The evening before he died, two-time Haitian President René Garcia Préval, who led Haiti during food riots and its worst natural disaster, called his wife, Elisabeth, who was visiting Coral Gables. He had just returned from paying his respects after the passing of a friend, and had discovered a new restaurant, he told her.
Préval, who had come to prefer the quiet of home to public restaurants in his post-presidency years, was excited about his new Italian find, and he couldn’t wait to take his wife there, Elisabeth Delatour Préval said to the Miami Herald.
On Friday, she remembered the conversation: “He asked, when am I coming home?”
Préval died Friday at their home in Laboule, a neighborhood in the hills of Port-au-Prince. He was 74. The cause of death has not been confirmed but friends close to him, many of whom gathered at the hospital where his body lay on a metal gurney, say it was likely the result of a heart attack.
“I refused to believe it. I cannot believe it,” said Delatour Préval, who was in Coral Gables when her husband died, though she had spoken to him three times Friday morning. “He was in excellent humor.”
Préval’s unexpected death shocked not just family and friends but also a broken nation that believed he still had unfinished business. And it came as Haitians and historians are still trying to define his role in history. Through two presidential terms, 1996-2001 and 2006-2011, Préval brought a steady hand to Haiti in some of its most difficult periods.
Though he was criticized for his handling of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake and for failing to strengthen political institutions, he was lauded in his second term for stepping out of the shadow of his former political mentor, ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and bringing back stability. Early on, he gave the OK to United Nations peacekeepers to aggressively disarm pro-Aristide slum gangs, and he worked to build trust and consensus in a country decimated by years of violence and political turmoil.
“He will be remembered as one of the greatest personalities of the country, whose influence has marked the political and social life of Haiti for three decades,” said Sandra Honoré, the U.N. special representative and head of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti. “We will remember his commitment to the country’s economic development and opening policy.”
Current Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, expressing gratitude to Préval, called him a “great figure of Haitian politics” and “a worthy son who made many sacrifices during his life for the benefit” of Haiti.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, also remembered him Friday.
“We were proud to stand with the Haitian people alongside President Préval after the devastating earthquake in 2010, and we stand with them today in mourning his passing. Even when we disagreed, we always respected his service to his country,” the Clintons said in a statement.
An enigma to many, Préval was seen by some as the unluckiest president, after the country, during his second term, endured four back-to-back major storms in 30 days and food riots in 2008, only to be hit with a devastating earthquake two years later. Others said he was misunderstood, underrated and one of Haiti’s savviest and wisest politicians.
“He knew the reality of the country,” said Jude Célestin, the two-time opposition presidential candidate who was first tapped by Préval in 2010 to run for president. “He was quiet, brilliant and very wise. It’s a big loss for the country because he was a huge adviser.”
The two spoke just hours before Préval’s death, Célestin said. The former president, a Belgium-trained agronomist and a stickler for time who kept to-do lists on scraps of paper in his wallet, wanted to make sure that a new machine Célestin had built for him to help farmers increase production of orange juice was on its way to Marmelade, the northern city where Préval quietly ran a juice and bamboo factory after the presidency.
“It wasn’t a political relationship. He called me ‘engineer’ and I called him ‘agronomist,’” Célestin said, adding that theirs was “a father and son” bond.
Préval was born Jan. 17, 1943, in Port-au-Prince. He recently celebrated his birthday at his wife’s Coral Gables home, where he spent the day, cell phone shut off, worried about the future of the country.
During his presidencies, Préval’s close ties with Cuba and Venezuela frequently frustrated and incensed U.S. State Department officials. They were often disappointed with his cautious approach when they thought Haiti needed more aggressive leadership.
Still, he became the first president to peacefully transfer power to a member of the opposition in 2011 after Michel Martelly’s win. He is also the only president in Haiti’s 200-year-plus history to have served two full presidential terms without being jailed, exiled or killed.
He prided himself on both accomplishments, as well as the fact that his name was never linked to corruption. He spoke frequently about how little he cared for money.
“He’s one of the most honest presidents Haiti has ever had,” said Robert “Bob” Magloire, one of his closest friends and advisers. “There was never any political persecution under him. He respected the assets of the state. Even though people spoke ill of him, he never had anything bad to say about them. His conscience is at peace.”
Janet Sanderson, who served as U.S. ambassador to Haiti during Préval’s second term, said she has thought about him a great deal since retiring from the foreign service.
“I liked him immensely, and I always knew he was trying to do the best for Haiti,” Sanderson said. “We sometimes had disagreements, but at the end of the day I don’t think any of us could doubt his love for his country.”
Jerry Tardieu, a member of the Lower House of Deputies, was one of the last people to see Préval. The two had spent the morning together, with Tardieu leaving Préval’s home at around 11 a.m. Préval, always the agronomist, had given Tardieu one of 250 books on deforestation he had recently purchased, and wanted to persuade Tardieu to create legislation pushing production as a way to fight deforestation and put money in farmers’ pockets.
“He was fine,” Tardieu said. “He looked no different than any other day. I am in shock.”
Préval devoted his years out of the presidency to turning bamboo into school furniture to create jobs, and to boost national production of agricultural products. He continued to be sought out by foreign diplomats in recent years as Haiti reeled from one political crisis to another. He had a meeting set up with a U.S. official in coming weeks.
At one point during his discussion with Tardieu on Friday, former Haitian Minister of Culture Daniel Elie walked into the room. Préval, with his usual wry humor, turned to Elie and said, “I know that you know Jerry Tardieu. But you don’t know the congressman who is going to defend national production.”
It was his way of promoting his latest cause.
A leftist and fervent opponent of the former Duvalier dictatorship, Préval pushed for the prosecution of former President Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier after he suddenly showed up in Haiti in 2011 after nearly 25 years in exile in France. Préval was former president Aristide’s first prime minister after his 1990 election.
Ten months after that election, Aristide and members of his administration, including Préval, were forced into exile by a military coup. Préval first sought refuge at the French embassy, then the Mexican embassy, both in Port-au-Prince, before eventually ending up in Washington.
Préval eventually broke ties with Aristide. But as a strict adherent to the Haitian Constitution, he believed that a Haitian could not be exiled from his own country. As a result, he never blocked Aristide’s request for a passport that eventually cleared the way for his surprise 2011 return to Haiti after seven years in exile in South Africa.
“May his soul rest in peace, and peace to our beloved Haiti,” Aristide said in a written statement sent to the Herald.
Leslie Voltaire, who was minister of education during Aristide’s first term, said the former priest-turned-president was saddened by the news of Préval’s passing. Voltaire had known Préval, who devoted his second presidential term to the construction of roads, for more than 50 years.
“He was always in politics,” he said. “He dreamed of increasing national production and extending Cuban and Venezuelan cooperation.”
That relationship between Haiti and the two Spanish-speaking nations flourished under Préval. Cuba provided doctors to Haiti and scholarships for Haitians to study in Cuba. Meanwhile, Haiti received much-needed cash for social programs from Venezuela’s discounted PetroCaribe oil program.
Bernard Fils-Aime, a businessman and close friend of Préval’s who often dined with him in Haiti and Miami, said in the end the former leader of Haiti remained true to himself.
“His legacy is a leadership style that put people together into finding solutions. It was never about him,” Fils-Aime said. “It was about getting in touch with all sectors, from the little guy to the most powerful, to find appropriate solutions for the country.
“That is what he was about: quiet, consensus-builder but misunderstood,” Fils-Aime said. “Misunderstood, because people feared his kind of power.”
In addition to his wife, Préval is survived by his sister and chief confident, Marie-Claude Préval Calvin, two daughters and two sons, and two grandchildren.