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Interview with Haiti President Rene Preval: 'I don't think we could have done better'

Haiti President Rene Preval popped out of a shiny SUV. Then, just like that, he took my arm and pulled me inside with him. 'Don’t you have some questions for me?' he asked. As a journalist, how could I say no?

By Correspondent / March 17, 2010

Haitian President Rene Preval speaks on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, March 10, in Washington.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

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Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Without an appointment, the easiest place to get an official quote from someone in the government – including Haiti President René Préval – is the DCPG, the old police headquarters. But the only police that are there now are the ones protecting the government, which moved in after the Jan. 12 earthquake.

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In contrast to the once elegant but now collapsed National Palace of Haiti, the new offices are in an innocuous, one-story blue and white building so small that press conferences are held in the parking lot.

That’s where I was standing when several shiny four-wheel drive vehicles pulled up.

President Préval emerged from one.

He was instantly surrounded by flashing cameras. He flashed a smile back at them, and then at me. We’ve known each other for 20 years.

Just like that, he took my arm and pulled me inside with him.

“Don’t you have some questions for me?” he asked.

As a journalist, how could I say no?

A simple guy

His office was down two halls and in the interior of another room. There was a secretary’s desk, a round board-room type table, a mounted television that wasn’t plugged in, and a coffee maker. Maps of Port-au-Prince and an aerial photo of the city hung on a side wall.

Ti René, as he is called among friends, placed a blue folder and author Claude Moise’s book “The Constitution and Struggle for Power in Haiti" on the table and made sure I had a cup of coffee before asking me if I was ready to write down my answers.

President Préval is, at heart, a simple guy.

The last time I interviewed him was in 2008. I was with a television crew waiting in an ante-room inside the National Palace. Rather than send an aide to come get us, he came himself, grabbed the tripod, and carried it to his office, despite the cameraman’s protest.

“If what happened to Haiti on Jan. 12 had happened in the United States,” he started, “it’s comparable to 8 million people dying. When the Twin Towers fell, it took them two years to remove the debris. Between the international aid and resilience of the Haitian population, we did everything we could. I don’t think we could have done better.”

Elections not an option?

Préval reiterated his call to hold legislative elections – originally set for February and March, but postponed after the quake – as quickly as possible. “Democracy is the condition for development,” he said. “Development equals equality. We must reconstruct the entire country, not just Port-au-Prince.”

When asked about corruption, he bristled.

“Everyone is talking about it but no one has spoken about one specific act of corruption," he said. "International donors are increasing their budget support for us. Why is that?

“Is there corruption in the Haitian government? Yes," he said. "Are we doing something about it? Yes.”

He began to search his blackberry for the name of a man who was recently convicted of corruption charges in the United States due in part because of help from the Haitian government. Minutes passed and he was still looking.

“Not to worry,” I said, wanting to use my time efficiently. “I can find his name.”

“No, my name is well known, his should be too,” Préval insisted. Finally he found it. “Robert Antoine.”

Mr. Antoine is a former director of international relations for Teleco, the state-owned telecommunications company of Haiti and he was one of five people charged in Miami in December 2009 in connection with a bribery and money-laundering scheme involving the government company.

Antoine was one of three Haitians charged in the case, all of whom kept residences in Miami. Another of the Haitians, Jean Rene Duperval, also a former director of international relations for Teleco, was arrested in Haiti by a police unit that specializes in investigating financial corruption and sent to the US to stand trial, according to the US Justice Department.

Ties to Aristide

Préval spent the past five years shaking off the association of his name with that of Jean Bertrand Aristide, his predecessor. Now his name will be forever linked with that of the Jan. 12 earthquake, long after his term ends on Feb. 7, 2011.

Constitutionally he cannot run again, but he wants to hold democratic elections before he leaves office.

He also said he wants to work on decentralization, the reinforcement of the government, and the improvement of health and education services. But his immediate priorities are to open schools, provide adequate seeds and fertilizers to farmers, and secure housing for those left homeless after the quake.

When I asked how he responds to criticism that the international aid agencies have the supplies for housing but can’t do anything until they get land, which the government has yet to give, he just smiled, then said: “Interview over.”

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