1943-2017: René Préval: Who He Was and What He Represented

by Kim Ives (Haiti Liberte)

In 2009, former
U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Janet Sanderson called him “Haiti’s indispensable man,” who was
“capable of imposing his will on Haiti – if so inclined.” Another diplomat
recently dubbed him one of Haiti’s “three kings,” along
with former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the Duvalierists.

            They were referring to former
Haitian president René Préval, who died of a heart attack on Mar. 3 in the
capital’s mountain suburb of Laboule at the age of 74. Over the past 30 years,
he had played one of the most important and contradictory roles of any
politician in helping to briefly free Haiti from the political grips of
Washington and the Duvalierists, nostalgic for the three decade (1957-1986)
dictatorship of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier, only to lead the country
back into their clutches by acquiescing to neo-liberal privatization campaigns,
sovereignty-stripping international accords, minimum wage suppression, two
foreign military occupations, and an “electoral coup d’état” a year after the
2010 earthquake.

            Préval was laid-back and personable,
but low-key and retiring. He shunned the trappings of power and trumpeting his
accomplishments, unlike his successor Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, a ribald,
flamboyant konpa music star. For
example, Préval was so prone to informality that he scandalized some Haitians
by wearing a white guayabera in the group photo at a hemispheric conference
where all the other heads of state wore suits.

            René Préval was born into a relatively
well-to-do family in the northern Haitian town of Marmelade on Jan. 17, 1943.
His father, an agronomist, served as President Paul Magloire’s Agriculture
Minister in the 1950s but fled Haiti with his family in 1963. René was sent to
study agronomy in Belgium and geothermal science in Italy. In 1970, he landed
in New York, where he worked as a factory laborer, waiter, and messenger.

            During his time abroad in the heady
1960s, the young René had been politically radicalized by the progressive and
anti-imperialist movements of the day. When he returned to Haiti in 1975, he
gravitated towards anti-Duvalierist political circles in the elite.

            After Jean-Claude “Baby Doc”
Duvalier’s fall on Feb. 7, 1986, René Préval began to militate in the
burgeoning popular movement that became known as the “Lavalas” or Flood, of
which Father Aristide, a Salesian priest, was the emerging leader. Préval
helped launch the Fred Coriolan Committee in 1986 and later Honor and Respect
the Constitution, a human-rights and democracy advocacy organization which
included other figures of the “enlightened bourgeoisie,” such as Antoine
Izméry, Jean-Claude Roy, Patrick Élie, Charles Vorbe, and Father Antoine

            Haiti’s enlightened bourgeoisie was
essentially an embryonic national bourgeoisie, as distinguished from the
traditional comprador (import-export) bourgeoisie, which had always been
economically and politically subservient to the U.S.. Préval and his friends,
many of them the college-educated, radicalized children of the comprador and
big-landowning grandon class, had an
anti-imperialist dream of breaking Haiti’s neo-colonial chains to establish her
“second independence,” as Aristide called it in his inaugural address.

            This nationalist agenda merging with
the broader democratic popular uprising against Duvalierist repression and
corruption created the national democratic political revolution that culminated
in Aristide’s victory in the Dec. 16, 1990 presidential election.

            René Préval, along with Antoine
Izméry, played a pivotal role in convincing the fiery Aristide, then hero of
Haiti’s rural and urban masses, to become the candidate of the National Front
for Change and Democracy (FNCD). The former priest had opposed participating in
the 1990 elections, over which the Haitian army was effectively presiding
(behind titular president Ertha Trouillot) and in which neoliberal candidate
Marc Bazin had a $36 million war chest. Izméry put up about $500,000 for the
campaign of Aristide, who won 67% of the vote. It was the first rout of U.S.
election engineering in Latin America.

            Following his victory, Aristide
appointed Préval as his Prime Minister, pursuing policies of taxing the rich,
fighting privatization, and uplifting the masses with health, literacy, and
employment programs. But about eight months after Aristide’s Feb. 7, 1991
inauguration, the traditional bourgeoisie and grandon allied to overthrow and exile him on Sep. 30, 1991. After
passing through the French and Mexican embassies, Préval eventually joined
Aristide in Washington, DC, where a government in exile worked to undo the
bloody coup d’état.

            “You might be returned to power,”
then U.S. Ambassador Alvin “Bourik Chàje” Adams told Aristide during one set of
negotiations. “But your Prime Minister [Préval] – he’s definitely not coming

            Indeed, Aristide was forced to
sacrifice Préval for other prime ministers – Robert Malval and Smarck Michel –
more to Washington’s liking, but during those tumultuous, breathless eight
months in 1991, the small-statured Préval had been engraved in the Haitian
popular imagination as Aristide’s “twin.”

            This association took on particular
importance after Aristide’s Oct. 15, 1994 return to Haiti (on the shoulders of
23,000 U.S. troops), when a movement emerged calling for him to recoup the
three years he had spent in exile.

