Haitian President Préval largely absent in quake's aftermath
Monday, January 18, 2010
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- As foreign aid and troops flow into this ruined capital, a Haitian government led by a diffident president has been overwhelmed, making it largely invisible since the earthquake throttled the country six days ago.
An aloof politician who was educated abroad, President René Préval has spoken far more to foreign audiences through satellite television than to his own people. Over consecutive days this weekend, Préval, 67, met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. But he has yet to visit the vast refugee camp that has risen in the city center alongside the crumbled National Palace, where he once lived.
The U.S. government views Préval, an agronomist by training, as a technocrat largely free of the sharp political ideologies that have divided Haiti for decades. But at a time when tragedy is forcing the country essentially to begin again, Préval's aversion to the public stage has left millions of Haitians wondering whether there is a government at all.
"Clearly, we have not spent enough time with the people," Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, Préval's right-hand man, said in an interview. "But we are overwhelmed. We just can't step back and have a vision for this country. Soon, we hope, the operations will be matched with a strategy for the future."
Bellerive, who has been in office less than two months, acknowledged that "we are not only ourselves victims of the disaster, but also do not have the capacity to do this on our own."
Since the ouster of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986, Haiti's elected government has been weak. Largely mistrusted by its people, the government has been unable to lift the country from severe poverty despite billions of dollars in annual international aid.
Préval and his ministers are sitting now at the volatile intersection of a sputtering aid effort and the rising demands of millions of Haitians traumatized by the quake and desperate for basic assistance. The emergency-triage stage will soon give way to long-term planning for how to rebuild a country virtually from scratch.
With most government buildings in precarious condition, Préval and his ministers have decamped to the one-story Judicial Police headquarters on the outskirts of the city. On Sunday morning, a throng of Canadian generals, Spanish aid workers and other foreigners waited there for a turn to see government officials.
Beyond the guards and gates, though, anger among Haitians displaced by the 7.0-magnitude quake is rising quickly. It is directed primarily at Préval's administration.
"We're living here with God alone," said student Dalromy Guerrier, 19, who has moved with his family into a shelter on the sideline at the national soccer stadium, where substitutes usually wait to enter a game. "Is there anyone coming to help?"
Although he has served at the highest ranks of government for nearly two decades, Préval has been known more as a surrogate than as a powerful politician in his own right.
The son of a former Haitian agriculture minister forced to flee the Duvalier regime, Préval grew up outside his country. He studied business and biology in Belgium and Italy and even worked as a waiter in Brooklyn before returning to Haiti in the early 1980s to work in the government.