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The World

Like its president, Haiti is very quiet

Rene Preval is no-frills and practically no-show. But his nation's accursed fortunes have been reversing -- slowly.

July 25, 2007|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — Shoeless boys with angry eyes and empty stomachs no longer loiter outside the green iron gates of the National Palace.

The odd jobs of oppression have disappeared. In the unfamiliar atmosphere of peace, there are no more orders to bash heads or crush dissent that once earned the ragtag enforcers a plate of rice and beans or a tube of glue to sniff.

A year into his second tenure as president, Rene Preval has broken ranks with two centuries of despots and demagogues.

Preval has eschewed the politics of brutality and confrontation, quietly achieving what only a year ago seemed unimaginable: fragile unity among this country's fractious classes.

Allies and adversaries alike credit the reclusive president with creating a breathing space for addressing the poverty and environmental devastation that have made Haiti the most wretched place in the Western Hemisphere. Preval has taken small steps to crack down on crime and corruption, and improve Haiti's infrastructure and food supply. But he largely holds fast to the strategy he used in defeating more than 30 rivals in the presidential race last year: Make no promises, raise no expectations.

Observers say Preval's low-key approach may be what Haiti has needed, but they worry what will happen if his shaky health takes a turn for the worse or if the country's 8 million people start to lose patience with his go-slow approach.

Preval loathes the limelight, evading ceremony and exuding moody impatience with meetings, limiting them to what aides insist are essential contacts to begin moving mountains of corruption, injustice, squalor and 70% unemployment.

He seldom leaves the palace, where visitors find him padding between his office and apartment in polo shirts and sandals. When he must go out, he travels in a modest motorcade without the customary sirens and outsize entourage.

A loner chafing in the midst of liveried staff and a protective contingent of U.N. soldiers, the president has been known to sneak out for a nocturnal stroll, incognito in the poorly lighted parks surrounding the palace.

His private life, by contrast, is more of an open book, at least in the gossipy circles of the business and political elite. The bourgeoisie in the elegant villas of Petionville were atwitter six months ago when Preval installed a new paramour at the palace, driving out his estranged-then-reconciled second wife, Geri.

A once-legendary consumer of the island's famed Barbancourt rum, Preval has lately cut down in favor of an occasional whiskey and decidedly fewer Marlboros. Some attribute the reining in of his excesses to a cancer scare over the winter, when doctors found signs suggesting a recurrence of the disease. He makes regular visits to Cuba for treatment, grouses about the side effects of his medications, but looks to be weathering the demands of office as well as can be expected of a 64-year-old long advised to make lifestyle changes.

Colleagues panic at the thought that the prostate cancer that was diagnosed and treated six years ago could recur and force him from office.

"It would be a catastrophe, the end of everything. We can't even permit ourselves to consider this possibility," one advisor said.

Those closest to Preval praise his modesty but sometimes despair of his reticence.

"Some people think he's too laid-back," conceded Lionel Delatour, a business consultant and friend. Preval hasn't made a single diplomatic appointment since taking office, Delatour said, shying from the kinds of decisions that could alienate factions in his broad coalition.

"He isn't going to make waves," Delatour said. "He told his ministers that he didn't want to see massive firings" of civil servants, as occurred after his mentor, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, fled following his ouster in February 2004 and a caretaker government swept his supporters from office.

Aristide basked in ceremony, donning his presidential sash with relish. In contrast, after 14 months in office, Preval has yet to tour the countryside, make a public address, give a news conference or grant an interview.

"He's a very low-key president, but it would be a mistake to think he's not a hands-on president," U.S. Ambassador Janet Sanderson said. Still, she wishes he would get out more and promote the hard-won stability he has secured to give confidence to potential tourists and investors.

Some point to Preval's 1996-2001 presidency, when he was perceived as doing Aristide's bidding, as the cause of his reluctance to trumpet recent successes.

"He's very cautious and low-key, perhaps because he was part of the mess," veteran human rights activist Jean-Claude Bajeux says of Preval, whom he considered too willing an accomplice of Aristide when the former priest was arming street gangs and repressing opponents.

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