            “The clock stopped on Sep. 30,
1991,” declared Jesse Jackson at a January 1994 conference in Miami, FL, one of
many to pressure for Aristide’s reinstatement. “President Aristide should serve
out as president all the time he spends in exile.”

            But Washington did not agree and
began to pressure the people around Aristide, particularly those in the
proto-party known then as the Lavalas Political Organization (OPL), which was
headed by enlightened bourgeoisie representatives like Gérard Pierre-Charles
and Father Antoine Adrien. Aristide began dragging his feet on carrying out
Washington’s neoliberal dictates which were part of the deal for his return,
most importantly privatizing Haiti’s state enterprises. As tensions between
Aristide and Washington grew, OPL leaders began to parrot the U.S. mantra that
privatizations were in Haiti’s interest, as well as new elections in 1995.

            But popular calls for Aristide to
recoup his lost three years grew, and, in response, the OPL found the perfect
candidate to sell their U.S.-backed election: Aristide’s “twin,” René Préval.

            Aristide was enraged that the OPL
and Préval had abandoned him and pointedly refused to endorse Préval as a
candidate until the day before his Dec. 17, 1995 election, when it was clear
that Washington’s agenda could not be stopped.

            As Russian revolutionary leader
Vladimir Lenin warned over a century ago, “the bourgeoisie
betrays its own self” and its own revolution. Similarly, during his first term
as president (1996-2001), the once staunchly anti-imperialist René Préval
capitulated to Washington’s demands to privatize state enterprises like the
flour mill, cement factory, and telephone company, and signed a scandalous
international accord which gave Washington the authority to unilaterally enter
Haitian territorial airspace and waters.

            Nonetheless, Préval became
increasingly at odds with his OPL sponsors, whose legislators blocked and hobbled
his government until the Parliament expired in 1999. Meanwhile, as the OPL
changed its name from Lavalas Political Organization to Organization of
Struggling People, Aristide launched his own party in November 1996: the
Lavalas Family (FL).

            During his first term, Préval tried
to institute an agrarian reform, but it was partial and short-lived. He also
foiled a coup attempt by a group of police chiefs led by Guy Philippe, who
would flee to the neighboring Dominican Republic where he set up an anti-Aristide
paramilitary force.

            By they end of his first term,
Préval had strained relations with Washington, which was peeved that Aristide’s
FL was returning to power via parliamentary and presidential elections in May
and November 2000. On Feb. 7, 2001, Préval successfully passed the presidential
sash to a re-elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first such peaceful transfer
of power in modern Haitian history.

            Newly elected U.S. president George
W. Bush’s administration wasted no time in launching an economic, political,
diplomatic, and military destabilization campaign against Aristide’s second
government, which was overthrown on Feb. 29, 2004. Aristide was exiled, at U.S.
insistence, to Africa, out of the Western Hemisphere.

            The de facto regime of U.S. puppet
Prime Minister Gérard Latortue ruled for two years, holding elections on Feb.
7, 2006, in which Préval was reelected on the assumption that he would bring
Aristide home. But Préval did not bring Aristide back and instead began to woo
FL leaders to his own parties and platforms, primarily Lespwa (Hope) and Inite

            As a result, the FL split into two
main factions, and Préval’s electoral council disqualified both from the 2010
elections, a move which even Washington and its allies saw as politically heavy-handed (although they continued
to support the elections).

            As was revealed by Haïti Liberté through cables it received
from Wikileaks, then U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten worried that FL’s exclusion
would make the party look “like a martyr and Haitians will believe (correctly)
that Préval is manipulating the election.”

            Despite Washington’s opposition,
Préval established in 2007 a PetroCaribe deal with Venezuela, which provides
Haiti with close to 20,000 barrels of oil monthly and built three power
stations and renovated the Cap Haïtien airport.

            In his inaugural address, Préval
pleaded with the United Nations Mission to Stabilize Haiti (MINUSTAH) to “turn
its tanks into bulldozers.” The appeal fell on deaf ears and the foreign
military force, deployed in June 2004, still occupies Haiti today. (Préval had
also taken power under a UN military occupation in 1996.) The MINUSTAH imported
cholera into Haiti in October 2010, sparking an epidemic which has killed some
100,000 and sickened over one million. The slow response of Préval’s health
officials contributed to the disease’s rapid spread.

            Préval was a fierce opponent of
corruption and drug-trafficking, often complaining to U.S. officials that they
were not doing enough to help him stamp out both. Nonetheless, he tolerated
some clearly compromised officials in his own party, like Sen. Joseph Lambert.

