessman by gunmen in police uniforms who demanded $1.2 million.
Telephone records showed that Mr. Ethéart was in contact with the kidnappers and, like the hostage-takers, had turned off his cellphone at the precise time of the abduction, according to a police investigative report. A Ministry of Interior license plate found on a vehicle at Mr. Ethéart’s house had been reported in previous kidnappings, an investigator said.
The police tied the case to 15 other kidnappings involving 17 hostages and one murder, the police said.
But irregularities in the investigation quickly emerged. According to government officials, subpoenas to interview several witnesses stalled for months. When the investigating judge ordered the arrest of Mr. Ethéart’s wife and closed the expensive French restaurant the couple operated, another judge had her released and lifted the judicial seal on the restaurant’s doors.
Mr. Ethéart has denied wrongdoing, saying his arrest was the result of his “presidential acquaintances.”
“I’m like a big Kleenex,” he said in a radio interview last year. “They used me and then threw me away.”
Two law enforcement officials in Haiti said that Mr. Ethéart had been arrested in the late 1990s with a naked man in his trunk, who led officers to a nearby murder scene. Mr. Ethéart denied the assertions in the radio interview, but acknowledged that at another time he was found with $178,000 in cash — proceeds, he said, from a music festival in Miami.
His lawyer, Claudy Gassant, said that the prosecution’s evidence was flimsy. “No one in the palace intervened or asked the judiciary to release him. No one,” Mr. Gassant said. “To me, his relationship with the president does not matter.”
Evans Paul, who was named prime minister after Mr. Lamothe’s ouster, said the fact that Mr. Ethéart is in jail awaiting trial proved that the country had an independent judiciary.
“We cannot stop someone from choosing his friends, and cannot give hold him responsible for his friend’s actions,” Mr. Paul said of the president. “Only if you can show there is complicity.”
The National Human Rights Defense Network, a leading human rights organization in Haiti, has argued that the president and his cabinet were complicit in protecting drug traffickers in other cases.
The president was widely criticized for the handling of a 2013 drug-trafficking case involving Evinx Daniel, a prominent hotelier and Martelly campaign supporter who owns Dan’s Creek, a beachfront hotel the president is known to frequent.
Mr. Daniel told the authorities that he had found 23 packages of marijuana floating at sea and decided to bring them home. He called the president’s brother-in-law, Mr. Saint-Rémy, who called the United States Drug Enforcement Administration to pick up the load, the brother-in-law said.
A prosecutor, Jean Marie Salomon, doubted the story, suspecting that it was a ruse to cover up a drug deal that local residents had stumbled upon, and arrested Mr. Daniel on drug-trafficking charges. But the prosecutor was nervous, because he knew the hotelier had been active in the president’s campaign.
The suspect was brought into custody and allowed to make a phone call. He called the minister of justice, the prosecutor’s boss, and handed over the telephone.
“He told me, ‘Commissioner, someone wants to talk to you,’” Mr. Salomon recalled in an interview. “He said, ‘The minister is on the phone.’”
Mr. Daniel was released the next day, and Mr. Salomon was suspended for abuse of power and later resigned. The prosecutor’s police bodyguard never showed up for work again, Mr. Salomon said. Mr. Salomon said he saw masked gunmen outside the courthouse just as investigators were calling him to discuss Mr. Daniel’s case.
Shortly after, Mr. Salomon said President Martelly went to Port Salut, about 140 miles west of the capital, and stayed at his friend’s hotel.
“It was not only a provocation from the president, but also a coded message,” Mr. Salomon said. “That day, I understood there was a bounty on me, and my days were numbered.”
Mr. Salomon called the United Nations for help and fled the country, but has since returned.
The hotelier disappeared three months after his release from jail and is widely presumed to be dead.
“Since Martelly arrived in office, state institutions have become weaker than before,” said Pierre Esperance, director of the National Human Rights Defense Network. “We have no rule of law in Haiti.”
Human rights lawyers said the absence of a parliament had left the role of checks and balances to them. A Senate report accused the president of lying about whether he had interfered in a civil corruption case filed against the first lady, but impeachment efforts stalled because of the lack of a quorum in the legislature.
One human rights lawyer, Samuel Madistin, filed a complaint asking for an investigation into the sudden death of Judge Jean Serge Joseph in 2013, two days after telling Mr. Madistin that the president had attended an illegal meeting to pressure him to dismiss the case against the first lady.
A coroner’s report said that a medical examiner who conducted an autopsy in Quebec lacked the medical files in Haiti needed to be certain how Mr. Joseph had died, but that the death was the result of a cerebral hemorrhage.
“I’m not naïve. I know as long as those in office are in power there is no way this case will move forward,” Mr. Madistin said. “By doing this complaint, it’s like throwing a rock. Someday, the rock must fall somewhere.”