Haitian quake shook leader to his core

Haitian President Rene Preval peers off and rubs his beard when he thinks about those 35 seconds when the earth convulsed.

Preval was feeding his 8-month-old granddaughter dinner in the courtyard of the presidential mansion. They were thrown to the ground as the house collapsed. Unable to reach anyone on the phone, Preval jumped on the back of a motorcycle taxi and directed the driver toward downtown. Wending through the rubble in the dark, he couldn’t comprehend the scope of death and ruin.

“Pain made me speechless,” he says during a two-hour interview in an office behind the half-collapsed National Palace. “As a person I was paralyzed.”

In the days and weeks following the Jan. 12 earthquake, Haitians desperately wanted to hear from their leader. Soon they were furious at his silence.

“I was much criticized for not having spoken.... To say what? To the thousands of parents whose children were dead. To the hundreds of schoolchildren I was hearing scream, ‘Come help me!’ ” He pauses and sighs. “I couldn’t find the words to say to those people.”

Preval, 67, a quiet former agronomist with a gap-toothed smile and silver beard that some Haitians suspect has magical powers, has always been an enigmatic figure. He concluded his first term as president, in 2001, with a prophetic warning of the chaos to come — “Swim to get out” — and retreated to a tiny home in the northern mountains to help peasants grow bamboo.

When he ran again in 2006, he barely campaigned and said almost nothing. Political observers were perplexed by his candidacy, because he never seemed to really like being president. He certainly never showed the thirst for power of any of his rivals or predecessors, and his return to the National Palace felt so casual as if to be almost accidental.

So did his success. Preval’s government quietly settled a gang war that had paralyzed the capital, stopped a horrific spate of kidnappings, restored regular electricity, reformed a corrupt police force, and secured trade preferences from Washington. And despite being hit by two destructive hurricanes, Haiti experienced a semblance of political stability for the first time in decades.

The world didn’t notice because, for once, Haiti was not in the news.

“He came in when the country was at war,” says Michele Montas, a longtime journalist and now a special advisor to the head of the United Nations mission in Haiti. “He brought the opposition into the government. He tried to reassure the private sector. As a journalist in this country for 30 years, I’ve never seen a political figure as shrewd as Rene Preval.... Can you imagine a politician who gets to power and he didn’t even campaign?

“I really think he’s misunderstood. But to some extent it’s his own fault.”

Haitians have long grumbled about Preval’s inability or unwillingness to speak to the masses and pitch a vision of the future. But when the earthquake killed an estimated 230,000 people, displaced more than a million more and leveled whole swaths of the capital, what was once seen as a tolerable quirk in a humble man became a focal point of the nation’s outrage.

Asked what Preval has done for the country, people in many parts of the capital grimace or swipe their hands in disgust, as if the answer is so obvious that the question itself is an outrage.

“Preval didn’t do a damn thing,” says Kerby Badio, 28, living in the sprawling tent camp outside the palace that Haitians call the White House. “He can’t even get the palace fixed. If a country doesn’t have a White House, it’s not a nation.”

Badio voted for Preval in 2006 because he thought he would make life better for the poor. But the president’s seeming absence after the earthquake crystallized a feeling that he didn’t empathize with their suffering.

“When a country goes through something like that, everyone looks for a president to say something. He didn’t say anything for weeks. He was just riding around on his motorcycle,” Badio said.

In nearby Fort National, residents were furious when the government razed homes to cut new road corridors. “We didn’t know what was being done,” says Victorin Richard, 22, whose little hut was among those cleared. “We thought they were building new houses. Now we hear it’s a road. It’s just going to be dust. They’ll never finish it.”

All of this has big political implications for the country’s recovery in a presidential election year. Preval, who cannot run for reelection, founded a new platform, Unity, to maintain some political continuity when he departs. But his lack of popularity leaves the election wide open, with many people on the streets saying they’d vote for hip-hop singer Wyclef Jean.

Foreign aid groups and diplomats have complained that Preval has been indecisive and has failed to settle key issues of where to settle the displaced.

“We know that it is not an easy task,” says Julie Schindall, a spokeswoman for the relief group Oxfam, which supplies clean water to the camps. But the people in the camps “are living on the edge. And they need to know what the future holds.”

Still, longtime Haiti observers view this in context of the turmoil before. Mark Schneider, a senior vice president at the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit group devoted to resolving deadly conflicts, says Preval has done “a remarkable job, given the half-functioning government, given the level of malaise, unhappiness and corruption previously.”

“People say they’re looking for a father figure to say things are going to be OK,” Schneider says. “And he just doesn’t do that. The instinct in his gut is that if he doesn’t see evidence that that’s going to happen, he’s not going to say it.”

But Schneider acknowledges that Preval needs to better explain his plans to the public.

“There’s frustration and uncertainty. People are asking, ‘What’s next?’ ”


Preval rode to power on the wings of his political mentor, the fiery slum priest-turned-president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The two had become friends when Preval owned a bakery that supplied free bread to Aristide’s church. When he succeeded Aristide as president in 1995, they had grown estranged, and Aristide was unwilling to give up his power, having his own loyalists embedded in the police and government and using street gangs to terrorize opponents.

The message of who really ruled was made clear when Preval and his then-wife found their dog dying of a machete blow — inside the National Palace.

His weak position hit its nadir in 2000 when his best friend, the crusading radio broadcaster Jean Dominique, was assassinated after accusing various Aristide acolytes of corruption and thuggery. Preval was devastated. He appointed a judge to investigate, but when Aristide succeeded him in 2001, the judge found his budget and security suddenly withdrawn, and fled to Miami.

Still, Preval’s first term was noted for many improvements — new roads, schools, hospitals. He cleaned out many of the “zombie” employees on the government payrolls and investigated human rights abuses.

He has always said he prefers practical steps to sweeping ideology or rhetoric.

In person, Preval is nothing like the stiff, distant man in front of the microphone. He is open, humorous and human like few politicians, admitting his frailties and chatting without the salesman sheen. Walking with a reporter behind the National Palace, among roaming chickens and peacocks, he puts his arm around an elderly man with light eyes and white hair.

“He looks just like me,” he says. The man smiles dutifully, clearly having heard this before.

He approaches another worker he knows and says, “He’s on his way to an anti-Preval demonstration.”

The man shakes his head, somewhat nervously, until Preval laughs and pats him on the back.

In the office, he ruminates on why his people seem to be turning against him. On the wall is a poster of Dominique, with the words “We Will Never Forget” in Creole.

Preval details a range of plans to build temporary shelters, followed by tall apartment buildings, to bring order to the teeming neighborhoods where houses were literally built on top of one another. He appointed a civil engineer to work with U.N. officials and relief organizations to settle land disputes and find suitable places for the people in the tent camps.

“If the people know that within five years there will be apartment buildings, they will go,” he said.

But he knows he is in no position to promise them this. The election to replace him is scheduled for Nov. 28. The U.N. advisors working on the issue hadn’t even heard of this apartment idea, and appeared to be waiting for his successor to grapple with long-term issues.

He hopes he can make some headway before his legacy is sealed by catastrophe.

“There was so much death, so much suffering, one has to find a person responsible for that. Since they can’t accuse the one up there,” he says, pointing up, “they are accusing the one in the palace. Sometimes you have the impression people are accusing you of actually causing the earthquake.”