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René Préval: The Unassuming President Who Wanted to Save Haiti 1943-2017

By AMY WILENTZ December 28, 2017

René Préval was a Haitian leader who once reportedly said that when he was done leading the country, what he really wanted to do was to run a stall in the marketplace, selling cigarettes. He was a president who would arrive by motorcycle in relaxed clothing to talk to farmers in the distant countryside. He liked to party. He often appeared in a white guayabera, even in formal settings, and also had an affection for sandals and other light footwear, even in the palace. I remember how he took my notebook out of my hand—tanpri, he said (“please”)—and started writing the names of the institutions from which a new electoral council was to be chosen.

When Wyclef Jean, the Haitian rapper and international hip-hop star, came to meet Préval at the palace for the first time, Jean, in a bespoke suit, was ushered along with his entourage into the waiting room outside the president’s office. Jean is a tall, imposing man, and he was excited about this meeting with the supreme Haitian leader. A small, bald, bearded man came up to him and began chatting—for too long, Jean thought. The musician became quite peremptory, and told the little fellow, a clerk, no doubt, that he was there to speak to President Préval.

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“Well, that’s good, because I am President Préval,” the man replied.

Préval, who died on March 3 at age 74, told me that story with wry amusement. He saw himself very clearly.

When I went to visit Préval at the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in the fall of 2000, he took me by the wrist, a traditional friendly Haitian gesture, and led me around to the back of the palace. In the garden, the part of the grounds where he was most comfortable, nonchalant roosters and hens walked past us, pecking, unimpressed by his office. There was a pool where Préval was breeding … fish. He pointed to this one and that, telling me their names in Creole. It was one of his little experiments, which he was always hoping to scale up. Préval, who had been trained as an agronomist, had watched the Haitian peasant fall from penury to utter poverty over his lifetime, as Haiti’s farms were drawn into and then destroyed by the global economy. He was always deeply, unostentatiously, interested in how to make Haiti work on its own terms.

Some months after that visit, Préval handed off the presidency to his old friend and political comrade, the former Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide—no blood, no coup, just an election, Aristide’s second to that office. Aristide was overthrown for the second time in 2004, and Préval was elected for the second time in 2006. It was a relay race, with the baton of the presidency handed off between them for about two decades, and with a few intervening illegitimate chiefs rudely installed. After Préval left the office of the presidency for the second time, in 2011, he liked to say that he was the first Haitian president to have completed two constitutional terms, the first Haitian president to have twice handed off the presidency to a constitutionally elected successor and the only Haitian president in 25 years to have left office alive and neither in exile nor in prison. That last, especially, he was proud of, because he never wanted to leave Haiti.

You can’t interpret Préval without understanding Aristide. The first time I met Préval, decades earlier, in 1987, it was a cool morning, and he was delivering some bread from a bakery he had co-founded to the orphan boys whom Aristide was caring for at his parish in Port-au-Prince. As I recall the moment, the bread was in three or four large boxes. Aristide nominally presided, and the two men laughed and exchanged jokes as the boys tossed the bread across the room to one another. Aristide called Préval his “twin.” Twins have a special sacred status in the Vaudou spiritual tradition, so this was a resonant claim. In the early days before either one had power, theirs was a mutual admiration society—Aristide flamboyant, seductive and extroverted, Préval seemingly quiet, almost shy, remote. Aristide was a child of the countryside who came of age in the Catholic Church. His mother was a market commerçante, while Préval’s father had been a government minister in the distant days before the dictatorial Duvaliers came to power. Yet Aristide seemed supremely urban, and Préval had the more countrified manner.

After his studies in Belgium and Italy were over, Préval turned up in Brooklyn (as so many Haitians who were fleeing the Duvaliers did), where he worked for a time as a waiter, a factory worker and a messenger. He was a member of what could be called the enlightened bourgeoisie in Haiti; few in number, they were nonetheless influential in the movement against President Jean-Claude Duvalier in the mid-1980s. They eventually came together to support Aristide’s candidacy and helped bring about the first ill-fated presidency of the liberation priest in 1990.

