Rene Préval, two-time president of Haiti, died at 74 on March 3, 2017. The following story, about his second election to the Haitian presidency, originally ran on Feb. 12, 2006.
The man Haitians overwhelmingly picked to lead their country out of turmoil is a quiet agronomist of modest means, average human frailties and a hint of mischief — a notable contrast to the hubris and burning rhetoric that has defined Haiti’s bloody history.
René Préval, 63, entered the race long after the other well-known candidates. The man who was president from 1996 to 2001 made no campaign promises. He did not attack his opponents. And he only recently began speaking publicly.
On Saturday, the official tally gave him 49.6 percent of the votes, with 72 percent of the stations counted. But foreign electoral officials said an independent survey showed Préval received 54 percent of the vote, although the survey has yet to be adjusted for blank ballots, which could reduce each candidate’s percentage points slightly.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Préval supporters marched past the National Palace to proclaim his victory. The second-place candidate, former President Leslie Manigat, had a mere 11.58 percent. But with 32 contenders in the race, electoral officials couldn’t say whether Préval got the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.
The slow pace of the counting for the presidential and legislative elections Tuesday has been creating tension among Préval supporters, particularly given that the electoral council is controlled by rival parties.
An outright Préval win would be a stunning defeat for a political elite that hoped to gain power after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide — a fiery former slum priest and Préval’s political godfather — fled the country in 2004 as armed rebels moved toward the capital.
REBUILDING AT HAND
As president, Préval would face the task of rebuilding a country whose institutions have been decimated, whose political culture is fractured along class lines and whose people are exhausted by years of violence and hunger.
To do so, many observers say, he must come out of his mentor’s shadow. Specifically, Préval would have to move quickly to disarm the slum gangs that Aristide armed as virtual militias — and which have since set off a devastating wave of kidnapping and bloodshed.
“People fear that if he cannot free himself from the Aristide base, he might become a prisoner of the very violent methods of that base,” said Claude Moise, chief editorialist of the newspaper Le Matin.
Moise said he hopes Préval finds the fortitude to do what he couldn’t do earlier.
During his term in office, Préval was hobbled from the start. Aristide, who had won the presidency in 1990 but was ousted by a military coup nine months later, felt he should get an extra three years to make up for his time in exile before 20,000 U.S. troops helped restore him to power. While he reluctantly endorsed Préval on the last day of campaigning, Aristide placed his own loyalists in the government and the police.
Préval found himself at the mercy of his old friend. Even the bodyguards at the presidential National Palace were more loyal to Aristide — a point underscored when his wife found her dog bleeding from a machete slash.
“Aristide created, inside the public administration, forces that were faithful to him,” Moise said. “So Préval was accused of being weak. . . . I think he was fearful of Aristide.”
How much Préval has changed since is a mystery.
He has vigilantly avoided discussing how he would handle the explosive issue of whether Aristide will return. While the militant wing of his base is demanding the return of the ousted president from exile in South Africa, most observers agree that such a move would cause political chaos.
Préval has said only that Haiti’s Constitution does not allow exile. Yet he notably refused to run on the ticket of Aristide’s Lavalas Family party and has accused it of corruption. He formed his own party, Lespwa, or hope in Creole. And he picked as his campaign manager Bob Manuel, a former minister in Préval’s Cabinet who fled the country under threats from Aristide thugs.
If he wins the next presidential term, Préval will also have the support of the 9,500-member U.N. peacekeeping force, which arrived in 2004 to stabilize Haiti, and hundreds of millions of dollars pledged by international donors.
But Préval’s caginess on the subject of Aristide concerns his critics.
“Maybe he does want to rehabilitate himself, but he does not speak, so we do not know,” Moise said.
A SECLUDED LIFE
Since the election, Préval has secluded himself in this northern mountain village five hours by road from Port-au-Prince, where he lives in a small tin-roofed home on the central square.
It is his life here in Marmelade, his grandparents’ hometown, that he likes to talk about.
For five years, he completely disappeared from public view and began a project to help about 900 local peasants grow coffee, citrus and bamboo, with a $5 million grant from the Taiwanese government.
For an ex-president, his apparent lack of wealth is striking. Where Aristide lived in a luxurious estate with lush gardens and a swimming pool, Preval’s home is 800 square feet, maximum. His bedroom barely fits the bed. Toiletries rest on the windowsill.
“ I didn’t have a house in Port-au-Prince,” he told The Miami Herald. “And the pension of the president is only $200 a month.”
Down the road, the cooperative now boasts a coffee and orange juice processing plant and a small factory to make bamboo furniture.
“In five years, we multiplied the peasants’ income by four,” Préval said Saturday.
He says it is this success that brought him back to politics. On July 27, more than 1,000 peasants camped out at the cooperative and urged him to run for president, Préval said.
“What they say about Préval is he speaks very little, he listens a lot,” said Francois Severin, Préval’s longtime friend and partner in the Federation of Associations of Native Coffee Growers. “This is his advantage.”
Préval is most comfortable, not in speaking to crowds, but in loyal relationships with those he cares for, say his friends. He is funny and a bit sly — and hopelessly flirtatious with women.
When he was being treated for prostate cancer in Cuba after he left office, his ex-wife, Geri, spent her own money to stay with him.
And rather than making grand ideological proclamations, he seeks small solutions, friends say.
As president, he built roads and schools, lowered the price of fertilizer for peasants and began to resolve land disputes that had rural towns in bloody feuds.
“He was the one who tried to fix the place,” said Venithe Saint Cyr, 42, who grew up in the countryside but had to move to the Cité Soleil slum of Port-au-Prince to find work. “Where I came from, the countryside, Préval built a road so my family could transport their goods and he kept the fertilizer down.”
But the progress Préval made was severely limited. He did not have a majority in the Parliament. By 1997, his government was paralyzed.
Préval largely retreated into the National Palace. His public appearances seemed awkward. When he arrived at the gruesome scene of a 1997 ferry accident in which more than 170 people died, one of the first things he did was ask for a cold beer.
“It was a sterile presidency,” Moise said.
The legendary radio journalist and fellow agronomist Jean Dominique tried to inspire Préval, an intimate friend, to break with Aristide and grab the reins of government.
“He wanted René to become autonomous,” said Michele Pierre-Louis, a long-time friend of Préval. “Jean would say: ‘He has to have the stature of head of state. That’s what I’m working on.”’
Pierre-Louis met Préval when he was studying agronomy in Belgium and she was studying in France. When they met again in Haiti during the 1970s, they became fast friends. Wondering what to do with their lives, they scrounged financing from their parents and started a downtown bakery — the Boulangerie du Centre.
The bakery donated bread to the St. Jean Bosco church in the slum of La Saline, where Aristide was a priest. He and Préval became friends and allies in the fight against the dictatorship of Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.
“Anyone who wasn’t for revolution at the time didn’t have his heart in the right place,” said Pierre-Louis.
After Duvalier fled the country and Aristide won the country’s first totally free and democratic presidential elections, he appointed Préval as prime minister. But by the time Préval became president himself, he seemed tortured by the pressures pushing from every angle.
When friend Jean Dominique was shot to death outside his radio station in 2000, after programs highly critical of Aristide’s party, Préval met Pierre-Louis at the hospital.
Her brother-in-law, Father Jean Pierre-Louis, had been assassinated two years before, and police never found the assailants. She looked into Préval’s eyes.
“This happened during your presidency,” she said. “I hope this time there will be an investigation.”
She sighs at his response that day.
“I hope so,” Préval said.
The murder was never solved.