Haiti A Year Later
Haitians' Patience For President Preval Wears Thin
With the return of former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier to Haiti this week, and the political chaos stemming from disputed elections, President Rene Preval is under increasing pressure.
Marred by allegations of widespread fraud and voter intimidation, the second round of presidential elections has been indefinitely postponed. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. told Preval to sponsor a credible election or risk losing international support.
The political instability engulfing Haiti is just the latest trouble for Preval, who has been widely criticized for his handling of the aftermath of last year's earthquake.
At the site where tens of thousands of earthquake victims are buried, Preval made a rare public appearance earlier this month at one of the commemorations of the Jan. 12 catastrophe.
Reading from prepared notes, Preval looked out on the hillside dotted with hundreds of black crosses and in Creole told the crowd to never forget those who perished.
The president is not known for consoling statements or skilled oratory. In the aftermath of the earthquake, he was rarely seen in public and widely criticized for his absence.
Supporters Difficult To Find
Preval first took office after the popular priest turned politician Jean-Bertrand Aristide left in 1996; he was re-elected in 2006.
But today it's difficult to find supporters, especially in the squalid encampments erected in the shadow of the destroyed presidential palace — or, as others such as Carlos Jean Charles call it, "the devil's house."
Charles sells his paintings to foreigners who come to stare at the crumbled ruins through its tall neon green gates.
"Rene Preval is the devil in this country. In his time, we receive cholera, earthquake, tsunami. We don't need him in this country anymore," he says.
In person, Preval is very genial. He is a slight man with a gap in his teeth and a silver beard.
Speaking in French and accompanied by his personal translator, Preval says he knows the people blame him for all the ills that have fallen on his country.
"I must say, I have extraordinary power," he says.
When asked how he wants to be remembered, he quips in English, "I want to go home, that's it."
Once Perceived As Hard Worker
Home is the rural provinces outside Port-au-Prince. After leaving office the first time, Preval, an agronomist, helped farmers grow crops and bamboo.
In a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable made public recently on WikiLeaks, the then-U.S. ambassador to Haiti described Preval as preoccupied with finding a successor who would allow him to stay in the country.
In an interview, Preval says he is proud to be the only elected president not forced into exile. He says he wants to be remembered for his achievements: increasing agricultural production, electricity and paving roads.
"I don't have a style of leadership that is like show business. I prefer to work and be efficient," he says.
Before the earthquake, Preval was viewed as a hard worker. In one leaked cable, he is described as working very long hours, with a daily two-hour nap in full pajamas.
He did manage a truce among rival gangs in the capital, stopped a spate of high-profile kidnappings and allowed for a free press.
Author Amy Wilentz, who has written extensively about Haiti, says Preval likes to work behind the scenes, but keeps a tight fist on power. "He doesn't lead the Haitian people; what he does is sits on the Haitian political class. For that you don't need to be so visible to the Haitian people, but you need to be wily and manipulative," she says.
Finding A Graceful Way Out
Preval will need to use all of those skills if he is to be able to peacefully hand over power this time.
Reached at her Miami office, Youri Mevs, who owns Haiti's largest private ports and warehouses, says she hopes the U.S. goes "all the way" to make sure the democratic transfer of power in Haiti continues.
"The man [Preval] needs some help leaving honorably, elegantly; he does need help doing the right thing," Mevs says.
On the streets of Port-au-Prince, patience for Preval is wearing thin. James Edward, sitting in front of his tent, taps on a large rock by his foot. He says he's saving it to throw at Preval. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.