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Ex-leader still enigma as Haitians cast ballots

Some see Rene Preval as Haiti's best hope after dark years. Others worry he remains connected to that past.

Published February 7, 2006

[AP photo]
Former President Rene Preval, 63, is the front-runner in Haiti's long-awaited presidential election today.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Before leaving office in 2001, former President Rene Preval had these not so comforting words for his countrymen:

" "Naje pou sorti ," he said in native Creole. "Swim to get out."

Many Haitians took this as a warning they were in for a rough ride. Controversial former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was about to return to power.

After leaving office Preval disappeared from sight, secluding himself at a family farm in the north of the country. His political career seemed over.

His parting words, however, proved prophetic. Many Haitians look back on Aristide's second term as one of the darkest periods in their recent history. The government sank into a cesspool of drug corruption and political thuggery. Aristide was eventually forced out of office by an armed uprising in February 2004.

Through it all, Preval said not a word. Now, after two years of transitional turmoil under United Nations guidance the country is bracing for new elections. Out of nowhere Preval, 63, has re-emerged. Heading into today's vote, opinion polls show him with a commanding lead.

But the man who left office with those cryptic words remains a mystery to many Haitians.

Some suspect Preval, once a close ally of Aristide, is still his political "twin," secretly plotting to bring him back from exile in South Africa. Or is the opposite true? Is Preval perhaps on a quest for personal redemption that will bury Aristide once and for all?

There is no question that the two men were once political partners.

In the late 1980s when Aristide was still a radical slum priest ministering to the poor, Preval, an agronomist by training, owned a bakery that provided free bread to 25,000 poor slum kids.

"That's how we got to know Aristide," said Michele Pierre-Louis, Preval's partner in the bakery.

In 1990 Aristide was elected president in a landslide victory at the head of a grass roots movement called Lavalas, the Flood. Preval became prime minister.

In those early years Preval was considered a hard-line Lavalas radical. But he also earned a reputation for trying to stamp out government corruption.

After only seven months in power Aristide was overthrown in a military coup. The bakery was burned down and Preval sought refuge in the French Embassy with other government officials.

In 1994 Preval accompanied Aristide back to Haiti after U.S. troops invaded to restore democracy. But friends say the relationship was never the same. When Preval was nominated in 1996 to succeed him, things turned sour.

"Aristide was not happy about his candidacy. He wanted power for himself," said Pierre-Louis, who now runs one of the country's leading educational foundations, FOKAL.

Aristide withheld his endorsement of Preval until the last day of the campaign.

Once Preval was in the palace Aristide remained the power behind the throne. He created his own breakaway political party, the Lavalas Family. Preval refused to join.

Aristide's partisans became a major political obstacle, blocking key reforms. Parliament was gridlocked, and eventually closed altogether. "The shadow of Aristide was always hovering over what he did," said Pierre-Louis.

Preval doesn't like to discuss this period. Friends say he's not proud of his inability to stand up to Aristide.

But it was also a fearful time. Once, a puppy belonging to Preval's wife was found dripping blood across the palace floor, its spine shattered by a machete. Preval's friends took it as a direct threat from Aristide, who still had ties to the palace guards.

Preval had to contend with other suspicious deaths of Aristide critics. In August 1998, Father Jean Pierre-Louis, a classmate of Preval, was murdered by two gunmen. The assailants were never caught. Then in April 2000 one of Preval's closest mentors, fellow agronomist Jean Dominique, was assassinated on his way to work at a local radio station. An investigation linked the crime to one of Aristide's former bodyguards, though the case remains unsolved.

To make matters worse, as he left office Preval was battling prostate cancer and his marriage was on the rocks. After seeking medical treatment in Havana he escaped to the family farm in Marmelade.

Despite his long political silence Haitians have not forgotten his parting words. "We understood him then because we could see he was drowning in the water," said Lebrun Thermidor, a 52-year-old rice and onion farmer in the crowd at a Preval rally in St. Marc. "If he didn't swim away, Aristide was going to kill him."

In an interview, Preval reluctantly agreed to discuss Aristide's legacy. However tarnished his reputation, many poor Haitians still clung to an image of Aristide as the first Haitian politician to recognize their needs, he said.

But, he added, the Lavalas Family was corrupt and penetrated by drug trafficking. "I always said to Aristide, "The people will suffer with you, but there can be no impression, suspicion or doubt that there is corruption' - and there was a lot of corruption."

He rejected an offer last year to be the presidential candidate for Aristide's party. Lavalas Family leaders urged Preval to prevent "the enemies of the people" from taking power, according to witnesses.

"It is you who are the enemies of the people," Preval reportedly said.

Preval's critics, mainly among Haiti's conservative business elite, refuse to be convinced.

"Aristide is the brain and Preval is his tool," said Charles Baker, an industrialist and favored presidential candidate of the light-skinned business elite. "If he becomes president, chaos will break out. We will defend ourselves."

Baker, a graduate of Saint Leo University in Pasco County, is convinced a victory for Preval would likely result in Aristide's return from exile.

Critics say Preval has been lax in denouncing violent pro-Aristide slum gangs who have terrorized the capital during the last two years. Some of Preval's street-level activists are members of Lavalas Family and are accused of gang ties.

"Aristide is still the leader of our party. He did no wrong," said Rene Montplaisir, 31, head of a grass roots organization of the Lavalas Family. "But we support Preval. He represents change and reform."

Preval says he won't turn away Aristide loyalists. But he urges supporters to reject political violence.

Instead, Preval's inner circle consists mostly of private sector business people who share his social goals. They see Preval as the only candidate who can bridge the country's yawning class divide.

"The circumstances are ripe for him to run," said Daniel Dorsainvil, 46, a U.S.-educated development economist and senior adviser to Preval. "He is the most credible mediator between rich and poor."

Asked to describe Preval's virtues, friends seize on his honesty. "Preval is the only president who spent five years in power and left with his pockets empty," said Robert Magloire, a childhood friend and New York civil engineer.

Far from being a Trojan Horse for Aristide, friends say his campaign is largely a quest for redemption. Hamstrung under Aristide, Preval, they say, is now free to be his own man.

"I believe Preval this time is going to do what he couldn't do before," said Pierre Leger, 58, who runs a factory producing essential oil for the perfume industry, providing work for 27,000 Haitian farmers.

During his absence from politics Preval started a bamboo cooperative in Marmelade that has since become a model for rural development. In July last year a delegation of peasants from Haiti's 10 departments camped out in Marmelade to beg him to run.

He was the last of 35 candidates to register. But he immediately became the front-runner under the banner of Lespw a, meaning Hope.

A slightly built man with a well-trimmed beard, he is affectionately known as Ti Rene , or Little Rene. Haitians say his silvery beard has magic powers. The gap in his teeth is also considered sexy in Haitian popular culture.

Preval's plain-talking style seems to go down well. His campaign pledges are modest: promising universal education for all primary school-age children, better health care, and cheaper fertilizer for peasants.

But he offers no overnight solutions to Haiti's almost insurmountable problems.

"We need investment and jobs and for that we need peace," he told a rally while surrounded by several plain-clothed bodyguards.

"The situation is very DIFF-I-CULT," he told the crowd, pronouncing the word for extra effect.

When he asked who didn't have a job, almost every hand shot up.

"Ah," he sighed, "that is going to be a big problem for me."

-- David Adams can be contacted at

[Last modified February 7, 2006, 06:20:04]

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