Haiti’s Yawning Leadership Vacuum: René Préval’s Crisis of Confidence

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• With the UN Donors’ Conference on Haiti about to begin on March 31, 2010 in New York, an evaluation of President Préval’s leadership is necessary and unavoidable.

• Considering the Haitian President’s spectacularly failed performance in the earthquake’s aftermath, donors may want to maintain close levels of involvement in the implementation of aid programs in order to ensure proper allocation of the resources they provide.

• Aristide – Préval: A genteel relationship minted in purgatory.

• Two core questions remain: What role did President René Préval play during the island’s reconstruction efforts, and will Haiti’s rehabilitation be entirely a function of the island’s NGOs, or of the government’s – which has never previously failed to drop the ball in major areas of responsibility.

The 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated entire sections of the Republic of Haiti on January 12th intensified an already unbearable burden on the small Caribbean country. Described by the Inter-American Development Bank, without hyperbole, as “the most destructive natural disaster in modern times,” the earthquake and its aftershocks have left approximately 230,000 Haitians dead, displaced more than 1.2 million people, and generated an estimated $14 billion in damages. Plagued by abject poverty and political instability for most of its history, Haiti remains perpetually ranked as the most destitute nation in the Western Hemisphere. Meanwhile, President René Préval continues to be engulfed by international criticism as well as much abuse at home for demonstrating breathtaking failure in leadership at a time when his country desperately required a firm hand. Immediately following the earthquake, Préval disappeared from the public arena, and instead of taking control, he chose to shy away from a decision-making role.

According to Amy Wilentz at the University of California at Irvine, “President René Préval of Haiti is odd…his reaction to the destruction of his country is to walk around with his shoulders down, like a beaten dog.” Similarly, Ludovic Comeau, a former chief economist at Haiti’s central bank, said “He just doesn’t have what it takes,” in response to the president’s languorous and demonstrably ineffectual reaction to his county’s calamity. Préval’s elemental competency as president has indeed been called into question, both among Haitians, as well as critics from all corners of the international community.

Plummeting Leadership Qualities

At a mass grave for earthquake victims, mourners railed against Préval, telling reporters that his pathetic behavior was “expected” and that the country needed “someone competent to take charge.” In a country as fragile as Haiti, Préval’s primary aim should have been to reassure and unite his people when they were suffering most. Instead, his invisibility has triggered anger and resentment, further exacerbating an already volatile political situation. From the onset of the crisis, COHA was told by Préval’s battalion of critics that he has turned out to be a totally inept leader for a nation undergoing the most severe emergency in its history. One can think of almost no country in the world that would have so pathetically handled its post-earthquake situation.

Préval and Aristide: An Ancient Relationship Gone Sour

René Préval spent the majority of his political career linked to former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Described by one Haitian as “a fiery populist demagogue who could command Haiti’s masses as firmly as Moses did the Red Sea,” Aristide electrified the country with his 1990 presidential campaign, and went on to win the election by an overwhelming majority. Haitians called the two men, who were the best of friends as well as political allies, “the Twins.” When Aristide was inaugurated in 1991 for his first term, Préval was his immediate choice to be prime minister. However, less than a year into Aristide’s second term, his Parliament – led by René Préval – usurped his authority in a no confidence vote. Aristide attempted to rule without parliamentary support, but eventually was ousted by a military coup and was forced into exile by a U.S., Canadian, French, and UN complot. Upon his election, Préval began to downplay his links to Aristide, eventually running for the presidency in 1996 on a completely new platform and under the banner of his own LESPWA party. After several decades of dictatorships and political unrest, the philosophical, soft-spoken, and indecisive professional agronomist appealed to a country that was looking for a level-headed politician to calm the country’s turbulent political atmosphere. Préval took office amid high expectations that he would end the country’s long and tormented history of violence and economic stagnation.

Préval as a Ruler

Préval eventually turned on Aristide in order to expedite his own political aspirations. He was elected for a second term in 2006 after two years of intense political strife that eventually required the presence of Brazilian-led international peacekeeping forces in Haiti. Claiming the vote count was being conducted in a fraudulent manner, Préval demanded that he immediately be declared the winner. After protests and riots had paralyzed Port-au-Prince, the Provisional Electoral Council appointed him president with 51.15% of the vote. Préval then proceeded to disqualify fifteen political parties, including Aristide’s still popular Lavalas party, from taking part in this year’s elections. Opposition leaders, including Aristide (who, even in exile, remained highly popular with poverty-stricken Haitians) have accused Préval of restructuring the Parliament in order to facilitate the constitutional changes necessary for him to run for a third term in November 2010.

However, prospects for Préval’s third term look anything but promising, who said in a radio interview after the earthquake: “I don’t do politics, okay?” Opposition parties are using Préval’s woeful and inadequate response to the earthquake as an opportunity to further stomp on his ailing administration. Evans Paul, a longtime opposition figure, condemned Préval when he declared, “During the greatest disaster Haiti has ever faced, our president has been incapable of pulling himself together, much less this deeply divided society. He has single-handedly shown the Haitian people that he cannot lead them.”

During Préval’s first term in office, he was credited with building dozens of public schools, putting thousands of people to work, and issuing titles to thousands of hectares of farmland. In his second term, Haiti experienced modest, but hopeful levels of economic growth. Unfortunately, Préval’s inaction since the earthquake has overshadowed the achievements of his previous incumbencies. Indeed, he seems to have sealed his political destiny forever. Judith Marceline, a Haitian woman who lost everything after the quake except for the clothes she was wearing, may have described it best: “I stood in line for hours to vote for Mr. Préval in 2006. Today, I wonder why I supported him.”

Recently, Rene Préval has been working breathlessly to prove to a hopelessly skeptical world that he is no longer standing on the sidelines in the aftermath of the disaster. Struggling to counter the perception by the international community that Haiti’s government is scarcely better than a Mickey Mouse game, he has vowed that “Haiti will live on after the quake.” The Haitian president came to Washington on March 10th with a game plan and a list of priorities for Haiti’s recovery effort. His request for continued help from the U.S. came two weeks before international donors would meet at the United Nations on March 31st to plot the country’s long-term reconstruction. Préval is hoping the U.S. will play a leading role at the conference and will drum up support among donors who have largely frozen funding to the government because of Haiti’s legendary history of corruption and squandered aid. Préval says he is working hard to meet the demands of the Haitian people and the international community in facilitating the estimated $11.5 billion reconstruction effort needed to rebuild the devastated country – although it is likely that many will remain skeptical of his claims.

As coverage of the earthquake fades from the front pages of newspapers, Haiti needs an effective leader now more than ever. The leadership vacuum that Haiti faces becomes more apparent every day as the country struggles to recover and rebuild its most basic institutions and infrastructure. Although Préval may be taking important steps behind the scenes, simply helping to manage the reconstruction effort is not enough. The country needs more than an administrator in these trying times – it needs a president. In this respect, President Préval has woefully let his country down.