News from Haiti

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Preval Begins Second term in Haiti

The president calls for unity in a nation occupied by foreign peacekeepers and deeply conflicted over exiled former leader Aristide.
By Carol J. Williams and Chantal Regnault, Special to The Times, May 15, 2006

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Rene Preval was sworn in Sunday as Haiti's president for the second time, restoring legitimacy to the troubled nation's government after more than two years of anarchy and violence that followed the flight of Jean-Bertrand Aristide to escape an armed rebellion.

A soft-spoken agronomist and Haiti's only president to serve out his full term, Preval, who previously served from 1996 to 2001, inherits a nation occupied by foreign peacekeepers, in economic ruin and deeply conflicted over the legacy and future of his predecessor, Aristide.

In a ceremony before Parliament, which hasn't functioned properly in five years, the red and blue presidential sash was bestowed on Preval, who then appealed in a 15-minute speech for national unity and social peace to pull Haiti out of its misery.

"Only we Haitians can solve our main problem, which is division. We have to work together. Foreigners can't do that for us," the new president said.

The inauguration was attended by 300 Haitian and foreign dignitaries including Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, while average Haitians thronged the streets, their ears bent to radios to follow the fanfare. Thousands massed outside the National Palace to cheer as the presidential party arrived for a reception and another brief address by Preval to those gathered on the manicured lawn or listening from behind the wrought-iron fences.

Less than a mile away, U.N. troops and Haitian police were called to quell a prison revolt that erupted with heavy gunfire hours before the inauguration, a reminder of the troubled path ahead for the new leader.

Preval, 63, won the Feb. 7 vote in the first round by winning a majority despite competition from more than 30 other contenders. He was seen as torchbearer of Aristide's unfulfilled aim of empowering the poor in a country of 8.5 million where wealth has long been controlled by a few dozen families. Preval served as Aristide's prime minister, as well as presidential place-holder during years when Aristide was ineligible to serve because of a constitutional prohibition against successive terms.

But some who voted for Preval did so in the expectation that he would bring back Aristide, currently languishing in a state guest house in South Africa.

Preval has said only that the constitution allows any Haitian to return to his homeland, stopping short of urging the return of his controversial predecessor. In February, Preval intimated to journalists that Aristide should keep in mind that criminal charges had been raised against him by the U.S.-backed interim government of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue put in power after Aristide left.

Many here and in foreign capitals believe Aristide would undermine Preval's authority and probably reignite the violence among gangs armed by Aristide's Lavalas movement.

The European-educated son of an affluent agrarian family, Preval has already made overtures to some in the industrial elite who were vehement opponents of Aristide and have made it clear they don't want the radical proponent of liberation theology back in the country.

With his Lespwa movement falling short of a majority in parliament, Preval will have to build alliances with political rivals to push through the legislation needed to begin extracting Haiti from its economic morass. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti has an unemployment rate of about 70%, and environmental disasters have ravaged food production.

Political analysts see a daunting road ahead for the new president but also a glimmer of hope.

Noting that Preval has inherited "a broken country from Latortue," analyst Mara van den Bold of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs said he would have to act quickly to win public confidence.

"He must also prevent a flare-up of domestic political malcontents, create an effective coalition among the several parties in his government and constructively assess former President Aristide's possible request to return to Haiti," Van den Bold said.

Preval has also been urged by human rights groups to make a priority of reforming the corrupt and ineffectual justice system. Several Aristide allies have been imprisoned without charges since shortly after he fled to Africa on Feb. 29, 2004. Most prominent among the suspect detentions is that of former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, which Preval has indicated will get his priority attention.

Times staff writer Williams reported from Miami and special correspondent Regnault from Port-au-Prince.