the quake
“Rather than going around and looking at the destruction, it was much more important to call around and find all the presidents, all the ambassadors and ask them for help, because … the catastrophe was beyond the means of Haiti to respond.”
René Préval

He is the president of Haiti. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on March 16, 2010. It has been translated from the French.

My understanding is that you were holding your granddaughter when the earth began to shake. Can you talk about that moment?

OK, I am telling this story for the umpteenth time. The day of the earthquake, I was invited to the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the law school of the State University of Haiti. And since I don't like to be late, I left the palace very early. And since I was early, I went home for one hour to spend some time there.

In the yard I saw my granddaughter, my little granddaughter, whom they were feeding. So I went over, and I fed her myself. And that was when the earthquake started. I was in the yard. If my little granddaughter had not been in the yard, I would have been inside the house. If I had been at the palace, I probably would have been hurt. But if I had also been inside the house, I would also have been a victim.

Can you tell us about that evening and the next day?

I was holding my granddaughter in my arms when the earthquake started and I saw my house crumble down. Right away I tried calling the prime minister, the head of the police, all the ministers, but all the cell phones -- all telephones -- were down at the time.

I asked my bodyguards if I could go out on the streets, and they told me it was impossible because people had run out of their cars; all the cars had been left on the streets, so it was impossible to drive around. Finally, I had them call a motor taxi. So I went on a motor taxi, a motorcycle, to go around and see what was going on. And this is when I discovered the horror of the catastrophe.

I went to a poor neighborhood called Bel Air, and everywhere there, there were dead. And then I went to the general hospital, and all over the yard of the hospital there were bodies. There were hundreds of bodies in the yard. Next to the hospital there's the school, the nursing school, and I was told there were about 60 nurses in there, and they were all screaming, yelling for help.

Then I went down to the legislative building by the seaside, and they were pulling out the legislators and some of their staffs. I went back home around 9:00 in the morning, and I spent the rest of the day trying to gather the information and learning about the situation. And I learned that I had one minister who had his mother and father under their house; they didn't know at the time if they were alive. The minister of finance had lost his son in the earthquake. It was a terrible day for me.

The most difficult aspect of it was the lack of communication. I didn't know that Léogâne had been affected. I didn't know that Petit-Goâve had been affected. I didn't know that Jacmel also had been affected. And when I called the MINUSTAH [United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti] to ask them if they knew more or less what the situation was like, I was then told that [head of MINUSTAH Hédi] Annabi and all the staff were dead.

Can you talk about the personal crisis that you felt that day?

I believe that a day like that, just to see so many dead around and to see all that destruction, all the buildings destroyed, it's normal to feel affected by that. President Obama tried to project the consequences of the earthquake, taking into account the scale of the population of Haiti and the United States. He said that if that had happened in the United States, we would have had 8 million people dead.

... [After the quake some Haitians said they wanted to see their president or hear his voice in those first few days, and they didn't.] Was it that you were working very hard but not able to communicate with the Haitian people, or was there no way to do it? Did you have other priorities at that time?

When one speaks, one must know of that of which he or she is speaking. First of all, I didn't know the extent of the damage of the catastrophe. As I told you, there was no communication, and I didn't know that Jacmel, Léogâne and all those cities were affected.

When I arrived at the Parliament, someone told me that -- someone who had been around a little more than I had -- he told me, "I believe we will have 100,000 dead," and I said to myself, "He must be crazy." But he was right. So, as I told you, when one speaks, you must know of that of which you speak.

Second, we had no radio. I prepared a message, and I sent a message, but since we didn't have any radio on the air, maybe that message went through one or maybe two radios. And also there was no electricity at the time, so even if I had a message that was being broadcast, it would have been very difficult for everybody to be listening to that message. That message was prepared the day following the catastrophe.

Was it possible to just let the Haitian people know?

I think it was much more useful -- rather than going around and looking at the destruction, it was much more important to call around and find all the presidents, all the ambassadors and ask them for help, because, as I had discovered, the catastrophe was beyond the means of Haiti to respond.

The criticism has been that you did not have any way of reassuring the Haitian people that you were involved.

We cannot compare this to the Twin Towers. The Twin Towers only had two towers that fell down. Here it was 250,000 residences being destroyed and 25,000 office buildings, public buildings being destroyed, so I don't see any comparison.

... This is a comparison of the presidents. The criticism is that you were not there.

Yes, but George Bush had television, radio; everything was functioning. There was electricity [there] at that time. We did not have any of that. We did not have any electricity, no radio, no TV, so it was difficult to be speaking with people under those circumstances.

