It speaks volumes that in the 210-plus year history of the world’s first Black republic that Rene Garcia Preval was the only freely elected president of Haiti to win and complete two term in office.
And it said even more about his legacy that on Preval’s death last week at the age of 74 years members of Haiti’s educated elite described his passing as a severe “blow” to the Creole-speaking nation of 10 million.
“I prostrate myself before the remains of this worthy son of Haiti,” was the way the new President Jovenal Moise confirmed the unexpected passing of the man whose terms as head of state were characterized by relative peace on the streets, the firming up of democratic institutions and by the passing of the torch of leadership from one elected leader to another.
Ricot Dupuy, a premiere Haitian commentator in the Haitian Diaspora in New York put it differently in Brooklyn where he operates Radio Soleil.
“His death was a shock to all of us and it spawned widespread sadness,” said Dupuy. “The man who demystified the presidency and led with simplicity is no longer. Before the devastating earthquake of 2010, the country was doing relatively well economically and socially.”
Elected by a landslide in 1995, thanks to the backing of then President Jean Bertrand Aristide, Preval led Haiti in a low-keyed style in both domestic and international firms. Even some of his sternest critics acknowledged that the fragile democracy which was often victimized by political and military dictatorships or terrible acts of nature was recording some positive strides
when the earthquake struck, killing more than 200,000 people, leaving more than a million homeless and causing at least $1 billion in damage to the infrastructure.
Indeed, not only did the earthquake cause untold damage but it undermined Preval’s legacy. Many Haitians felt he didn’t connect with them in their greatest hour of need in the 21st century. What a pity!
The truth, according to people close to Preval, was that the man who had served as Prime Minister and later as president was traumatized by the massive destruction and didn’t know where to turn and what to tell Haitians. That style of national management proved to be a serious mistake and his virtual public disappearance for long stretches of time turned out to be quite costly.
He later sought to explain his inadequate response by admitting “as a person I was paralyzed.” That’s not what people expect of their leaders.
Born in the capital of Port-au-Prince in 1943 but raised in the mountainous, coffee and rice growing area of Marmelade in the country’s north-central region, Preval who was trained in Belgium and Italy to be an agronomist, once lived and worked in Brooklyn after fleeing his birthplace in the 1970s during the heavy-handed and often murderous regime of President Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. But on Duvalier’s passing and the ascension of his son, “Jean Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier, Preval returned home, worked in a low government position, tried his hand at operating a bakery and then turned to politics, linking arms with the popular Roman Catholic priest, Jean Bertrand Aristide who made him the nation’s Prime Minister after the man of the cloth was elected President in 1990.
His self-effacing style had made him an acceptable second in command to the more flamboyant Aristide who was soon ousted and forced to flee. Preval left with Aristide but returned home after his mentor was restored to office with the help of the Americans. When Aristide’s term ended, Preval mounted a successful presidential campaign which gave him considerable power.
Interestingly, when his own term ended, Preval handed the sash of office to Aristide who won the next election but who was then ousted by
internal military forces backed by foreign sources, said to have been financed by Washington.
The rest is a solid chapter in history. Preval won the next election and served out his second term which was tarnished by his actions after the earthquake.