Above: Haiti First Lady Sophia Martelly
By Alexander Britell
Sophia Martelly has been Haiti’s First Lady since May 14, 2011, when her husband, President Michel Martelly, took office. The First Lady, who has four children, has focused on several initiatives in the last year, highlighted by work fighting HIV/AIDS and hunger in Haiti. To learn more, Caribbean Journal talked to Martelly about combating HIV, the country’s image abroad and women in Haiti.
What would you consider your major priorities — and accomplishments — since May 2011?
I could say a few, one being the reform of the CCM, which is the country coordinating committee, which works with numerous actors involved in HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. We had a CCM which was dysfunctional, I would say, but over the past eight months we’ve been moving forward. We also launched in January the Aba Grangou, which is “down with hunger” in Creole, which is really working on eliminating hunger, with a goal of 50 percent by 2015 and 100 percent by 2025. We are also working on the health situation in Haiti. But everything I do, I work closely with the ministries that are implicated in whatever action that I take.
What kind of progress have you seen in Haiti on the HIV front?
The progress, I think, which is more important, is the coordination among all the actors that are involved in the HIV fight. As far as the things that are being done, we are making the population aware of the behaviours to have in order to avoid being infected, number one. We are working hard in eliminating PMTCT [mother-to-child transmission] by 2015, which is definitely going to be a great accomplishment, and we are trying to provide more health services to infected people, where they could come and get health services. There are so many remote areas where health services are particularly nonexistent, so we’re trying to work to see how we can provide more healthcare facilities where the population would be able to get treatment. So we have different communal sections which are deprived of healthcare facilities, and we need to address that problem. So we want to make sure there are health centres throughout the country where people can come and get treatment. But education is also important in the HIV fight. Because we need to constantly remind people of the kind of behaviour to adopt, and what to do when they find out that they are HIV positive, what are the solutions and to follow through on the solutions.
You mentioned Aba Grangou. What are the challenges Haiti needs to overcome in order to eliminate hunger?
I think one of the things would be to re-launch agricultural production. As you know, Haiti, in the past, was self-sufficient, to a certain extent, where we ate what we produced. But I think that, over the past 10 to 20 years, there has been a decline in production, where we import everything that we consume. So if we start making sure that we can produce as much as possible, the consumption will be local consumption. We launched Aba Grangou in January, but the first six months was essentially to coordinate all the actors involved in nutrition, hunger, food and so forth. But we have done a few interventions, where vouchers are being distributed, and with the vouchers, people are directed to purchase in certain stores where the majority of food being sold is local production and local goods.
When you attended the Rio+20 talks in June you spoke with Brazilian officials about that country’s Fome Zero [“zero hunger”] plan. What can Haiti learn from the Brazilian model?
A lot of things could be adopted in Haiti. But I think one of the things I learned was that the state cannot do it on its own. They need to get civil society implicated, which is one of the strengths of the Brazilian programme. Civil society is part of the solution in ending hunger or reducing hunger in Brazil. This is one of the things that we learned. Also, the administrative processes must be respected. We need to work with the ministries. We have, I believe, about 11 ministries involved in the Aba Grangou programme, which enables everybody, or at least those ministries implicated, in the implementation of the programme.
You headlined a mini-hospital at the recent Carnival of Flowers in Port-au-Prince. What do you think about how the carnival unfolded?
I think it had a very positive impact. We had a lot of people. For me, I think it was an economic boost, because people came in, they spent. We had a lot of people from the Haitian diaspora return home for the carnival, and, of course, they spent. We did have foreigners, too. As far as the numbers, I think the Minister of Tourism is the best person to answer that. I know Haitians were happy that it happened. It allowed a group of people to boost their finances, and it had an impact on the economy for sure. The airlines were booked, the hotels were booked. So we did see a desire to be a part of it. Going back to the hospital, it’s something I did [at carnival] in Les Cayes as well. We were able to provide care to 155 people of the little over 300 that were dehydrated, or had trouble breathing. It was terribly hot.
You mentioned airlines and hotels. Haiti has been working to rebrand and grow its tourism sector — what do you see as most important in doing so?
I’m not an expert, but I would say the important thing is for people to start learning or start understanding what Haiti is all about. All the negatives, whether it be internationally or by Haitians, that people are trying to put out front, I think it’s about time they stop with that. Because what they’re trying to portray as being Haiti is not the reality. By the way, any other country has flaws. But I don’t see why people have to sell the flaws. We have so many riches — why not talk about that? So I think that one of the things is for people to start showing what Haiti is really about.
So do you feel that, as a country, Haiti’s image is portrayed fairly abroad?
That is something that I’m not the only one to have noticed. I think it is known throughout the world. I’ve experienced that personally. My 14-year-old son just went to spend a month in a summer college where he was taking classes. And he called me and was furious about an organization which came to make a presentation on Haiti. He was taking a community service class, and, coincidentally, the country in question was Haiti. And the only things they showed were kids who were crying, kids with big bellies, water infested with mosquitoes. Those were the only images. And my 14-year-old son was furious. He was like, “this is the only thing you see?” [The presenter] said he’d been going back and forth in Haiti for 21 years, but that was the only thing he was portraying. My son came back with the flyer, and that was the only image they had — in an eight-to-12-page brochure on Haiti. So I lived this less than a month ago. He kind of embarrassed the guy — he said, “I don’t think you know, but I’m Haitian, and I’ve never seen this.” And it’s not like my children have seen only the luxury side of society. They’ve seen everything. They went after the earthquake to help out, to the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. It’s not like they’re living in a cocoon where they don’t know what the reality is. They know we have that side, but we have good sides, too. But people need to stop selling our misery.
President Martelly has been pushing a plan of “decentralization,” focused on developing Haiti’s outer regions. How much does that play a role in the way you implement your initiatives?
Whatever we do, especially in the First Lady’s office, is usually on a national level. We don’t prioritize the capital. In every intervention we do, we try to make it outside of Port-au-Prince. So we do work in the same direction. Right now, we’re working on the hospital in Petit-Goâve, close to the west, but still outside of Port-au-Prince. With Aba Grangou, the first area we started working in was Grand’Anse, which is way south. Now, we’re going to focus on the northwest and the Artibonite region. Do definitely, decentralization is of great concern, and, in order to progress, we definitely need to go outside of Port-au-Prince. So whatever the First Lady’s office is working on, we’re not just working for Port-au-Prince.
Haiti’s current cabinet has more women than any in its history. What do you think about that and what do you see as the biggest issues for women in the country?
Let me say, women power! I think that’s number one. I am thrilled and proud of that. But it’s something that we definitely needed, because women in Haiti have usually been on the backburner, and yet, and I would put myself in this category, we have the strength and the will and the knowledge to make things happen. So I think [the cabinet] is a good sign that the government has given, not only to the Haitian population, but the world, that women can, in fact, make a difference in any kind of society or any kind of government.