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Posted Monday, june 12, 2006
                     
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Departing Haiti PM at peace with legacy
           
By JAMES GORDON MEEK, Daily News Writer

WASHINGTON BUREAU BOCA RATON, Fla. - On his last day as Haiti's interim prime minister, Gerard Latortue gently rocked in a hand-carved chair in his modest home and whooped happily at a big-screen TV as Ecuador trounced Poland in the World Cup.

Unlike most former Haitian leaders, Latortue left Port-au-Prince last month on two feet and without an armed gang in hot pursuit.

The Daily News joined Latortue, 71, on Friday as his turbulent, 26-month term as Haiti's leader ended quietly.

"I'm proud to say my mission was completed," he said.

After getting word that Jacques Edouard Alexis had been sworn in as Haiti's new prime minister, the Secret Service detail that guarded Latortue in the U.S. packed up its guns, radios, anti-toxin kits and panic buttons and bade him adieu.

Left to watch TV in his alabaster living room, the man tapped by a U.S.-backed council of Haitian elder statesmen in 2004 to lead the tiny Caribbean nation after the U.S.-backed ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide seemed glad to be relieved of power.

"I am finally free!" he exclaimed giddily, relishing his first night out to a restaurant in more than two years without bodyguards.

Though Latortue has been criticized for failing to stop Haiti's bloodshed or curb rampant corruption, U.S. experts credit the retired UN economist with something unheard of in 202 years since Haiti's independence: He oversaw an election that peacefully brought to power a man from the opposite political extreme, President Rene Preval.

His tenure also was remarkable by Haitian political standards for his personal honesty, his refusal to sanction violence and his simply walking away from power after creating the machinery for an open election.

Latortue recalled waking at 3 a.m. on Feb. 7 to find his countrymen standing in long lines to vote - without a shot fired.

"I almost cried. I did not expect that to happen at all," Latortue said softly.

Among the accomplishments Latortue cites was firing corrupt customs officers and cops and taking steps to help free the civil service of political cronyism. He claimed unequaled cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on counternarcotics efforts, got $1.3 billion in foreign aid and enlisted European Union support to rebuild roads.

He eliminated the discretionary spending - once a key source of bribery and embezzlement funds - that was more than half the Haitian budget two years ago.

But though even Latortue's detractors praise his economic policies, they point to a rash of kidnappings and a Justice Ministry "witch hunt" against Aristide supporters during his tenure.

"On some issues, Latortue cooperated with the international community, but on other issues he was an obstacle," said Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group, an independent organization based in Belgium.

Latortue admitted the Justice Ministry was "the worst," and said he's "embarrassed" that Yvon Neptune, Aristide's former prime minister, is still in jail.

The greatest blow to Latortue's credibility was his security chief, a "distant cousin" and reputed drug runner named Youri Latortue.

U.S. and French diplomats advised him to dump Youri Latortue, known to some as "Mr. 30%" for the kickbacks he allegedly pocketed. But the leader refused. He argued that in a nation of political assassinations he could trust only kin.

Latortue now concedes he was shady and "distanced" himself from his cousin when he ran and won a Senate seat in February.

"He did provide me first-class security," Latortue said. "Everybody feared him. The people who wanted to kill me confessed that, if he was not here, it would have been easy to kill me."

U.S. officials agree he probably would be dead if not for his cousin, said to be a CIA informant.

Despite the criticism, Latortue is at peace with the end of his turn in power. And venturing out to a Cuban restaurant in Boca Raton on Friday night, he was greeted as a returning hero by Haitian kitchen workers.

"You have to be a real man to do such a great job," one said.

Originally published on June 11, 2006

All contents 2006 Daily News, L.P.

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