            Although not a charismatic public
speaker like Aristide, Préval had a sardonic wit which either delighted or
outraged people. For example, in 2006, peasants complained to him about the
difficulties they faced. “We have to swim to get out,” Préval responded, which
many interpreted as a way of saying it was every rat for itself. In 2008, when
protestors announced a demonstration against food shortages and government
austerity, Préval told them to “stop by the Palace and pick me up” to join

            In his second term, Préval’s first
prime minister, Jacques Edouard Alexis, was unseated in April 2008 by food
riots and political intrigues. His second PM, Michèle Pierre-Louis, had been
his business partner in a Port-au-Prince bakery in the 1980s. She resigned in
November 2009 after being “increasingly frustrated and sidelined by
President Préval,” according to a secret cable of former U.S. Ambassador
Janet Sanderson, primarily when, with Washington’s encouragement, he overrode
Parliament to keep Haiti’s minimum wage at $3 a day instead of $5. His third
PM, Jean-Max Bellerive, was an admirer and protégé of Marc Bazin, the former
World Bank economist who had briefly acted as de facto Prime Minister during
the first coup against Aristide.

            The country suffered four severe
storms in one month in 2008, but the worst catastrophe on Préval’s watch was a
massive earthquake that leveled the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area on Jan.
12, 2010. Due to a lucky schedule change, Préval narrowly escaped death. The
tragedy became the defining event of the second Préval presidency.

            “After I spent the night evaluating
the destruction, I realized that I needed to go and organize the relief,”
Préval told the Miami Herald after
touring the devastated city on the back of a motorcycle. “Seeing people is not
helping people.”

            Washington unilaterally deployed 22,000 troops and took over
the airport and relief efforts, sidelining Préval, who became increasingly
resentful. At one public ceremony, Préval stood up and walked out of the room
when UN Special Envoy and Interim Haiti Relief Commission (IHRC) co-chair Bill
Clinton took the microphone to speak.

            In the first round of the Nov. 28,
2010 presidential election, Jude Célestin, the candidate of Préval’s party,
came in second, according to the Haitian electoral council. But U.S. Secretary
of State Hillary Clinton and the Organization of American States (OAS)
intervened to tell Préval to put the neo-Duvalierist Martelly, who had placed a
close third, in the run-off instead of Célestin. Préval again, as was his wont,
complied. “It was an electoral coup d’état,” said Brazilian professor Ricardo
Seitenfus, who was then the OAS Special Representative to Haiti.

            During the electoral stand-off, the
U.S. and UN even contemplated putting Préval on a plane and removing him from
power. Seitenfus and Bellerive foiled the plan.

            Despite not standing up to or at
least denouncing U.S. bullying in both his presidencies, Préval did a great
deal to strengthen relations and cooperation with Cuba (with which Aristide
reestablished formal diplomatic ties as his last act in 1996) and Venezuela, to
Washington’s dismay. Préval enthusiastically received then President Hugo
Chavez in Haiti in March 2007, a visit which Sanderson complained was “giving Chavez a
platform to spout anti-American slogans.”

            Although he attempted to build mass
organizations like Charles Suffrard’s KOZEPEP and parties like Espwa and Inite
to offer an alternative to the FL, they never attracted as deep or widespread
adherence and dedication. He surrounded himself with friends from the
enlightened bourgeoisie like Pierre Denizé (chief of police), Alix “Boulon”
Filsaimé (deputy), and Robert “Bob” Manuel (security secretary of state), who
moved rightward politically from his anti-Duvalierist years and carried out brutal political repression against
Haitian popular organizations during Préval’s second term. Manuel was also an
unsuccessful prime minister nominee in 2008.

            But perhaps Préval’s closest friend
and éminence grise was celebrated
radio journalist Jean Dominique, an enlightened bourgeoisie ideologue, who was
gunned down in the courtyard of his radio station Radio Haiti-Inter on Apr. 3,
2000. Apparently, Préval had plans to tap Dominique to challenge Aristide as a
presidential candidate in the November 2000 election. Préval wept profusely at
Dominique’s funeral at the Sylvio Cator stadium. Until today, Jean Dominique’s
murder has never been solved.

            Préval is survived by two sisters:
Marie-Claude Préval Calvin, who, as a close political advisor, was almost
killed in a 1999 assassination attempt, and Raymonde Préval Bélot, who has
worked in Haiti’s diplomatic service and was married to Préval’s close friend
Patrick Elie, who died in February 2016. Préval is also survived by two
daughters, two sons, two grandchildren, and his widow, Elizabethe Delatour

            He will receive a state funeral on
Fri., Mar. 10, 2017 at the Museum of the Haitian National Pantheon (MUPANAH) in
Haiti’s Champ de Mars central square.

            Today, the neo-Duvalierists, whom
Préval and Aristide sought to uproot in their 1990-91 political revolution,
have won Haiti’s presidency and parliament through anemic elections. This
happened due to the discouragement, disillusionment, and demobilization of the
Haitian masses as a result, in large part, of the compromises, sell outs, and
conniving of Préval and his coterie over the years. Despite his clearly sincere
desire to build “national production,” as he discussed on the morning of his
death with Deputy Jerry Tardieu, the once enlightened bourgeois leader, René
Préval, who admired revolutionaries Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, not only fell
far short of achieving the democratic nationalist dream of his youth. He,
perhaps unwittingly, helped bring about the exact opposite: the delivery of
Haiti into the hands of Washington and the neo-Duvalierists.