President Preval: Solutions Will Come From ‘Within Haiti’

BY Ray Suarez  January 29, 2010 at 12:35 AM EST

Sometimes, the best things happen in the news business when you just happen to be at an optimal place, at an optimal moment. Today the NewsHour team was starting to shoot a story on the struggle to get the Haitian government back up and running after the earthquake. We met the tourism minister, Patrick Delatour, who is now assigned to coordinate reconstruction, and we began shooting video.

One of the interesting parts of this whole story is how little the government has been in evidence since the beginning of the crisis, when the earth stopped shaking Jan. 12 and Haiti found itself coping with a catastrophe.

Where was President Rene Preval? Oh, there he was, coming down the corridor, greeting us warmly, and stopping for a chat with the minister we’re building our story around. The reporter we are working with in Haiti, Kathie Klarreich, knew Preval dating back to his first presidential run in the 1990s, and bingo… in a nondescript corridor in a shabby police station on the outskirts of town that now serves as the seat of Haiti’s government, a broadcast exclusive with the president.

I began by asking him what the first task is for the government, since there were things that needed doing immediately, in every direction you looked. He began, as you might expect from any elected leader (though he insists he’s not one, more on that later) by explaining what his government has already done before talking about what he has to do now.

The priorities, he said, are picking up the dead, and trying to restore parts of normal life to the country. He said food and water is now being delivered regularly, telephone service is much more widely available, “We have just passed the time of extreme emergency,” the president said.

In his rush to list the accomplishments, there was no time to linger over a stunning statistic he mentioned. By the government’s count, it has buried, assisted in burying, or counted 170,000 dead. That is a stunning number for one sprawling city and its surrounding suburbs.

Preval said one of the current priorities is recovering the remaining victims buried in the rubble that stands in twisted piles in every direction. You can still tell the places where dead remain, unrecovered, by the distinctive smell.

He added that preservation of the living is also a top priority. He estimated that one million people are sleeping outdoors, either in the open air or in makeshift shelters cobbled together from whatever can be scavenged on the streets.

One million people. Try to wrap your head around that for a minute. Imagine all the people of San Jose, Calif., or Dallas, Texas, without homes, and needing to be housed very quickly. Even a wealthy and powerful United States would have a significant challenge providing emergency housing for one million people. The thing that’s significant about Port-au-Prince though, is the meager start that’s been made.

Obviously, there was no expectation that everyone who needs emergency housing would be accommodated barely two weeks after the earthquake. But so little has been done as of this writing that all the open camps in plazas and parks in this vast city are growing, and more are getting started on grassy patches, athletic fields, anywhere there’s reasonably flat ground for a lot of people to pound stakes in the ground and begin to build.

President Preval kept returning to the 15 day figure, and yes, granted, it’s still early days. He pointed out that the residents of 225,000 houses would need some 200,000 tents for shelter, “And there aren’t 200,000 tents of that size in the whole world,” Preval said.

He heard there were 3,500 tents in the country earlier in the week. We’ve started to see family-sized tents with sturdy construction, mosquito net windows, and sealable doors. The New York Times reported that some of the earliest tents were snagged from the office of a local mayor and sold in the camps for more than 100 dollars.

Then, the European-educated agricultural scientist Preval was before he was a politician suddenly burst to the surface, with a long and interesting riff on the place of agriculture in Haitian society. The vast majority of Haitian workers are still on the land, but agriculture is not highly productive.

While he appreciates the aid, Preval said, food coming in from outside the country is competing against the output of the country’s own farmers and driving prices down, just at a time when Haiti should be encouraging the involvement of the greatest number of people possible in labor-intensive activities. That way, people shopping for food would be able to buy Haitian produce. That sector, he reminded me, is not only under pressure as a result of the earthquake, but is still struggling to recover since 2008, when four severe hurricanes struck Haiti.

I asked Preval if it was going to be tough the keep the world interested in Haiti, and in helping the country. He answered, “The solutions to these problems lie within Haiti, and Haiti must solve them.” Haitian leaders of institutions large and small have been telling me something similar. They are walking a fine line: They want, and their people need, the aid. But they are wary of having the terms of aid dictated when the country is down.

Preval said Haiti now has a measure of government stability after well-publicized years of chaos and stagnation, coups and corruption.

“If you put holes in a bucket and pour water in,” he said, “when you look in the bucket nothing will be in there. If you poor money into Haiti it may flow out just as easily. You can put as much money as you want into Haiti, but without stability you will look at Haiti and see no change from all the money.”

As we parted company the president was asked a question by a reporter from the New York Times. His answer was revealing, since it showed a certain defensiveness after days of open questioning about the president’s whereabouts as his country lay in ruins. “It is very difficult for me to explain, I don’t do politics. I am not interested in a political career. I am interested in managing a country.”

“If I was one of those interested in a political career, you would have seen me in the hospital, kissing kids and standing by sick people with a camera crew behind me. I am trying to ease the pain of those suffering most,” Preval said, “I am not trying to have myself photographed by a journalist.”

Over the next several days we will watch for signs of progress in getting Haitians off the streets and into safe, clean shelter. We’ll follow the work of Tourism Minister Patrick Delatour as he works with a government struggling to get back on its feet. And as always, return here for other reporting from Haiti, including interviews, blog posts, and new photos.