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Remembering René Préval, president who led Haiti through 2010 quake

Former Haitian president René Préval, centre, led the embattled country to exponential economic growth while enduring a dramatic spike in kidnappings, gang warfare, riots over soaring global food prices and a deadly earthquake in January, 2010, that killed more than 300,000 people.

TYLER HICKS/New York Times

René Préval, a low-key technocrat who led Haiti as president during the devastating January, 2010, earthquake and a messy and prolonged recovery, has died. He was 74.

Mr. Préval, who had the distinction of being the only democratically elected president to win and complete two terms in a country notorious for political upheaval, died Friday, according to a statement issued by President Jovenel Moise.

The cause of death was not released but Mr. Préval had been treated for prostate cancer in Cuba in 2001. Mr. Moise said the former president died at his home in the Port-au-Prince district of Laboule.

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"I learned with sadness the death of former president René Préval," Mr. Moise said on his Twitter account. "I prostrate myself before the remains of this worthy son of Haiti."

Former president Michel Martelly, who succeeded Mr. Préval, said "René, my brother, my friend and adviser, your departure leaves us in shock."

Mr. Préval was elected by a landslide in 1995 as the chosen successor of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and turned power back over to Mr. Aristide when he left office five years later after a term marked by political infighting.

His second term, which started in 2006, was marred by the disastrous earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, which the government said killed more than 310,000 people and displaced more than 1 million. Many Haitians accused him of a fumbling response to the tragedy.

Mr. Préval was born on Jan. 17, 1943, in the town of Marmelade in rural northern Haiti. His father, Claude, was an agronomist who served under former president Paul Magloire and fled during the early years of the dictatorship of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier.

Mr. Préval earned an agronomy degree from Gembloux Agricultural University in Belgium and later studied geothermal sciences at the University of Pisa in Italy. In 1970, he moved to New York, where he worked as a waiter and a messenger. Five years later, he returned to Haiti and worked at the National Institute for Mineral Resources, according to an official biography.

In 1988, two years after a popular uprising ousted Mr. Duvalier's son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, Mr. Préval returned to Haiti and opened a bakery in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. He supplied bread to an orphanage run by Mr. Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest who led a movement to oust the younger Mr. Duvalier and later became the country's first democratically elected president.

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Mr. Préval became a leading figure in Mr. Aristide's Lavalas political movement, which enjoyed a huge following among the poor and was feared and hated by the tiny community of elites who long dominated the country's economy and government.

Mr. Aristide, by now no longer a priest, was elected president in 1990 and appointed Mr. Préval to be his prime minister. A military coup ousted Mr. Aristide seven months into his term and the two leaders went into exile.

A U.S.-led invasion restored Mr. Aristide to power in 1994 and he was allowed to serve the year-plus remaining in his term. Running as Mr. Aristide's successor, and with his backing, Mr. Préval won 88 per cent of the vote in 1995 though only a quarter of eligible voters cast ballots.

Mr. Préval's first term was marked by political infighting, with Mr. Aristide seen as the power behind the throne. When Mr. Préval completed his term in 2001 and transferred power to Mr. Aristide, he became Haiti's first democratically elected president to leave office after a full term.

Mr. Préval then withdrew from politics and spent his time in Marmelade during Mr. Aristide's second term, which ended when he was forced to flee the country following a violent rebellion in 2004. An interim government backed by the United States then took power.

Mr. Préval won a second term in 2006 in an election that nearly headed to a runoff. As his supporters demonstrated in the streets, the electoral council recounted ballots and found him to have an outright majority.

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Mr. Préval's second term was marked by a dramatic spike in kidnappings, gang warfare, riots over soaring global food prices and a series of tropical storms that caused widespread flooding and death, particularly around Gonaives in the north.

Still, Haiti enjoyed a rare political stability. The economy started improving, with growth reaching almost 3 per cent in 2009, the second-fastest rate in the hemisphere, according to the International Monetary Fund.

But the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake destroyed much of the capital, including the National Palace and many other government buildings.

There was widespread public anger at Mr. Préval, who made few public appearances after the disaster and was blamed for much of the chaos engulfing the capital. His chosen successor, Jude Celestin, lost in the first round of the 2010 presidential election, which was won later by popular musician Mr. Martelly, a former Mr. Aristide opponent.

On May 14, 2011, Mr. Préval handed over power to Mr. Martelly, marking the first transfer of power from a Haitian president to a member of the opposition.

Mr. Préval then left politics and lived quietly at his estate in the mountains above Port-au-Prince and in the Miami area, where many Haitian expatriates live.

He leaves his third wife, Elisabeth Delatour, and two adult daughters.

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