To the tune of Pocahontas and a three-gun salute, former Haitian President René Préval was laid to rest in this rural Haitian town in the Artibonite Valley on Saturday where he dedicated his post-presidency years to improving the lot of Haitian farmers.
Préval’s flag-draped coffin arrived after a four-hour drive north from Port-au-Prince, where his life was celebrated in an official Mass organized by the National Palace.
Along the route, Haitians bid a final “adieu,” with banners and T-shirts bearing his nickname, Ti-Rene, and promises that they “will never forget.” In Marmelade, residents plastered his photo on their walls and cried as his body arrived to the freshly built grave.
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“We’re going to miss him a lot, “ said Leon Francois, 40. “He did a lot for us.”
After his first presidential term, from 1996-2001, Préval retired here and founded an agricultural center. A green oasis of bamboo, mango and orange trees, it houses several different cooperatives including one that runs a juice processing plant and another, a bamboo furniture-making factory. There are also several man-made lakes on the expansive property, which Préval championed during his first presidential term to help farmers get income through fish raising.
“We’ve lost a branch in our battle,” said Charles Suffrad, a peasant leader, Préval friend and longtime ally in the late president’s fight to integrate peasants in national life.
Suffrad was among several people who eulogized Préval earlier in the day at a solemn Mass, which took place at the Occide Jeanty amphitheater on the Champ de Mars, across from the razed presidential palace.
Just as in life, Préval, in death, brought together Haitians of all hues, socio-economic standings and political leanings as peasant organizations paid tribute with the wearing of traditional straw hats — a symbol of the Haitian farmer and the grassroots organizations that Préval cultivated to become Haiti’s only two-time president to complete his terms and leave office.
On Friday, thousands of Haitians filed through lines to get one last look at Préval as his open casket lay in the garden of the National Pantheon Museum on the Champ de Mars. They were joined by current Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, former presidents Jocelerme Privert, Michel Martelly and Prosper Avril, and members of the foreign diplomatic corps.
“I was fortunate to have him around when I needed some advice,” Martelly said. “I can say that now, I know what it is to have served once. I still don’t have the experience of serving twice. He has it and he’s gone with it.”
The only Haitian president to have served two terms and not be jailed, killed or exiled, Préval died unexpectedly on March 3. The cause of death has not yet been determined. An autopsy was ordered by his wife, former first lady Elisabeth Delatour Préval , who was in Coral Gables when her husband died at age 74.
Préval served as president from 1996-2001 and 2006-2011. Former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s first prime minister before he was forced by a military coup to seek exile along with other Aristide government officials, Préval also held office as director general of a government development agency and minister of defense.
Trained in Belgium as an agronomist, he briefly worked as a waiter in the United States before returning to Haiti where he ran a bakery with several friends including his former Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis.
During Saturday’s national ceremony organized by the National Palace, some from the stands shouted, “Go in peace, Préval,” and “You were a good person, you were a good president.”
Moise, coming across as if he’s still in campaign mode, also spoke at the funeral saying he had hope to seek advice from Préval. While not publicly active in politics, Préval remained active behind the scenes dispensing his political wisdom and experience to politicians and foreign diplomats who have often sought his advice since he left office.
Patricia Préval, the youngest of two daughters, eulogied her father in a 22-minute speech. He wasn’t a man who liked to talk, she said touching on an often heard criticism of the late president, but her most beautiful memories were of her spending hours at her father’s side, communicating “without saying a word.”
My father was like a tree with a beautiful story. It’s a story that isn’t finished.
Patricia Préval, daughter of René Préval
“My father was like a tree with a beautiful story,” Patricia Préval said about touching on her father’s love for Haiti, his push for development and his unifying force. “It’s a story that isn’t finished.”
A man who didn’t take himself seriously, Préval would tell her, “I’m not doing politics.”
“Politics didn’t interest him; it was a means to do development,” she said.
At the time of his death, Préval was embarking on a new focus: recruiting Haitian farmers in the war on deforestation. He wanted Haiti’s parliament to pass a law requiring the government to source locally, giving farmers an economical reason to plant and protect trees.
“His death is a big loss,” said Dimitri Vorbe, a local businessman who viewed Préval as a father figure. “We must continue his work. His work was simple: help the farmers, transform the provinces with the private sector. Put together a team that would start recuperating the lands to make the best of the country.”