Haitians Have 3 Different Views of Next Premier : Caribbean: The descriptions of Malval range from modest and patriotic to vacillating to naive and inexperienced.
When Robert Malval was asked initially to be the first prime minister in President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s restored government, the answer was no. It was no the second time and the third, and many times after.
“I’m just not the man for it,” Malval, a wealthy 50-year-old printer and publisher, told The Times in late June. “I don’t have the ambition, experience or the ability. I want to help him, but Aristide needs to get someone else.”
A week later, he changed his mind, giving in to pressure from moderate business people, foreign diplomats and Aristide’s argument that no one else was acceptable to the various competing sectors in Haiti whose cooperation is necessary for Aristide’s return from nearly two years of forced exile.
Malval is scheduled to be sworn in by Aristide on Monday in Washington, but to underline that he was serious about not wanting the job, he already has announced that he will leave office by Dec. 15. In fact, he has submitted a resignation letter dated Nov. 15 that gives Aristide four weeks’ notice to find a replacement.
Malval says he changed his mind about the job because he realized he has a responsibility to his family. “I have a duty to leave a better Haiti to my children than I received from my parents,” he told the Haitian National Assembly this week. “I have a duty to leave them a state of law.”
All of this to-and-fro positioning leaves three distinct impressions among many Haitians. Some see him as a truly modest man, a Haitian Cincinnatus who has no ambition beyond helping his nation. A second impression is of a vacillating and weak-kneed Hamlet who does not know what he wants to be. Still others see a naive and inexperienced politician who has doomed his government to ineffective, lame-duck status by announcing in advance the date of his resignation.
Whatever the effects of Malval’s term as Haiti’s first legitimate prime minister since Aristide’s violent 1991 ouster, he is, in the view of many, an unlikely candidate for political success in a country where politics is often served from the barrel of a gun or the blade of a machete.
Robert Malval was born 50 years ago into an ancient Haitian family on his father’s side--one ancestor was a general in the successful war of independence from France--whose modern fortune was built on real estate and movie theaters.
With a widened world view derived from his mother’s Lebanese background, the teen-age Malval left for the United States to attend high school and college. He earned a degree in political science at the University of Miami and moved to Paris for graduate work in international affairs.
After returning to a country suffering under the bloody and often crazed dictatorship of Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier, Malval turned his back on politics, married into a wealthy and socially elite family and joined his father-in-law’s printing business.
He later left his father-in-law’s company and started his own printing and publishing house, a split that still rankles both amid mutual charges of unfair business tactics. Throughout the turbulent years of Papa Doc, his equally despotic son Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, and the various military coups and countercoups, Malval limited himself to building a fortune and earning a reputation as an honest and moderate man. His only public involvement was a column he wrote on foreign affairs for a daily newspaper.
His friends were of his class, although his associates included fast-rising members of the military’s young officer corps. To this day, Malval maintains a social friendship with Gen. Raoul Cedras, the man who led the coup against Aristide and has since effectively ruled Haiti. Their two families frequently dine together.
But at the same time, this apolitical member of Haiti’s wealthy mixed-race elite met and made friends with an erratic and radical Roman Catholic priest who was building a fervent following among the country’s impoverished black majority.
“He knew and admired Aristide before anyone else in our circle even knew he existed,” said one businessman with close contacts to Malval. “I’ve never understood why, but Robert grew to admire him to the point that he became a major financial supporter.”
Malval says only that he realized that Haiti could no longer ignore the wishes and needs of the majority and that Aristide was the man most able to serve those needs.
Others delve into psycho-babble to explain the relationship. “Robert, you know, had a very bad stutter and I think it made him feel a bit of an outsider,” said another business associate.
“Besides,” she went on, “he always felt he was never truly accepted because of his mother,” a reference to her Arab background. “All that made it easy to turn to another outsider, Aristide.”
When Aristide won Haiti’s first genuinely democratic presidential election in 1991, Malval initially was an enthusiastic supporter. However, he soon developed doubts about some of the president’s more radical and often inflammatory policies--doubts he largely kept private.
But when Cedras moved violently against Aristide in September of that year, Malval publicly opposed the coup and has been active in working for the president’s return.
Can Malval succeed in his announced goal of establishing the peace and stability necessary to guarantee Aristide’s scheduled return on Oct. 30?
“Who knows?” said one diplomat. “The question is, is he strong enough to resist the pressures both from Aristide’s opponents and from Aristide himself. I doubt that even Robert knows.”