Haiti earthquake diary: Haiti's leaders speak, finally

President René Préval holds his first press conference after the quake. It's typically low-key and unassuming.

By , Correspondent

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    Haiti's President Rene Preval, left, speaks in Santo Domingo as his Dominican counterpart Leonel Fernandez, right, and Dominican vice-president Rafael Alburquerque listen, during a summit to discuss the future of Haiti after the earthquake.
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Sunday, Jan. 17
I head down to this "government center" - the police station where Haitian officials are convening to run things - that Patrick Delatour, the minister of tourism, has told me about.

President René Préval has a reputation for being relaxed. The last time I did an interview with him, he came into the Yellow Room of the National Palace where we were waiting. After giving me a warm hug – I’ve known him long before he was in the Palace - he picked up the cameraman’s tripod and carried it himself into his office, where a cabinet meeting was going on. He didn’t want to make the ministers relocate so instead he just announced that he would temporarily suspend the meeting, do the interview with us, the Lehrer NewsHour, and then resumed after we left.

Who does that?! Just a few months ago, he called up my dentist friend Francoise, and made his own dental appointment. On one hand, it’s great that Préval doesn’t think he’s better than anyone else. On the other hand, I would think the president of Haiti has other, more important, things to do.

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Today, I've arrived in time for a presidential press conference. The venue redefines low key. It's what you might expect in a high school auditorium, only this is in the dusty courtyard in front of the old police station.

Préval appears in a short-sleeved, striped, button-down shirt and slacks, sits in a folding chair at a card table and introduces a representative of the Spanish government, Maria Teresa Fernández de la Vega, and the wife of the president of the Dominican Republic.

They talk about their commitment to Haiti. It's hard not to be cynical. But everyone is a friend to Haiti when there is trouble and they get the limelight. I just wonder when the lights are off, will they be good for their word?

Préval isn’t one for words. Part of that persona I admire. He doesn’t put on airs, and he doesn’t speak a lot of "blahblahblah." It’s a strategy, I think, to only do what he says he’s going to do, and since he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, he doesn’t say anything. On the other hand, the Haitian people are frustrated because they haven’t heard anything from their leadership yet.

He speaks in French. It is then translated into Spanish, English, and Creole. He says that to ensure the security of his people he needs to understand the dimension of the problem. Aid has to be mobilized, coordinated, and well distributed. And finally, he says that he understands the risk of instability - with all the prisoners in Port-au-Prince on the streets (the prison collapsed), an already weak police force of 3,500 needs to be bolstered by external forces.

At his side is Haiti's first lady, Madame Elisabeth Delatour-Préval. She isn’t introduced, stands unassumingly by the side of the table in a tasteful white cotton pants suit. She’s a small, attractive woman, bright and involved in government operations.

I wish there were more active women in the government. The Minister of Information is a woman whom I’ve known for nearly 20 years, and when she sees me after the conference she smiles. “Ou pa janm lage nou” she says, “you haven’t forgotten us." I think about telling her that I’ve tried, numerous times, to forget Haiti, but something always pulls me back.

Half an hour later, I join a small group of journalists interviewing Haiti's prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive. This is the first time I’ve met him.

Like Préval, he’s dressed casually, in a short-sleeve shirt and has a relaxed manner but speaks with intensity. He says that 77,000 bodies have been collected so far and he suspects there will be well over 100,000, not counting those already burned. He says that about 100,000 people are already receiving aid. He’s frustrated about aid coming in and sitting at the airport. He's expressing to what many Haitians are saying.

-- For all stories, blogs, and updates on Haiti after the earthquake, go to The Monitor's Haiti page.

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