Haitian President Rene Preval in April visits Corail-Cesselesse, a vast… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti — Haitian President Rene Preval peers off and rubs his beard when he thinks about those 35 seconds when the earth convulsed.
Preval was feeding his 8-month-old granddaughter dinner in the courtyard of the presidential mansion. They were thrown to the ground as the house collapsed. Unable to reach anyone on the phone, Preval jumped on the back of a motorcycle taxi and directed the driver toward downtown. Wending through the rubble in the dark, he couldn't comprehend the scope of death and ruin.
"Pain made me speechless," he says during a two-hour interview in an office behind the half-collapsed National Palace. "As a person I was paralyzed."
In the days and weeks following the Jan. 12 earthquake, Haitians desperately wanted to hear from their leader. Soon they were furious at his silence.
"I was much criticized for not having spoken.... To say what? To the thousands of parents whose children were dead. To the hundreds of schoolchildren I was hearing scream, 'Come help me!' " He pauses and sighs. "I couldn't find the words to say to those people."
Preval, 67, a quiet former agronomist with a gap-toothed smile and silver beard that some Haitians suspect has magical powers, has always been an enigmatic figure. He concluded his first term as president, in 2001, with a prophetic warning of the chaos to come — "Swim to get out" — and retreated to a tiny home in the northern mountains to help peasants grow bamboo.
When he ran again in 2006, he barely campaigned and said almost nothing. Political observers were perplexed by his candidacy, because he never seemed to really like being president. He certainly never showed the thirst for power of any of his rivals or predecessors, and his return to the National Palace felt so casual as if to be almost accidental.
So did his success. Preval's government quietly settled a gang war that had paralyzed the capital, stopped a horrific spate of kidnappings, restored regular electricity, reformed a corrupt police force, and secured trade preferences from Washington. And despite being hit by two destructive hurricanes, Haiti experienced a semblance of political stability for the first time in decades.
The world didn't notice because, for once, Haiti was not in the news.
"He came in when the country was at war," says Michele Montas, a longtime journalist and now a special advisor to the head of the United Nations mission in Haiti. "He brought the opposition into the government. He tried to reassure the private sector. As a journalist in this country for 30 years, I've never seen a political figure as shrewd as Rene Preval.... Can you imagine a politician who gets to power and he didn't even campaign?
"I really think he's misunderstood. But to some extent it's his own fault."
Haitians have long grumbled about Preval's inability or unwillingness to speak to the masses and pitch a vision of the future. But when the earthquake killed an estimated 230,000 people, displaced more than a million more and leveled whole swaths of the capital, what was once seen as a tolerable quirk in a humble man became a focal point of the nation's outrage.
Asked what Preval has done for the country, people in many parts of the capital grimace or swipe their hands in disgust, as if the answer is so obvious that the question itself is an outrage.
"Preval didn't do a damn thing," says Kerby Badio, 28, living in the sprawling tent camp outside the palace that Haitians call the White House. "He can't even get the palace fixed. If a country doesn't have a White House, it's not a nation."
Badio voted for Preval in 2006 because he thought he would make life better for the poor. But the president's seeming absence after the earthquake crystallized a feeling that he didn't empathize with their suffering.
"When a country goes through something like that, everyone looks for a president to say something. He didn't say anything for weeks. He was just riding around on his motorcycle," Badio said.
In nearby Fort National, residents were furious when the government razed homes to cut new road corridors. "We didn't know what was being done," says Victorin Richard, 22, whose little hut was among those cleared. "We thought they were building new houses. Now we hear it's a road. It's just going to be dust. They'll never finish it."
All of this has big political implications for the country's recovery in a presidential election year. Preval, who cannot run for reelection, founded a new platform, Unity, to maintain some political continuity when he departs. But his lack of popularity leaves the election wide open, with many people on the streets saying they'd vote for hip-hop singer Wyclef Jean.
Foreign aid groups and diplomats have complained that Preval has been indecisive and has failed to settle key issues of where to settle the displaced.