René Préval, President of Haiti During 2010 Quake, Dies at 74

René Préval, the former president of Haiti who led his nation out of turmoil after a coup but stumbled through the trauma of the deadliest natural disaster ever recorded in the Americas, the earthquake of 2010, died on Friday at his home in Port-au-Prince. He was 74.

The current president, Jovenel Moïse, confirmed the death in a Twitter message on Friday. The cause was not immediately known.

Mr. Préval was the first — and so far only — Haitian president to be elected, serve out his term and hand over power to an elected successor, an extraordinary accomplishment in a fragile democracy besieged by decades of turmoil.

And he did it twice, serving from 1996 to 2001 and again from 2006 until 2011.

A man of quiet demeanor in a country with a politically raucous history, he was best known for what did not happen to him: He was neither assassinated nor overthrown. Indeed, he was regarded as a pragmatic consensus builder.

But his reputation was severely bruised after the earthquake, which killed an estimated 100,000 to 316,000 people. He was roundly criticized for not reassuring his stunned nation that help was on the way, either from other nations or his own battered government.

But he added: “To say what? To the thousands of parents whose children were dead. To the hundreds of schoolchildren I was hearing scream, ‘Come help me!’ I couldn’t find the words to say to those people.”

René Garcia Préval was born on Jan. 17, 1943, in Port-au-Prince and raised in Marmelade, a town in a mountainous coffee and rice-growing region of north-central Haiti. His father, Claude Jules Préval, was an agronomist and a government official until the family was forced to scatter under the dictatorship of François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc.

In 1970, Mr. Préval moved to Brooklyn, where he worked as a waiter and messenger. He returned to Haiti in 1975. By then it was under the less openly violent, though still authoritarian, rule of Mr. Duvalier’s son, Jean-Claude, known as Baby Doc. Mr. Préval worked in low-level government positions, including in the agency overseeing mining.

The bakery would change the direction of Mr. Préval’s life.

He and Father Aristide became friends, and Mr. Préval rose in prominence in Father Aristide’s Lavalas movement, which was popular with Haiti’s quickly growing urban poor and fiercely opposed by the country’s tiny ruling elite.

After Mr. Aristide became president in 1990, having left the priesthood, he appointed Mr. Préval as his prime minister, placing him in charge of the government’s operations.

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SOURCE: The New York Times – Frances Robles, Jonathan M. Katz