Shortly after I took on Haiti as a full-time beat in 2006 as the Miami Herald’s Caribbean correspondent, a source slipped me President René Préval’s personal cellphone number. I knew that I would only get one chance to use that number, and it would be for something big.
Four years later, on Jan. 12, 2010, I dialed the number.
It took me hours to get through. When I did, Préval was stepping over corpses of lawmakers and government employees who had been trapped inside the parliament building in Port-au-Prince. A 7.0-magnitude earthquake had violently jolted the capital city, killing more than 300,000 and reducing the city’s downtown into little more than piles of rubble.
“When are you coming?” Préval asked.
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“As soon as you give me permission to land,” I responded.
Less than 12 hours after Haiti’s biggest disaster, I arrived in Port-au-Prince aboard a chartered flight. As I made my way across the airport tarmac behind hip-hop star and Haitian national Wyclef Jean, who had also just flown in on a chartered plane, I immediately saw Préval, his wife, Elisabeth, and members of his administration.
Préval had been up all night and hadn’t eaten. Someone passed him a sandwich. I took out my video camera and asked the first of many questions.
That interview wasn’t published until now. In the chaos of the fast-moving story, with communication and satellite problems, transmitting that piece of video was not a priority.
In the weeks and years after the earthquake, Préval would be criticized for not speaking to the media immediately following the tragedy. He did. He spoke to me and the handful of Haitian journalists who were also on the tarmac that day, though no one could broadcast because transmission lines were down. He was berated for not offering his condolences to the Haitian people after being quoted about his palace collapsing. He did offer his condolences that day and said that it wasn’t just one neighborhood that was destroyed but all of Port-au-Prince.
When Préval unexpectedly died Friday at the age of 74, the two-term president left a legacy of better roads and greater political stability. He was not a showman, and his quiet demeanor irked diplomats and — at times — Haitians. But for me, no memory is stronger than his quiet focus in the hours after the worst disaster to strike Haiti in modern times.
Haiti will mourn Préval for six days, according to a proclamation by current Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. A public viewing will take place Friday at the National Pantheon Museum Garden, where the heroes of Haitian independence, history and culture are celebrated. And his life will be celebrated Saturday on the Champ de Mars, the public square across from the now-razed presidential palace. Following the official Mass, a caravan will escort Préval’s body from Port-au-Prince to its final resting place in the northern rural town of Marmelade, where he worked with farmers in his post-presidential years.
Although Préval was publicly criticized for being “missing” during Haiti’s biggest disaster, I found him to be very much present. He wasn’t at the collapsed National Palace, where many foreign journalists went. And he wasn’t at the international airport where many international news outlets had set up tents. He was at the headquarters of the judicial police next to the airport.
So he could better coordinate the aid that was coming in, former Haitian Prime Minister Evans Paul said Préval told him when he had asked the question.
In my interview, Préval explained that it had been difficult to deliver the initial assistance because hospitals had collapsed, and those that hadn’t were turning people away. Telephone lines were down, and even radios were unable to broadcast.
He had spent the first hours after the quake — which he survived because he skipped his usual afternoon nap and his wife needed to go home to get a pair of pantyhose for a speech he was about to give marking the 150th anniversary of Haiti’s State University Law School — traveling around Port-au-Prince on the back of a motorcycle surveying the damage.
He decided he needed to see the magnitude of the destruction himself by going out with the interior minister and police.
“I called the U.S. ambassador, the ambassador of France and other people. The first question they all ask me is, ‘We need to know what kind of help you need,’ ” he said.
Afterward, his face was grave as he tried to describe what he had seen. “It’s not some little thing,” he said in Creole. “I can tell you, Jacqueline, it’s a big, big catastrophe.”
In the coming days, the president who didn’t like press conferences and believed in less talk and more action would be the most accessible he had ever been in either his first presidential term, 1996-2001, or his second, 2006-2011.
He would walk out of the door, visit with the mostly Haitian journalists sitting in the yard of the police headquarters, and watch foreign diplomats and aid experts trying to outdo one another with their aid offerings.
When a representative of the U.S. State Department pushed to let homeless quake victims start building shacks to get the economy going, Préval didn’t reply. He simply shook his head in objection. And like the savvy political chess player he was, he acted as if he hadn’t heard and stubbornly requested tents.
Many criticized his move.
Rene Préval knew his people, knew the country. He knew that any sort of wood and concrete structure — anything besides a tent — would turn into a permanent shanty town, something Haiti didn’t need.
Foreign diplomats and others called him stubborn and bull-headed. He didn’t care. What he cared about, and stressed to me over the years, was stability. Without stability, he would say, Haiti could not attract jobs, Haiti could not move forward. And stability meant real reconstruction, not post-earthquake shacks.
As we sat down that afternoon of Jan. 13, 2010, on the tarmac, Haiti had been through four major storms in 30 days, a malnutrition crisis, food riots and now a terrible earthquake. I asked him a question: “Would you say the country is unlucky?”
The man, a fierce defender of his country, was silent. He turned his head away from me.
Then, after what seemed like an eternity, he said: “There was an earthquake. You can say it was bad luck [but] … there are ways you are supposed to build. If you respect the norms of construction, there would be less damage so the bad luck would have less consequences for you. … You can’t say it’s a question of luck. The bad luck is there for everyone. It’s how you prepare yourself for when it happens.
“What route does Haiti need to take? Stability,” he added. “Stability so we can build something serious. Not coup d’etats, not ransacking, not burning homes, not just burning tires. We can’t just be destroying. We need to construct. This is the road we need to take so we can stop saying we are unlucky.”
Jacqueline Charles: @Jacquiecharles