In the end, it came down to a simple choice: declare Rene Préval the winner of the Haitian presidential elections or watch the country descend into violence. Street demonstrations in the capital of Port-au-Prince had already followed a peaceful—albeit somewhat disorganized—vote on Feb. 7. As allegations of fraud began to gain traction and Préval’s tally slipped below the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff, the prospect of violence became all too real. “If they put the fix in for [runner-up Leslie] Manigat, this place is going to burn,” warned one Port-au-Prince businessman. “Haitians know when they’re getting f---ed.”
And so, Haiti has a new president. On Wednesday night, 63-year-old populist agronomist Préval was declared the winner, after the interim government and election authorities decided to subtract thousands of blank ballots from the total number of votes, thus giving Préval 51.15 percent. The authorities had decided that the question of fraud was no longer really relevant. “Blank votes were stuffed in boxes, ballot boxes were found in dumpsters, votes appeared like magic,” says Robert Fatton Jr., a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia. “But while the process was flawed, the guy won—there was no point in risking chaos.”
The question now is whether Préval can prevail as president. He’ll have to negotiate with various elements—the business elite (including two of his opponents, Manigat and Charles Henry Baker, who are currently contemplating registering formal complaints about the election process), armed gang leaders, a fractious Parliament and the international community—for his share of power in the country over which he presides. “He’s president,” points out Fatton. “But I don’t know if he’s in power.” The parliamentary votes have yet to be tallied, and local elections—originally supposed to be held before the presidential ballot—have been postponed into “the unknown future,” according to Dan Erikson of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank. But first on Préval’s list of priorities, agree observers, should be to establish security in the nation’s slums, particularly in Cité Soleil, a volatile, densely populated Port-au-Prince shantytown run by gang leaders. Cité Soleil voted unanimously for Préval, but in large part only because of his past links with ousted former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. “He’ll have to give some goodies to the slums right away,” says Fatton. If Préval doesn’t immediately pour money into education, health care, employment and security in Cité Soleil, the slum’s gang leaders could turn on him. After all, they know who has the real power. “We are the law,” alleged gang leader Amaral Duclona told NEWSWEEK recently.
Préval will have some help from the 9,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping force. But MINUSTAH, as the U.N. mission in Haiti is known, faces the increasingly difficult task of presenting itself as a positive force rather than an occupying one. Although the U.N. troops insist that Haitians have welcomed them—“We have a good rapport” Brazilian Lt. Vinicius Viglioni told NEWSWEEK while on patrol in the capital’s Bel-Air slum last week—few are likely to say publicly what they really think of the soldiers. On the streets of Bel-Air, a 12-year-old Haitian girl named Jesula offered a glimpse into her nation’s mindset. After giving the soldiers a glaring look behind their backs—then smiling as soon as they caught her eye—she admitted quietly: “I don’t like them.” Why not? “I don’t know,” she said, shrugging.
Experts share this uncertainty over Préval’s prospects for success. “How do you help a country that needs everything?” says the Inter-American Dialogue’s Erikson, emphasizing that Préval must move quickly to stem Haiti’s “epidemic of unemployment.” (One Petionville resident is more blunt in his prescription for the country: “Haiti needs a thousand years of therapy.”) But some still see the glass as half full. “Haiti is virgin,” says Petionville-based artist Marie-Louise Fouchard. “There’s nothing. [So] there’s lots of opportunity—there’s everything to do.” And the majority of the Haitian people seem to share this optimism about Préval. As the only leader in Haiti’s 202-year history to serve a full, peaceful term in office (he was president from 1996 to 2000), Préval has become synonymous with peace, if not prosperity. “Preval is the only candidate who can put Haitians at the same table,” says John Joseph Joel, secretary-general of Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party. Forty-year-old Cocote Malmisé echoed those sentiments shortly after casting her ballot for Préval. “He brought calm. He gives hope to Haiti. He’ll protect us.” Indeed, few disagree that Préval’s victory offers a glimmer of hope to a nation far more accustomed to hopelessness. But given that this is Haiti—where most statements are followed by “ Si dieu le veut ” (if God wills it)—whether the new president can actually deliver remains to be seen.