By Garry Pierre-Pierre
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The news came sudden and spread as quickly as a wildfire. Rene Garcia Preval had passed away at his home in Laboule. Preval was at once an iconic, historic and complex figure in Haitian politics. I know I will miss him.
Preval was a towering figure in Haiti’s political theatre and dominated it for more than a quarter of century. In addition to serving two terms as a president elected democratically, he was also prime minister under Jean Bertrand Aristide.
His political ascent came at the same time that I began my journalism career. I have had the opportunity to watch his political maneuvers from a distance and up close. At times, my writing was critical because I wanted him to act more like a Western president, when he knew very well that the Haitian people would not accept such a person. He knew his people better than I can ever.
Preval, was at the same time a pragmatic politician and an idealist. As a student in Belgium, he dabbled in Marxist politics and was part of the student movement that was sweeping Europe during the 1960s. But when he returned to Haiti, he recognized early on that the Lavalas Movement that he was part of, was not ready to lead Haiti after a 30-year old dictatorship. Yet, he accepted the post of prime minister when Aristide swept into power in 1991. He had the distinction of being democratically elected twice and served both terms fully with little difficulty.
Preval could be self-effacing and modest. He was one of the few uncorrupt Haitian politicians. But he was a master of political intrigues and machinations. He outwitted and outfoxed his opponents and left them wondering how did he come up with his strategies.
But to be sure, Preval was no statesman. He could be vindictive and petty with his opponents, real or perceived.
His lowest political point was in January 2010 after an earthquake had devastated most of this capital city. He gave a notorious interview to CNN telling the host that “my palace has collapsed, am homeless like my people.” He seemed dazed and confused in the days after and looked small physically and emotionally when he stood next to U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
He steered the country and organized the elections that ushered Michel Martelly.
In the ensuing years Martelly would take credit for most of Preval’s achievements and projects, many of which he inaugurated, giving the population the airports and roads that were opened under his administration were his and not thanking Preval for his vision. Given people’s short attention span, many believed that these projects were indeed Martelly’s.
If the earthquake was his lowest point, his lasting achievement was uniting a shattered nation after he was elected in 2006, two years after Aristide was yet again forced into exile. The troubled Caribbean nation plunged into chaos and became so dangerous that armed gangs roamed the streets with impunity despite a US and UN military presence. Killings were commonplace and the class divide had widened as large as the Caribbean ocean.
Preval, who studied agronomy in Belgium, closed the chasm slowly and methodically. He looked south toward Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and signed a multi-million dollar deal known as Petrocaribe, giving Haiti low interest loans and a fixed price for oil.
I shared a striking physical resemblance to the former president and during his reign in 2005 to 2010, people in Haiti and in the United States would gaze at our resemblance and many would asked me if we were family. I would always say no. But one time I did and it almost did not end up well.
Shortly after the earthquake, I was in Jacmel photographing that picturesque vista for a book and a man riding on the back of a pick- up truck said out loud: “Wow, look how a man looks like Preval.” I smiled and replied that I was his little brother. By then people were fed up with him and blamed him for the earthquake. The man replied. “I ought to slap you.”
Carrying two DSLR cameras with long expensive lenses, I did my best Brooklyn and asked him to come down and slap me. Seeing that I was ready to rumble, the man meekly stayed in the truck after a few minutes we both went about our merry ways.
Preval’s second term was a rough period for Haiti and my writing about him and the Haitian Times reporting were not too flattering to him. I saw him as a political hack who was way over his head. But there were no complaints or threats from his administration or his surrogates.
After the debacle of Martelly, I began to look at Preval differently. Despite his many flaws he was a few notches above the neophyte successor. Preval kept a low profile and advised Martelly whenever the president sought his counsel.
I wasn’t surprised to hear of his passing last week because I knew he had battled prostate cancer for years. But from what I understand, he died of heart failure. Again, I will miss him.