By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 18, 2010; A01
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.
He also opened a bakery here in the capital. Through his charitable bread donations, Préval came to know Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a spellbinding liberation priest who preached against the Duvalier dictatorship.
In 1990, Aristide became Haiti's first elected leader, and he named Préval prime minister. Over the next 14 years, Aristide was ousted by a military coup, returned to power, reelected and then ousted again in 2004.
Préval was along for much of the rocky ride, following Aristide as president in 1996 and again in 2006. But he has distanced himself from Aristide's Lavalas party, which in Creole means "a cleansing flood," and he has governed more moderately -- to the frustration of much of his mentor's impoverished constituency.
He imposed economic austerity measures in his first term, including the privatization of some government services, which drew criticism for primarily benefiting Haiti's elite. But unemployment fell. Préval also championed the trials of military and police officials accused of human rights violations, a first in Haiti.
Many of Haiti's poor supported his reelection in 2006, mostly because they thought it would lead to Aristide's return from South African exile. A day after the earthquake, Aristide reiterated his desire to come back. His return would give the country a highly visible leader but would also inject a divisive political element into recovery efforts, making it unlikely that Préval would welcome him.
Rich and poor alike say Préval's administration is riddled with corruption. Many Haitians now express the conflicting impulse to see their government in action at a time of crisis while wanting to make sure it is denied access to international aid for fear it will be stolen.
Mario Viau, the owner of Signal FM, a major radio station based in the wealthy hillside community of Petionville, said he sent his employees out into the city to search for a government official to speak on the air. None could be found.
He then appealed over the radio for an official to visit his station and deliver public service announcements, ranging from how to find a missing relative to how to dispose of a dead body. What he received was a representative from Préval's office, who delivered a taped message from the president urging calm.
"We didn't feel like we had a government," Viau said. "But I wanted to put some kind of government on the radio. We have a president who doesn't like to talk at all."
Along Camus Street, a strip of cinder-block houses that begins at a school and ends at the cemetery, Alberthe Gordard gathered her bedding from the street one recent morning.
"My house," she said, pointing to a gingerbread façade listing far to the left.
Like her neighbors, Gordard and her two young children are sleeping head-to-toe in the street, blocked off by rubble and piles of trash. She gathers water from an open spigot in a plastic jug that once contained antifreeze, but it is not clean enough to drink.
"I'm hungry," she said. "We haven't seen anyone from the government. They have left us to this."
Correspondent William Booth contributed to this report from Petionville, Haiti.