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Opposition leaders say they want to work with government in rebuilding Haiti

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; A08

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Faced with a disaster of overwhelming proportions, Haiti's fractious political opposition is trying to set aside its differences and work with President René Préval to reach a consensus on how to rebuild the devastated country.

The objective, several political leaders said, is to cooperate with Préval's government in drawing up a unanimously backed reconstruction plan and an arrangement for broader political leadership during the emergency. The plan, they said, would be presented to a donors' conference scheduled for March 28 at the United Nations, and would be used in discussions with the international relief bureaucracy that has mushroomed here since a magnitude-7 earthquake shook Haiti on Jan. 12.

Running through the discussions is a widely shared sentiment that the destruction caused by the earthquake, and the expected arrival of hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid, should become a departure point for fixing the economic and political rot that for years has made Haiti one of the poorest, most unstable and most corrupt countries in the hemisphere.

"For this exceptional situation, we need an exceptional government," said Myrtho Bonhomme, an aspiring presidential candidate who is a former ambassador and rector of Haiti's largely destroyed Diplomatic and Consular National Academy.

But Préval has shown no sign he is willing to include opposition groups in reconstruction planning or to agree to the special assembly -- a "national conference," perhaps, or a "state council" -- that the opposition is mulling. He has been working mainly with U.S. and other foreign aid officials, out of sight of the Haitian public, to deal with the havoc wreaked by a temblor that killed an estimated 200,000 people and left a million homeless.

A spokesman for Préval, Assad Volcy, said he was unaware of the opposition discussions or of Préval 's attitude toward a broadened emergency leadership. Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, in a recent interview with the Associated Press, suggested that the government knew of the proposals, but added that some opposition leaders were trying to capitalize on the misery to promote disenchantment with the government.

Himmler Rebu, an army colonel under former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and founder of the Platform of Haitian Patriots, a right-wing alliance, said: "We have not seen the president or the people in government ever invite anyone from the country's political groups, not even for the national day of mourning," held Feb. 12.

Deploying a broader leadership for relief efforts and reconstruction planning would better mobilize the energy of the country's 9 million people and encourage them to take more responsibility for their fate, Rebu said. He added, "The international community cannot rebuild Haiti."

Evelyne Chéron, an outgoing senator from one of the split-offs of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Lavalas movement, said she hopes donor governments and the United Nations will quietly prevail on Préval to embrace the opposition's suggestions.

Evans Paul, a longtime opposition figure, said the half-dozen groups have more or less agreed that Préval should serve out the year remaining in his five-year term, despite what they describe as a woeful response to the quake emergency. The election to choose his successor should be held on schedule in November, Paul added, saying that it could also be the occasion to hold legislative elections that were scheduled for this month but postponed because of the earthquake.

"I think we have to put up with Préval for the rest of his mandate," Paul said in an interview on the terrace of his destroyed hilltop home. "He is non-performing, he is inadequate, but to avoid instability he should finish his term."

In the meantime, Paul said, Préval should convoke an "états généraux," a sort of national assembly representing all the country's political and economic forces, to plan and carry out the reconstruction effort. With legislative elections postponed, he said, the Senate and Chamber of Deputies no longer have the authority to fulfill such a role.

Although the discussions are continuing, there is little hope that they will produce an agreed plan, and even less that Préval will respond, said Jean-Robert Argant, who until last year headed the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The reconstruction effort is likely to be mapped out in air-conditioned meetings between Préval 's ministers and U.S., U.N. and European aid specialists, he said.

"That's how it's going to go down," Argant said, saying that not only does Préval distrust the political opposition, opposition leaders also distrust one another. "Here in Haiti, we have a venom -- the venom of distrust."

For instance, Aristide, the former populist leader now exiled in South Africa, has hovered in the background of the political discussions because of his abiding popularity among Haiti's poor. In a recent communique, he expressed a desire to return and help the country rebuild. His Miami lawyer, Ira Kurzban, said Haiti could benefit from Aristide's presence.

"He's such a motivating force," Kurzban said in a telephone conversation. "He could make a real contribution."

Spray-painted slogans reading, "Down with the occupation," "Down with NGO's" and "Down with Préval" -- presumably the work of die-hard Aristide followers -- are appearing on walls in the capital. But Haitian politicians of all stripes predicted that Aristide will not be allowed to return because of his divisive record during two terms as president.

Préval, 67, who was prime minister under Aristide in the early 1990s, was elected president twice in large measure by assuming Aristide's populist mantle. A security source said, however, that Préval had secretly cooperated with the right-wing forces who ousted Aristide in 2004.

Moreover, opposition leaders noted, despite his populist background, Préval has displayed an ability to work smoothly with the light-skinned elite that controls the economy.

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