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Haiti’s Preval Striving for Normalcy Amid Chaos

January 28, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Since the collapse of the National Palace in the Jan. 12 earthquake, the Haitian leadership has been without a home. In an interview with Ray Suarez, the nation's president, Rene Preval, talks about his efforts to return a sense of normalcy to Haiti.
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JIM LEHRER: And now our interview with Haiti’s president, Rene Preval, and to Ray Suarez in Port-au-Prince.

RAY SUAREZ: Since the collapse of the national palace in the January 12 earthquake, the Haitian leadership, like so many in Port-au-Prince, has been, you might say, homeless. The government is in makeshift headquarters on the outskirts of town in a police station.

There have been complaints from many quarters of Haitian society that the president, Rene Preval, hasn’t been much in evidence since the ground shook.

We caught up with him earlier today.

RENE PREVAL, president, Haiti: How can I help you?

RAY SUAREZ: With the situation as it exists today in your country, what’s the first job, the premier task for your government?

RENE PREVAL (through translator): To remove the dead from the rubble and for the people who are sleeping on the streets in public places to get them into tents and to assure them that we will get them food and water in the upcoming days.

RAY SUAREZ: Preval came to the presidency after a career as an agronomist. You can hear it as his answer continues.

RENE PREVAL (through translator): We can not continue to rely on giving food to the population that comes from abroad, because we’re competing against our own national agriculture. What has to happen right away is to create labor-intensive jobs to give money to the population to buy national products.

RAY SUAREZ: The Haitian president says the earthquake is just the latest of multiple natural disasters to afflict his country.

RENE PREVAL (through translator): Now we are working on this catastrophe, but we must not forget the catastrophe of four storms last year which caused so much damage that we have yet to recover from.

We are preparing for the next hurricane season. We have to create canals, clean drains, build protective walls, so that, in a few months, we won’t have another catastrophe.

RAY SUAREZ: I understand it’s going to start raining heavily in four to six weeks. It seems impossible to get all those people who are living on the street into shelter, into tents.

RENE PREVAL (through translator): This catastrophe happened only 15 days ago. That’s not a lot of time. We need 200,000 tents, and they don’t exist in the world.

We’re talking about protecting one million people in the street. It’s a lot. The day before yesterday, we had just 3,500 tents in Haiti. That’s so far from what we need.

RAY SUAREZ: For people who are watching this in other countries, in other parts of the world, how do you keep them interested in Haiti for the long haul?

RENE PREVAL (through translator): The problem lies within Haiti and should be resolved in Haiti.

RAY SUAREZ: Finally, in response to a question from The New York Times, President Preval gave an answer that might explain why the Haitian people have seen their leader out in public so little in the last two weeks.

RENE PREVAL (through translator): This is what’s most difficult for know explain to everybody. I don’t do politics, OK? I’m not interested in a political career. I’m interested in managing a country.

Those interested in political career, you would have seen them going to a hospital, kissing kids and sick people with a camera crew behind them.

My work, the work of somebody who is trying to manage a crisis, is to find ways to ease the pain of those suffering, instead of trying to be photographed with journalists, with people who suffer.