... I understand the outlets were limited, but --

How many Haitians do you think can look at CNN? We are talking about the Haitian population, you know? My goal was not to reassure the American people. The American people are looking at CNN, but Haitian people, they are not looking at CNN.

... Who gets to decide how it will be rebuilt? Do you have a concern that the international community is too much in control?

No, I don't think that the international community is too present. I believe first that the Haitian government and the Haitian private sector and civil society must sit together and define the plan of action and the philosophy, the vision. Of course this can be done with the assistance of the international community. And then this presents also the problem of coordination.

If the Haitians have the opportunity to decide, define the plan, and if we sit together to draw a good coordination, then I believe it will be a good thing.

... [Do you know how expensive it will be?]

Haiti must be refounded. That is, it must go through decentralization. This means we have to build the roads. We need electricity so that we can create the jobs and have education and health care throughout the country. It is a process that will take time. Those conferences will not decide in one shot how much money we will need. I believe that it will be a plan that will go over several years, and I hope that the international community will be going along over those same number of years.

The multi-donor fund that will be built -- do you have confidence that the board will meet the needs of the Haitian people without being distracted? There are also different plans. Do you think this will resolve those issues?

The coordination of the different actors who are present in Haiti is a problem that has always existed here. The World Bank wants to do health; they want to institute education; they want to make roads. The IDB [Inter-American Development Bank] wants to do health, education; they want to build roads. The European Union also wants to do the same thing: education, health and roads. USAID [United States Agency for International Development] also wants to do education, health and build roads. Canada, France, everybody, they want to do the same thing.

[If] we spend more time coordinating the action of everyone in all the fields, I believe this effort to have a common front is a good thing. Everybody will agree on one plan, and, especially, everybody will agree on a single procedure for disbursement, and I believe this way we will be able to progress. The managing structure will be a mixed structure with the donors present and also the Haitians present. Then we will have a totally Haitian structure.

Before the earthquake, we had technical assistance. With the earthquake, that technical assistance has become even more urgent.

... Can you paint a picture of how Haiti will be two, five, 10 years from now? How different will it be if all of this goes well?

I believe that, first of all, we must resolve the political problems. I believe that democracy and stability are the main conditions for development. At the end of my term, I would like that we have an elected president, that we have legislative chambers in operation. This is the first essential thing for the development of Haiti. This is what will give Haiti credibility in relation with its donors, and it will also give credibility to Haiti in relation to its private sector.

The second thing is that we need to have a plan that will be implemented stage by stage. We cannot correct 200 years in one, two, three, four years. But we must from the first second take the right steps and move in the right direction.

Let's say I come back in 10 years. What will I see?

Maybe we will not see, because I am 67 now.

Will it look like Santo Domingo, [Dominican Republic]?

It depends on the Haitians. If they accept the work, if they accept the need to establish political stability, maybe then we'll see a better Haiti. But if they don't accept the need to work together, if we have instability, maybe then we'll see the same or worse. …

It depends on the leaders. If the political leaders agree to set aside their personal interests and take care of the population's interests, then the population will feel different, and they will have more confidence. But if they don't do this, then we will have problems that you have mentioned.

Have you noticed that politicians are good at putting aside their personal and party interests?

That's why I believe in the democratic system, because when the politicians don't take into account the interests of the majority of the population, then they get sanctioned by the vote of that population.

... In your most optimistic mood, how do you see Port-au-Prince? How do you see Haiti?

It will depend on how the political leaders will behave. If the political leaders take into account the interests of the population, I believe the population will become patient and will wait until we develop a beautiful Haiti.

You'll know in a few weeks how much the donor community will give, at least for now. How will Haiti decide how much to focus on roads, on health? Can you explain the process?

First of all, we must define what Haiti we wish to have. Are we aiming at a more just Haiti that provides the same jobs, health and education to all of its children? Is that the Haiti that we're looking for?

This is what I have told you. We had 200 years of poor development, so we cannot resolve those 200 years in one or two years.

... Who gets to decide the priorities?

We will have a council, and the government will submit its projects to that council. Those projects will be in accordance with the development plan that will have been agreed upon. If we build a road, that road must be associated with the possibility of creating jobs. We'd need a port, and we'd need an airport. We'd need electricity. The projects will also be assessed depending on their viability and their economical and social value.

Once the project is accepted by the board, they will submit it to the president of the republic, who will have a veto right. But don't forget that within the board, there will be Haitian authorities, officials and also representatives of the donors.

What will you do when the next president is in office?

I will be a citizen. I will live like a citizen.

Do you think you'll work on the board, maybe retire?

We will see.

posted march 30, 2010

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