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Posted February 21, 2006
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Newsday/Moises Saman

Haitian presidential candidate Rene Preval receives a warm welcome as as he visits his home village of Ennry on the last official day of campaigning in the upcoming presidential elections.
An uncertain course in Haiti
Rene Preval is the nation's new leader, but what that means is unclear - particularly since he hasn't spoken


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- For five tumultuous days last week, chaos gripped this tiny island nation as protests mounted over alleged fraud in presidential elections intended to usher in democracy. An 11th-hour deal brokered by foreign diplomats installed front-runner René Préval as president, ending the turmoil.

Only one thing was missing in the drama: a word from the leading actor. Other than a brief acknowledgment of victory to a local radio station, the agronomist and former president has not been heard from since he was declared the winner before dawn Thursday.

"No questions. I'll talk to you Wednesday," a smiling but firm Préval told reporters Friday outside his sister's house in a suburb of this capital city. Then he disappeared inside.

It was a remarkable performance in a country celebrated for theatrics, particularly given the sequence of events that led to his anointment.

With barely the flick of a finger, Préval appeared to prompt tens of thousands of his impoverished supporters to take to the streets starting Feb. 11 to ensure he was declared the winner of Feb. 7 presidential voting, and with another flick, make the protests stop.

His enigmatic response, and the role he seemed to play like a magician behind the curtain, have only increased questions about how he will lead Haiti when he takes office March 29.

Detractors said last week's marches and flaming roadblocks could presage a reversion to the mob rule used by leftist firebrand President Jean-Bertrand Aristide before armed rebels ousted him two years ago.

Leslie Manigat, a foreign affairs scholar who finished a distant second to Préval in the election, put it the most venomously.

"The dog must not return to its vomit," said Manigat, who has his own political baggage: He served briefly as president in 1988 in an election rigged by the military.

Distancing from Aristide

Préval, 63, who was president from 1996 to 2001, is a former Aristide protege, but he distanced himself after Aristide became mired in corruption scandals.

United Nations officials and diplomats from countries that poured millions of dollars into the election say Préval's actions since the vote suggest he is not a pawn of the divisive Aristide. Since Thursday, they note, Préval has been meeting with opposition leaders to discuss national reconciliation.

Another welcome sign, diplomats said, was Préval's ability to keep protests calm in a country notorious for political violence. A 9,300-member UN peacekeeping force has struggled to keep order in this nation of 8.3 million since Aristide's ouster.

"There is a regret that Haiti was not able to get completely away from the politics of the street, but a recognition that you also are seeing an evolution toward peaceful protests," outgoing U.S. ambassador Tim Carney said in an interview.

Préval's supporters began protesting after his lead slipped from nearly two-thirds in initial vote tallies to just under the 50 percent he needed to avoid a runoff. Haitian officials brought Préval to 51.1 percent by redistributing a suspiciously high number of blank votes.

In a nationally broadcast speech last Tuesday at the height of the week's protests, Préval urged demonstrators to remain peaceful. Yet he also showed his power. "Remove the barricades from the streets or we'll lose the fight," he urged. Within minutes, every barricade in Port-au-Prince came down.

"We do what the president says," said Junior Adolf, an unemployed Préval supporter, as he removed smoldering tires from a thoroughfare.

Keeping them happy

How long the masses will heed Préval's call if he can't swiftly reduce Haiti's 70 percent poverty and 75 percent unemployment rates is unclear.

"It's a double-edged sword," said Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia. "Préval has the capacity to prompt thousands upon thousands of people to take to the street. ... [But] if he loses control of that force, it can be used against him."

Particularly worrisome is a militant faction of Préval supporters including armed slum gangs that had served as Aristide's private militia. Hard-core Aristide supporters want Préval to let the former president return from exile in South Africa, a move opposed by the United States, France and Canada, all major donors to this cash-strapped nation.

One strand within Préval's base wants to "keep things in chaos, keep things up in the air, so that Aristide will be the only solution," Carney said.

In interviews with Newsday before the elections, Préval said Haiti's constitution allows any citizen to return, but made it clear he wasn't seeking Aristide's repatriation. He bristled at the notion of ties to gangs, saying: "I don't know those people."

He also proudly noted he is the only lawfully elected president in Haiti's history to peacefully transfer power to an elected successor.

Préval already is building confidence among foreign countries and investors with a platform that combines free-market economics with social and educational programs.

"We want this government to succeed," said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

But political analysts wonder whether the world's traditionally fickle interest in Haiti will last.

"The international community knows how to organize elections," said Dan Erikson, a Caribbean expert with the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. "But it's not good at sticking around to build functioning democratic institutions."

Copyright 2006, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive Inc. Reprinted from Sun-Sentinel of Tuesday, February 21, 2006.

Related text: A vote for Haitian presidential candidate, Preval, is a vote for more abject poverty, terrorism, drug trafficking - overall, anti United States

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