Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Haiti's Preval, a survivor in a turbulent land

By Joseph Guyler Delva:

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) -- When a team of Reuters reporters landed in Haiti the morning after its catastrophic earthquake, President Rene Preval was there on the airport tarmac, greeting some of those arriving on one of the first charter jets coming in from Florida with a handshake and a wry smile.

Impeccably turned out in a starched white shirt and dark tropical wool dress pants, you would never have guessed that he had spent hours the night before getting a first-hand look at the death and destruction wreaked on the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince from the back of a motorbike.

Haitian President Rene Preval speaks on the phone in Port-au-Prince after the capital was rocked by a massive earthquake.  AFP PHOTOAn enigma to many, and often criticized for his seemingly minimalist approach to governance in the poorest nation in the Americas, Prevail has few concrete achievements to highlight since he took office in May 2006.

Far from a hands-on, hard-charging management style, he has even failed to give a national address in the week since Haiti was hit by the 7.0 magnitude quake, which authorities estimate may have taken 200,000 lives in one of the world's worst natural disasters.

Preval has, however, given numerous media interviews and traveled to the neighboring Dominican Republic to meet with aid donors.

The soft-spoken agronomist, 67, took charge of a treasury that was empty and a parliament that was in tatters when Haiti's overwhelming majority of poor swept him to office four years ago.

And international observers say he has held steadfastly to efforts to establish a stable democracy in a country that has suffered upheaval and dictatorship since it threw off French rule more than 200 years ago.

"He's in shock right now, the whole country is in a state of shock, but Preval is not a bad man and I'm sure he'll do the best he can when things settle down a bit and he can focus his efforts on rebuilding Haiti," said Jean Baptiste, a student of international relations whose father is a doctor in downtown Port-au-Prince.

"The question is where does he begin," he added, saying the enormity of the challenges lying ahead after the earthquake were enough to overwhelm anyone.

Violent unrest and rioting could still shake Haiti in the days and months to come, if distribution problems, bottlenecks or corruption prevent international aid from reaching people made homeless and poorer than ever by the Jan. 12 temblor.

But a massive influx of aid, and support from around the globe, could buoy Preval's fragile government before his term ends in 2011 and few here seem to think the balding and graying Haitian leader will be ousted, like so many other elected Haitian leaders have been before.

He became the only Haitian leader to win a democratic election, serve a full term and peacefully hand over power when he first served as president from 1996 through 2001.

Haiti's ornate presidential palace, a relic of better times in the late 1800s when its sugar plantations and other resources prompted the country to be known as a "Pearl of the Antilles," was caved in by the quake.

Preval was not in the building when the disaster struck. But speaking later, in various meetings with reporters and local government officials at the police station that has become his home and office in the wrecked capital, he spoke of the haunting images he saw from one of Port-au-Prince's ubiquitous "motor taxis" on his nighttime ride through the capital a short while after the quake.

"The damage I have seen here can be compared to the damage you would see if the country was bombed for 15 days. It is like in a war," Preval told Reuters.

January 20, 2010