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|Posted February 20, 2006|
Tyler Hicks/New York Times
|Rene Preval has yet to go before the nation he was elected to lead.|
|Preval's Silence Obscures Bid to Reunite Haiti|
By GINGER THOMPSON
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb. 19 President-elect René Préval, who rose to power as a champion of this country's poor masses, attended his first victory party among its elite.
It was a Friday-night, garden-side, happy-hour kind of affair in a mansion near Pétionville, a mecca for this country's glitterati, with lots to drink, lots of laughter, and performances by popular Haitian musicians.
But when the hostess invited Mr. Préval, a reluctant politician, to address the group, he introduced several carefully chosen backers to speak for him. Two were leaders of Fanmi Lavalas, the principal political party of the poor. Then he called two men whose designer clothes and light complexions marked them as sons of the upper classes.
Reaching for one another across the gaping divides between class and skin color that have crippled this former slave colony for most of its 202-year history, the young men and Mr. Préval hugged, bringing a roaring ovation from the crowd, and a glimpse of the how Mr. Préval envisioned his second presidency.
"You see, everyone," Mr. Préval said, beaming, as if he might finally get used to the spotlight, "I am going to reconcile Haiti."
It was as close to making an acceptance speech as he has come since Thursday, when he was declared the winner of an election for president that had threatened to plunge this country, the most volatile in the hemisphere, back into crisis. Mr. Préval, a 63-year-old Belgian-educated agronomist who was president from 1996 to 2001, has not yet officially addressed the nation, and he has not yet granted interviews.
But parties like the one on Friday showed Mr. Préval quietly at work on the glaring challenge of ending the devastating hostilities between the rich and the poor starting with repairing some of the damage he had just done to that cause.
Last week, he charged the authorities with fraud in elections whose credibility was considered crucial to strengthening Haiti's stumbling democracy. Now he, too, faces questions about the legitimacy of the back-room deal brokered by foreign diplomats that ended the possibility of a runoff and made him the victor.
He has held a battery of private meetings and conversations with the same opponents whom he called enemies on national television last week.
The angry protests that paralyzed cities across the country, forcing a defiant Provisional Electoral Council to bow to his demands last week, have raised questions here and around the world about whether Mr. Préval will be his own president, or a low-key copy of his old ally, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Mr. Aristide, the fiery slum priest who could command this country's poor masses as firmly as Moses did the Red Sea, was forced from power and into exile in South Africa two years ago by a violent uprising supported by the elite. But some contend that he continues, either directly or through the masses who remain loyal to him, to have influence over Mr. Préval.
Pressure for Mr. Aristide's return has clearly begun building from South Africa, where President Thabo Mbeki suggested Sunday on public radio that Mr. Aristide might soon consult with Mr. Préval.
"I would imagine from everything that I've seen and heard that President Préval himself wouldn't want to oppose President Aristide's return to Haiti," Mr. Mbeki said on SABC radio, Reuters reported. "But I think it will be determined largely by an assessment by René Préval, and by President Aristide as to the timing of it, so that it doesn't produce unnecessary problems."
Problems are about all that is left of Haiti, a sinking ship of a nation where a majority of the 8.1 million people suffer the hemisphere's worst levels of poverty and corruption, while a tiny minority of them profit from it. Almost every chance for progress has been ruined by fighting among populist leaders from Haiti's urban slums and movers among the bourgeoisie.
Several foreign diplomats acknowledged that the events of last week had fueled concerns in their nations' capitals that Mr. Préval would use the same burning barricades and threats of chaos that characterized Mr. Aristide's rule. They wondered how Mr. Préval would respond if the mobs that helped him win power demanded, in return, that he bring Mr. Aristide home.
"We made very clear to Mr. Préval that we see Aristide as a figure of the past, with no place in Haiti's future," said one Western ambassador, who asked not to be identified because diplomacy on the issue is continuing. "He told me: 'Don't worry, Mr. Ambassador. The last time Mr. Aristide returned to Haiti, he came with 50,000 American troops. I don't think he'll have access to that kind of force anymore.' "
The American ambassador to Haiti, Timothy M. Carney, who is serving as chargé d'affaires until a new ambassador arrives, reiterated comments by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "We believe we can work with Préval," Mr. Carney said.
"Haitians clearly believe he is his own man," he said of Mr. Préval, who, according to the final election results, won 51.1 percent of the votes compared with the 12 percent won by the nearest rival. "I think what he's doing now is proving he has the force of character, by reaching out to the opposition, by beginning to move forward with no Aristide in sight."
Mr. Préval, political analysts said, may be the first leader in decades who can build a bridge between the haves and have-nots. Unlike Mr. Aristide, born a destitute orphan, Mr. Préval is the son of a former agriculture minister and was reared among the middle classes until his family fled the country under the dictatorship of François Duvalier.
After that, he led a largely blue-collar life that instilled in him empathy for the poor. He was a waiter, messenger and factory worker in New York, and then owned a bakery in a poor neighborhood in Haiti and ran programs to help the poor.
"I haven't felt this much hope about Haiti in many years," said Dumarsais Simeus, a Haitian-American businessman, a former candidate for president, and one of the few people at the party who agreed to be interviewed for attribution. "I believe" Mr. Préval "is going to dedicate himself to uniting this country."
But hope may be trampled by Haitian realities.
The volume of the scathing comments from fractious political leaders has dropped since Mr. Préval was declared president. But their suspicions continue. The protests have ended, but the tens of thousands of people who participated in them remain restless, without work, and living in hovels next to open sewers.
Killings and kidnappings have dropped from as many as six a day to almost none. But the gang members suspected of being responsible still control the capital's most populous slum, Cité Soleil.
Mr. Préval has disclosed very little about his plans for building Haiti back into a nation. He has talked vaguely about disarming the gangs and strengthening the police. He has said he will seek increased investment from the United States and urge Haitian professionals abroad to bring their expertise home.
He made the same promises at the start of his first term as president, said Jocelyn McCalla, of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. While Mr. Préval is the only Haitian president in recent history to finish a full five-year-term, then peacefully hand over power, Mr. McCalla said he accomplished little else.
Some political analysts said most of Mr. Préval's efforts in his last term were undermined by Mr. Aristide. Mr. McCalla said that seemed too easy an excuse, and that he wondered what made anyone so sure that things would be different this time.
Though Mr. Préval gave little away on Friday, the scene alone bankers boogieing with advocates for the poor spoke volumes.
"A lot of black Haitian leaders in this country are very angry, and rightfully so, about the way they have been treated by the wealthy of this country," said a political analyst at the party. "Mr. Preval does not harbor that kind of anger. He is not criminal. He is not corrupt. And he is not going to allow class warfare."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, International, of Monday, February 20, 2006.
Related text: A vote for Haitian presidential candidate, Preval, is a vote for more abject poverty, drug trafficking, terrorism - Overall, anti-United States
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