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Originally published Saturday, May 14, 2011 at 9:29 PM

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In Haiti, new president assumes power

Charismatic pop star-turned-president Michel Martelly took over Haiti on Saturday, promising to rebuild its earthquake-devastated capital, develop the long-neglected countryside and build a modern army.

The Associated Press

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Charismatic pop star-turned-president Michel Martelly took over Haiti on Saturday, promising to rebuild its earthquake-devastated capital, develop the long-neglected countryside and build a modern army.

The 50-year-old performer known to Haitians as "Sweet Micky" was swept to power in a March 20 presidential runoff by Haitians tired of past leaders who failed to provide even basic services, such as decent roads, water and electricity in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.

Martelly was sworn in during a power outage in front of dozens of dignitaries including former President Clinton, the U.N.'s special envoy to Haiti, and Edmond Mulet, head of the U.N. mission that has maintained order in Haiti since 2004. Also present was Desi Bouterse, the president of Suriname who is on trial for the 1982 executions of 15 political opponents.

Former Haiti President René Préval took off the presidential sash and put it on Martelly as they shook hands and embraced, but did not say anything to each other. Martelly's wife, Sophia, then came on stage and adjusted the sash as their four children joined them.

Outside the gated Parliament, more than 1,000 Martelly supporters gathered.

"Today is a party for us, for the masses, because the country is destroyed," said Esaue Rene, a 28-year-old mechanic who has high hopes for Martelly. "I would like him to bring jobs so that people aren't sitting around in public plazas because they don't have anything else to do."

Martelly appealed to young voters like René because he is the antithesis of Préval, who is seen as aloof and uninspiring.

Martelly is effusive and charming. He once joked that he'd dance naked atop the National Palace if he were elected president.

But the challenges Martelly faces in fulfilling his ambitious promises were clear Saturday. He was sworn in front of the country's collapsed National Palace and a shantytown filled with thousands of people displaced by last year's magnitude-7.0 earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 people.

During his campaign, he promised to build houses in the capital; bring economic development to the countryside; provide universal education for children; develop agriculture; and replace the discredited armed forces with a modern army capable of responding to natural disasters.

Political observers say speeding up the multibillion-dollar reconstruction effort is paramount. That means Martelly's administration must make progress building houses for the more than 600,000 people still living in settlements; stem a cholera epidemic that threatens to spread during the rainy and hurricane seasons; and strengthen the judiciary.

And a parliament controlled by political opponents from Préval's party could make passing bills difficult.

And he doesn't have much time.

Martelly was well-known as an entertainer. But what kind of leader he makes, many in Haiti aren't sure.

"He's unpredictable," said Patrick Elie, a defense minister under Aristide and an adviser to Préval. "He's got teeth that can both smile and bite. He's shown that."

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