But the twins of Vaudou are not entirely benign. The political trajectory of Préval, with his two completed terms in the presidency, cannot be examined without taking into consideration the fact that his “twin” Aristide was twice ousted from that office in violent coups green-lighted by various foreign powers. Préval was popular largely because Aristide’s enormous and unswerving popularity rubbed off on him: In Préval’s first election, Aristide endorsed him. As Ricardo Seitenfus, Organization of American States envoy during Préval’s second term, puts it: “Aristide was the incendiary, and Préval, the fireman.” Aristide, Seitenfus wrote, was often the first victim of the metaphorical fires he himself lit, whereas the laid-back Préval, who was always putting out those fires, was often dismissed because with his relaxed character, he failed to satisfy Haiti’s traditional susceptibility to cults of personality and to dramatic political presentation.

For Haiti, what the relay-race meant was that the country would take two steps forward toward popular rule with Aristide, and then remain on that plateau for five years as Préval tried to calm things down, placate foreign powers, especially the United States, and remain in office. Yet Préval never abandoned the twins’ left-leaning analysis of north-south power differences. To read the WikiLeaks cables from the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, discussing Préval’s ongoing relationship to Hugo Chávez, is to begin to understand the fine line Préval tried to walk to balance continuing relations with the United States and Haiti’s hopes for ongoing aid, in the form of oil, from Venezuela. He often walked this perilous tightrope, and has been faulted on the left for his acquiescence in various foreign meddlings in Haitian affairs. But if nothing else, Préval was “an artist of the possible,” as Rénald Clerismé, a former priest and militant peasant leader, once said.

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Indeed, Préval, whom everyone assumed was merely on the political scene to “keep the seat warm” for Aristide, the bigger star, turned out to be a more reliable head of state than his more fiery counterpart. He understood, or believed, that a Haitian president would always be weak on the international stage and therefore had to achieve his goals through subtlety, irony, and what Seitenfus rightly calls, in Préval’s case, “a refined humor, full of hidden meanings and allusions, that could turn cold and incisive when necessary.” By 2009, the country was making small steps toward economic normalization under his guidance. The vicious Haitian army had been demobilized by Aristide, and that helped. Préval was trying to professionalize the police; that also helped. But perhaps his greatest contribution was to let Haitians speak freely, without fear of retribution, and to grant utter freedom of assembly and freedom of the press and media. He never feared criticism, and unlike so many Haitian presidents before him, he elicited from the Haitian people neither adoration, nor fear, nor hatred. He was Ti René, Little René.

Then came the earthquake, which was the undoing of so many Haitians and so many Haitian plans. Préval, then in his second presidential term, was just returning home when the quake struck at a little after 4 p.m. on January 12, 2010, and he only escaped the collapse of his house because a grandchild had emerged and engaged his attention. The quake and its immense destruction played to Préval’s weaknesses. After such a national catastrophe—perhaps more than 200,000 dead, and so many gravely wounded—diffidence and quiet and moderation were not what Haitians needed. But at that key moment, Préval seemed to disappear.

A year later, he spoke movingly about what he had seen on a motorbike tour of Port-au-Prince on the night of the quake. When he returned home to his own ruined house, he said, his wife told him that he had to make some kind of statement.

“What am I going to say?” he told me he had replied. “It would have been ridiculously inadequate to speak to people in such pain. I thought it was better to talk to ambassadors, and to figure out how to get help, rather than to go out with the television behind me and, you know, take a stroll to show myself as a sensitive man, and be photographed in front of children and the dead.” This was a refinement of sensibility that was lost on the quake’s survivors and on the international media, but it speaks to Préval’s reluctance to take advantage of suffering for his own political benefit.

Another of his signal achievements, other than maintaining his rule and handing it off properly, was to allow two deposed leaders to return to Haiti from exile. Préval always had a weak spot for the Haitian who misses home and longs to be back, so he allowed Duvalier, deposed in 1986, to return in January 2011 to face corruption and human-rights charges, and then (fair is fair) permitted Aristide, ousted in 2004, to return from his South African exile three months later, over the intense objections of President Barack Obama’s administration.

When I think back on Préval, what I remember are moments of freedom without fear, though Haitian politics was still marred by occasional violence. There was chatter and reporting on the radio and in the papers, both pro- and anti-Préval, with no censorship or self-censorship. There were massive, and safe, annual Vaudou festivals, as well as protest marches in the capital, largely without incident. The post-Duvalier Haitian political scene, which came into its adolescence during Préval’s administrations, is only spasmodically democratic, and elections have been flawed (a nice word). But the ideal of democracy was protected and shepherded by Préval through the usual domestic and foreign attempts on its survival, as well as through the chaos of the earthquake. With very little ego, he gave Haiti his best, staunch and steadfast, without pyrotechnics, and when he died, Haitians realized how much they had trusted him.

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